Judge’s findings cite “just another bar fight” until it wasn’t any longer
It took less than five minutes Friday morning for District Court Judge Greg W. Steensland to announce the verdict in the case against Kristofer Allen Erlbacher – guilty of murder in the first degree.
The verdict was announced in the courtroom at the Harrison County Courthouse in Logan. Steensland entered the courtroom shortly after 9:30 a.m. and by about 9:35 a.m. he had gaveled the court into recess.
Erlbacher, 28, of Woodbine, was charged with first degree murder in the December 17, 2020, death of Caleb Solberg, 30, of Moorhead. Erlbacher was accused of hitting and then running Solberg over with his pickup outside Dave’s Old Home Café in Pisgah.
Erlbacher entered a plea of not guilty on December 31.
On July 27, Erlbacher filed documents waiving his right to a jury trial, and a bench trial before Steensland was conducted November 16-18.
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Erlbacher’s sentencing will take place before Steensland on a date to be determined. A presentence investigation report will be prepared prior to sentencing.
Bond for Erlbacher was revoked, and he is being held in custody until the sentencing.
Before announcing the verdict, Steensland cautioned the courtroom audience that he expected no outbursts, no matter what the verdict was.
After the verdict was announced and court was recessed, a number of people appeared tearful. Some spoke with, shook hands with or hugged the prosecutors, Harrison County Attorney Jennifer Mumm and Assistant Attorney General Monty Platz. Erlbacher’s attorney, Joseph Hrvol, spoke with his client’s family members after the verdict was announced.
Steensland’s written verdict was filed immediately after court was recessed. The judge did not read the written verdict as part of the announcement.
In his findings and conclusions, Steensland drew upon a statement made Craig Pryor, Solberg’s brother, when Pryor testified: “it was just another bar fight in Harrison County” to which Steensland wrote “until it wasn’t any longer.”
Following are the events that occurred the night of December 17 as written in the findings of Steensland’s verdict.
- “Erlbacher and his friend, Shaun Johnson, were at a bar in Moorhead, Iowa. Also at this bar was Caleb Solberg. All of them were drinking and had ordered some food. For some reason, Erlbacher put mayonnaise on Solberg’s food. Solberg did not like Erlbacher messing with his food, so he punched Erlbacher. Shaun Johnson and Erlbacher decided to leave Moorhead. They went to Dave’s Old Home in Pisgah. They proceeded to continue drinking.
- “Erlbacher made at least two calls to Solberg’s brother, Craig Pryor, to complain about the incident in Moorhead. Erlbacher threatened Solberg and Pryor. Erlbacher threatened to set the house on fire and shoot Solberg with his Mossberg shotgun as he exited the house. Solberg also called Pryor. Pryor could sense trouble brewing and decided to come to Dave’s Old Home to supposedly diffuse the situation should anything develop. His sense of things was prescient.
- “Shaun Johnson, Erlbacher, bartender Crystal Clark, Shasta Smith, as well as several other patrons were all in Dave’s Old Home. All of them except Crystal were drinking.
- “Craig Pryor arrives at Dave’s Old Home. He parks outside, but does not enter the bar. Shasta Smith and Shaun Johnson go outside to talk with Pryor. Shasta Smith is at the driver’s side window of Pryor’s truck. Shaun Johnson gets in the truck to talk with Pryor. By this time, Caleb Solberg has arrived. Apparently unhappy with Shaun Johnson for ‘running his mouth’ about the Moorhead incident, Solberg pulls Johnson out of the truck and started fighting. Nobody saw the need to intervene. Everyone figured it was ‘just another bar fight.’ The fight ended on its own accord.
- “But Erlbacher is not satisfied. He leaves the bar to go outside and is heard saying, ‘I’ll take care of this’ and offers a sly wink at the same time. Erlbacher gets in his truck and rams into Craig Pryor’s truck twice. Solberg and Johnson were now standing a short distance apart from each other towards the street that runs past Dave’s Old Home. Their fighting had ended. Pryor leaves. At this point, Erlbacher takes his truck and uses it to run into Solberg. Shasta Smith and Shaun Johnson are outside to see this. Shasta Smith runs into the bar almost hysterical from what she had just seen. Shaun Johnson is close behind her, both stunned by what has just occurred. The bartender, Crystal Clark, who had not been drinking, came back inside and called 911.
- “Erlbacher’s first blow to Solberg did not kill him. He can be heard screaming for his brother, Craig Pryor. Rather than just leave, Erlbacher went down the street, turned around, and came back to strike Solberg a second time. This time, Solberg ended up on the pavement under the back side of an SUV parked just outside of Dave’s Old Home. Erlbacher had hit this SUV and moved it at the time of his second blow to Solberg. To be sure he had completed the job, Erlbacher drove his truck up and over Solberg one last time.
- “Erlbacher is now seeking to find Solberg’s brother, Craig Pryor. Unsuccessful in this attempt, he leaves. On his way out of town, he asked Johnson if he wants a ride. Johnson refuses, saying ‘you just killed someone’. Defendant’s truck has been damaged and is now leaking transmission fluid. He breaks down just outside of town.
- “Craig Pryor has left Pisgah. He took back roads hoping to avoid any further confrontation with Erlbacher. Shasta Smith called him. She told Pryor she thought his brother was dead. While on the phone with Shasta, Erlbacher called him. Pryor asked Erlbacher if he killed his brother. Erlbacher responded, ‘Yeah, we won’t have to worry about his mouth anymore. I would have got you too, but I kind of like your kids.’
- “Erlbacher calls his father for assistance. He is able to communicate to his father that he is broken down. Erlbacher gives his father directions on where to find him. His father comes to get him and takes Erlbacher back to Dave’s Old Home.
- “Law enforcement interviewed Erlbacher after he was read his Miranda Rights. Erlbacher denied striking and killing Solberg.”
In his findings, Steensland wrote that Erlbacher had filed the defenses of justification and intoxication, but the judge said the fact that a person is under the influence of alcohol does not excuse nor aggravate his guilt. Steensland further wrote that intoxication is a defense only when it causes a mental disability which makes a person incapable of forming specific intent.
The judge wrote that Erlbacher was under the influence but not so intoxicated that he could not form specific intent, and while his intoxication may have contributed to bad judgment, that is not a defense.
He continued that Erlbacher was able to articulate a plan and carry it out, and that perhaps the best evidence that intoxication would not provide a defense is that Erlbacher was able to call his father and articulate his problem and where to pick him up.
Steensland also addressed Erlbacher’s defense argument that he is guilty of a crime involving recklessness but not an intentional killing. The judge said the fact that lesser offenses fit Erlbacher’s conduct serves as no defense to the crime for which Erlbacher is charged. In the same paragraph, Steensland wrote that an accident reconstructionist called to testify on behalf of Erlbacher gave his opinion that there was only one blow to Solberg, but the judge also wrote that the reconstructionist admitted that Erlbacher’s truck was the vehicle that struck and killed Solberg.
The judge concluded his findings by stating the evidence showed beyond a reasonable doubt that Erlbacher acted without justification and that the prosecution had met its burden to prove murder in the first degree beyond a reasonable doubt.