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Emily Welker, Published June 13 2013

VIDEOS: Prosecutors drop felony assault charge against Bison linebacker

FARGO – Cass County prosecutors on Thursday dropped a felony assault charge against a star linebacker for the North Dakota State University football team, saying he may have acted in self-defense in a brawl last weekend that left a man unconscious.

In a news conference, Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said surveillance videos and other additional information helped inform the decision to drop the felony assault charge against Travis Beck.

“It’s pretty obvious he was trying to retreat, to get out of the situation, but sometimes you just can’t,” said Bruce Quick, Beck’s defense attorney. “We’re relieved charges were dismissed.”

Beck, 21, was arrested early Sunday morning, accused of punching out Matthew Aanenson, 24, in a parking lot just off NP Avenue in the 600 block. He was charged Monday in Cass County District Court with aggravated assault, a Class C felony.

A police report filed with the charges alleged that several witnesses identified Beck as the aggressor in the fight. Beck told police Aanenson tried “to push or punch him” before he hit him back, until Aanenson fell to the ground.

Burdick on Thursday defended the charges and the arrest, saying officers had probable cause to arrest Beck, based on Aanenson’s injuries and witness statements.

“We did not believe that we were lacking critical information,” he said.

But in retrospect, given the information provided in the video, he said, he would not have charged Beck.

Quick said if it hadn’t been for the video, his client would still be facing charges.

“But I’m not going to be critical of the police or prosecutors’ office,” he said.

Burdick said he could not think of another instance in which charges against a defendant had been dropped based on video evidence. However, he said, evidence has caused defendants to accept a plea deal rather than proceeding to trial.

Burdick also said that Beck being a top defensive player for NDSU did not affect the way his office handled the case, though he said the prosecutor on the case, Tristan Van de Streek, received calls from the public about it. Burdick said the prosecutor who made the initial decision to charge Beck instead of releasing him from jail pending potential charges – not Van de Streek – did not know who Beck was.

The linebacker, who will be a junior for the Bison next year, was indefinitely suspended from the team on Monday pending further investigation. Head coach Craig Bohl couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Thursday, as he was out of town attending a funeral.

Misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest also linked to the incident, which were filed against Beck in Fargo Municipal Court, are still pending, Burdick said. A city prosecutor didn’t return a message Thursday. Beck pleaded not guilty to that charge Monday.

At the news conference, Deputy Police Chief Pat Claus said that witnesses had not changed their story from the night of the fight. He said they instead provided clarification and additional information, which investigators hadn’t been able to collect in the initial field investigation.

“Street interviews are tough,” Claus said.

Claus also said that the investigation was complicated by Beck and Aanenson both having consumed alcohol that night.

It allegedly started out as “friendly banter” between Beck and Aanenson, Claus said, apparently in a restaurant on NP Avenue open after bar closing time, Drunken Noodle. Claus said it wasn’t clear how the fight began.

“We’ve heard references, everything from one of them being Canadian – of course, none of them are Canadian – to there being a young lady involved,” he said.

Quick said he’d taken the unusual step of allowing police to re-interview Beck as part of the ongoing investigation.

According to a police report released Thursday, when police re-interviewed Beck, he told them Aanenson at the restaurant began calling him Canadian, which he found funny. Beck did have some Canadian cash in his wallet, he said.

Then Beck said he called him a name, and the two began exchanging comments about one another’s families. Beck told police Aanenson then pushed him, prompting him to tell Aanenson, “We’re not going to do this in here.”

Beck told police Aanenson asked him to go outside. He said he did not follow Aanenson outside, but as he left the restaurant and was walking ahead of Aanenson, he thought there might be a fight and was trying to think of a way to avoid it.

But he also told police he might have agreed at one point to fight Aanenson.

Once in the parking lot, out of the view of a police camera, Beck said Aanenson knocked his hat off, then later walked toward him and took a swing at him. Beck said he then punched Aanenson.

Beck claimed one of Aanenson’s friends then hit him, and Aanenson came at him again, at which point Beck punched him again, knocking Aanenson out.

The report states Beck told police the whole time Aanenson was coming at him, Beck was backing up.

Police reports released by the state’s attorney’s office say investigators reviewed footage of the scene from the Police Department’s camera at NP Avenue and Roberts Street facing east, as well as video from the restaurant and a police squad car.

The restaurant video captures Beck and Aanenson talking with one another and a young woman in Drunken Noodle until, the report states, the atmosphere between them becomes heated as the woman intervenes. Beck and Aanenson then leave.

The city street video shows Beck walking away, with Aanenson following him. Beck turns to look at Aanenson, backing away around the corner into a parking lot out of the camera’s view, with Aanenson approaching. The woman follows them around the corner about 20 seconds later.

Beck and Aanenson come back around the corner and reappear on camera about 50 seconds later, with Beck backing away from Aanenson, Aanenson following and the girl between them. The pair round the corner out of sight again, with Beck appearing about a minute and forty seconds later alone, his hands behind his back.

None of the videos released by the state’s attorney’s office show the actual fight.

One of the videos released by the state’s attorney’s office shows, in the aftermath of the fight, four officers converging on Beck as he appears to struggle as he is being handcuffed by an officer.

In the interview Wednesday with police, Quick did not allow Beck to make any statements about the resisting arrest charge.

In another video released on Thursday showing Beck in the back of a police squad car, he expressed surprise that the others involved in the fight were not charged.

“Write this in all caps,” he was recorded saying. “I cannot believe the dude that got knocked out is not getting charged for aggravated assault. I cannot believe that. It’s ’cause he got a witness? The dude that hit me a few times is the witness?”

Burdick said his office will not file charges against Aanenson or against Mitch Havig, the other man identified in the fight.

“A good brawl rarely satisfactorily resolves a disagreement,” he said. “I don’t think either party was very happy with the outcome.”

Calls to Beck, Aanenson and Havig by The Forum were not returned.

Forum reporters Wendy Reuer, Jeff Kolpack and Eric Peterson contributed to this report.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541