Peter Passi and Brandon Stahl, Duluth News Tribune, Minn. –
Two men were arrested after an alleged assault at an abandoned gravel pit in New Independence Township shortly after 11 p.m. Saturday, according to the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office.
The two men — ages 18 and 19 — were being held at the St. Louis County Jail. No charges have yet been filed, and law enforcement continues to investigate the case. The News Tribune typically does not name suspects until they have been formally charged.
Max Pelofske, 21, of Duluth, said he came to a party at the pit to offer his congratulations to a friend’s sister, who will graduate from Proctor High School in several days. The friend, Kelly Johnson, also 21, said she and Pelofske had been at the unsanctioned gathering of about 50 people, mostly current and former Proctor students, for about five minutes when a boy approached her and Pelofske.
“He told me to look him in the eyes, and I was really confused because I’d never seen the guy before,” Pelofske told the News Tribune. “He asked me: ‘Are you gay?’ And I said, ‘Yes. Is that OK?’ ”
After that, Pelofske said he was struck in the head by a flying beer can, and a crowd of boys surrounded him, threw him to the ground and began punching and kicking him.
“I tried to get up, but I kept getting knocked back down,” said Pelofske, who described his alleged assailants as “all laughing and smiling.”
“They were trying to throw me into the fire,” he said.
Johnson said at least nine boys were involved in the attack.
“I thought they were going to kill him,” Johnson said, estimating that the beating went on for five to 10 minutes. She said she tried to intervene but was pushed away. “I was screaming, ‘Just let us leave!’ ”
Pelofske said he was finally able to get to his feet, ducked a punch and took off running, stopping at last to throw up.
He called 911 to report the incident and estimated that authorities arrived about 10 minutes later.
Yet another person who says she was at the scene gave a different version of events.
Megan Bird, a Proctor High School senior, said she stood about five to 10 feet away from Pelofske, and that Pelofske instigated the altercation by stealing drinks from people. One of the two teens who ultimately was arrested confronted Pelofske, who then pushed the other teen who was later arrested, Bird said.
Pelofske then threw a bottle and hit another person, who began chasing Pelofske, Bird said. The two had an altercation, she said, and started throwing punches at each other.
“But I never saw a punch land,” Bird said, adding the two were on the ground for a short period of time before “everyone started pulling them apart.”
Johnson refuted that account, saying Pelofske was attacked by a large group, not a single individual, and never attempted to fight back or to throw anything at anyone. She also said that she and Pelofske had been at the gathering only five minutes or so and had consumed no alcohol. She said they both asked for breath tests when police arrived to document they had not been drinking.
Bird said the police arrived about an hour after Pelofske left the party, and that she did not know he was gay until afterward.
“I don’t recall anyone ever asking if he was gay,” she said. “I never once heard that said.”
Pelofske said he initially declined to have an ambulance take him to the hospital because he lacks health insurance. After answering questions for police, Johnson drove Pelofske to the hospital, where he remained until 7:30 a.m. on Sunday.
There, he said he consented to a CAT scan at the urging of medical staff.
“I didn’t want one at first because of the cost,” he said. “I can barely afford my cell-phone bill.”
After reviewing the result of the scan, Pelofske said, “They told me I was very lucky.”
News of the altercation spread quickly on social media websites Facebook and Twitter, with some characterizing it as a hate crime. But authorities declined to confirm that.
“After they’re arraigned and charged, the assault charge should show whether it’s a crime of bias,” Sgt. Brent Donahue of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department told the News Tribune. “It’s an open investigation at this point.”
The 19-year-old in custody is being held on pending charges of assault in the fourth degree — which is a crime of bias, Donahue said — and possession of marijuana. The 18-year-old’s pending charges are unknown.
Pelofske said he was exhausted and sore Sunday. He said his ribs are bruised, his back and legs are covered with footmarks and his face is swollen. He said he didn’t want to even leave his home.
“I’ve been jumped before,” he said, “but nothing like this has ever happened to me.”
Duluth News Tribune multimedia editor Jimmy Bellamy contributed to this report.