'A gentle giant' -- Loved ones describe Joel Lovelien, slain at 38

Joel Lovelien was a big man with a big personality. Not aggressive, but smart, with a dry, raunchy sense of humor. And don't forget his fondness for belting out the "SpongeBob Squarepants" theme song.

Joel Lovelien, at various stages of his life, with family members and friends. Joel is remembered as a kind, goofy and generous man.
Photo illustration by James Wolner / FNS, photos courtesy of Erika Lovelien, Dana Kelly

GRAND FORKS — One doesn't have to hear much about Joel Lovelien to know what kind of man he was: a kind, generous, goofy man, loyal to his friends. And sometimes, he'd spice up his relationship by belting out the "SpongeBob Squarepants" cartoon show theme song .

That all ended when Lovelien was beaten to death outside a bar in Grand Forks in October 2007. Yet the memories live on, carried by those close to him.

Listen to Episode No. 4 — 'A Portrait of Joel'

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In this episode of Dakota Spotlight: the life and legacy of Joel Lovelien, recounted by family and friends. They tell how a stubborn, strong-willed boy who grew into a smart, "gentle giant" of a man with a dry, raunchy sense of humor.


Lovelien wasn't the type to get into a bar brawl. He was a big guy, but he wasn't aggressive. He took a yoga class — and loved it.

"I came to learn he's just a sweetheart and really a big teddy bear," said Dana Kelly, who met Lovelien and became friend with him at their shared workplace of Altru hospital in Grand Forks. "He's the guy that would go out and talk some buddy out of getting into a fight and make sure they were OK. He's not the guy that would go out and ever start a fight."

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And then there was that "SpongeBob Squarepants" song that Joel had become familiar with through his young daughter Alexa.

"Joel became known for belting out "SpongeBob SquarePants" right in the middle of a lunch or having a beer after work with buddies," said Lovelien's sister, Erika Lovelien. "He and Alexa, that was their thing, SpongeBob SquarePants."

Joel Lovelien was a big University of North Dakota hockey fan — as evidence by his choice of a UND jersey as his costume wear on that fateful trip to the Broken Drum bar.

After his passing, arrangements were made to pay tribute to Lovelien and play the "SpongeBob Squarepants song at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks before a game. A fitting remembrance for a hockey fan — a gentle giant and a loyal loved one — gone much too soon.


About Dakota Spotlight, Season 8 — Unresolved: The Murder of Joel Lovelien

Joel Lovelien was beaten to death outside the Broken Drum bar in Grand Forks in the early morning hours of Oct. 28, 2007, amid a night of Halloween revelry. Nobody has ever been found guilty for his murder.

Suspicion immediately fell on a variety of costumed partiers that night, including some dressed as a lion, the joker and a hunter. Local police and prosecutors thought they had their man, the one dressed as a lion that night: Travis Stay. But Stay was found not guilty in December 2008 in a high-profile trial -- a sensational result that has made the case a staple of true crime shows, including the Dateline TV program.

Welcome to Dakota Spotlight's eighth season: "Unresolved: The Murder of Joel Lovelien." With unprecedented access to case files and evidence, prosecutors, police, witnesses and family members, Dakota Spotlight creator and host James Wolner will use his unique investigation and reporting style to pursue the case's central questions: Who killed Joel Lovelien? Why was Travis Stay found not guilty? And why does so much suspicion linger around others in this case?

People in this episode

  • Heather Eastling: Joel Lovelien's fiancée in 2007.
  • Heidi Hosley: Joel Lovelien's ex-wife and mother to Joel's daughter Alexa.
  • Leslie Hovda: Joel Lovelien's niece.
  • Dana Kelly: Friend and colleague of Joel Lovelien.
  • Jennifer Kohl-Fichtner: Friend and colleague of Joel Lovelien.
  • Erika Lovelien: Joel Lovelien's older sister.
  • Joel Lovelien: 38 years old, a technical systems analyst for Altru Hospital. Joel went to the Broken Drum bar with his fiancée Heather Eastling, then later went outside to take the phone call. He was found beaten to death in the bar's parking lot.

People in previous episodes

  • Paul Balstad: A taxi driver in Grand Forks the night Lovelien was killed, he drove Travis Stay home and noticed he was dazed, had blood on him and looked like he had been in a fight.
  • Jon Deziel: Dressed as a clown. Interviewed by Grand Forks investigators the night Joel died.
  • Mike Ferguson: Grand Forks Police sergeant.
  • Heather Holter: Party bus passenger and Jon Deziel's girlfriend.
  • Jennifer Holter: Party bus passenger and sister to Heather Holter.
  • Bryce Larson: Dressed as a cowboy. Interviewed by Grand Forks investigators the night Joel died.
  • William Macki: Grand Forks Police sergeant.
  • Eli McVey: Travis Stay's childhood friend. Accompanied Travis on the party bus. Has no recollection of being at the Broken Drum Bar but paid for a drink there with a debit card. Was awake when Travis arrived at home covered in blood.
  • Steven Raasakka: Was walking home in the alley between 10th Ave North and 11th Ave North at approximately 12:20 am, Sunday Oct 28, 2007 when he encountered a seemingly intoxicated Travis Stay. Stay took a swing at Raasakka but missed and then fell to the ground. 
  • Cora Lee Taylor: Travis Stay's roommate. Partied with Travis and others on the party bus. Spoke with Travis the next morning about his injuries and condition. 
  • Travis Stay: A reveler at the Broken Drum bar that night who was driven home with blood on his lion costume. He was later charged with Lovelien's murder and found not guilty in December 2008.
  • Keith Swartz: Discovered Lovelien in the parking lot of the Broken Drum bar.
  • James Wavra: Dressed as a hunter. Involved in a short fight with Travis Stay. Interviewed by Grand Forks investigators the night Joel died.

Jeremy Fugleberg is editor of The Vault, Forum Communications Co.'s home for Midwest history, mysteries, crime and culture. He is also a member of the company's Editorial Advisory Board.
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