Early testimony focuses on Torres' injuries, blood outside the south doors to Crooks Club.
The first official day of the Brock Strommen trial with the full set of 12 jurors and two alternates began Wednesday with opening statements and some surprising notes along the way.
After the jurors were sworn in and state’s attorney Andrew Johnson and defense attorney Kerry Rosenquist gave their hopes for what the jury will find after hearing both sides of the argument, which included Johnson saying John Henry Torres was pushed by Strommen and the trauma to his head was what ultimately led to his death, witnesses were called to the stand to testify.
The state called current Minnesota State Patrol trooper and former Crookston Police Department patrol officer Matt Schmitz as its first witness. Schmitz, who worked for the CPD for two years before leaving for the state academy, was one of the first officers to respond in the investigation (around 2:44 a.m.) after receiving a call from a Grand Forks Police Department sergeant who had reported to Altru Hospital where Torres was brought after the incident on Christmas Day 2015. Trooper Schmitz and CPD Sgt. Dacian Bienek drove to Crooks Club after the phone call to investigate. The officers found a white tennis shoe across the median near the southern parking lot behind Crooks which the jury later found out belonged to Strommen. Schmitz parked his squad car and found blood on the sidewalk right outside the south door to the bar.
The jurors observed exhibits 1-15 which included photos of the outside of Crooks Club and blood on the sidewalk and outside bar wall. In at least one of the photos, Schmitz included a foot-long ruler to show the size of the blood trail.
The trooper said Sgt. Bienek was the one who collected a sample (or samples) of the blood found on the sidewalk. People in the courtroom later found out that the blood had never been tested to see who it belonged to.
The second witness was Crookston police officer Justin Roue who stated he went to Crooks Club the morning after the incident to take photos. Exhibits 16-21 were presented to the jurors which were more outdoor photos of Crooks and of the blood found. There was some confusion from looking at the photos if the blood found was on top of ice, beneath ice or on the cement. They found that in one photo the blood was on top of ice and in another there was blood on the cement.
State’s attorney Johnson next called CPD investigator Travis Halverson who said he began reviewing files for the case on December 28 after a December 26 phone call from Sgt. Bienek. Halverson said he had heard an altercation took place and was able to determine there were two possible suspects, Brock and Zachary Strommen. The physical evidence that was collected was Brock Strummer’s white shoe, blood swabs, indoor video surveillance from Crooks and several photographs.
When asked what was done with the blood samples, Halverson said they were never sent for testing because there was never any dispute with whose blood it was.
Halverson said he collected a zip drive from containing video surveillance from the entryway of Crooks Club as well as the bar area by the pull tabs, but that there was no external video surveillance. The investigator was able to determine who was at the bar that night from the surveillance he did obtain and from the interviews conducted.
He said he could identify 37 or 28 people at the bar during that time.
According to the video surveillance, the Torres party, which included John Henry Torres, his fiancee Rita Saenz and their friends Roger Delgado and Melissa Martinez, arrived at around 8:25 or 8:26 p.m.The Strommen brothers, Brock and Zach, and their friend Nick Erdmann arrived at 9:19 or 9:20 p.m. that night.
Halverson said during the interviews conducted with Brock, he admitted to pushing Torres that night outside the bar and his brother Zach and friend Nick concurred.
The jurors were presented with exhibits 22-41 which included photographs inside and outside of Crooks Club taken on February 23 during Halverson’s investigation.
When defense attorney Rosenquist began to cross-examine Halverson, Rosenquist reiterated the fact that “everyone” (meaning the investigating officers) had been in agreement that the blood samples found outside the bar belonged to Torres and Halverson agreed. Rosenquist then asked Halverson if he knew about the second altercation with Brock Strommen that happened that night with Torres’ friend Roger Delgado and Halverson nodded to the possibility.
Rosenquist asked if Halverson knew if Delgado had hit Strommen and knocked him to the ground. He then asked if he thought the blood they found could have belonged to someone else implying that it could have been Strommen’s, but he was stopped by attorney Johnson. The judge denied the objection and Rosenquist continued to ask Halverson if the blood samples they found could have belonged to someone else. Halverson said the blood was not tested and he didn’t know if it could be someone else’s, but that due to the proximity of where Torres was pushed he believed it to be John Henry Torres’ blood.
The jurors were then presented with exhibit D3A which was a picture of Strommen’s upper right thigh that contained a bruise. Attorney Rosenquist asked Halverson if while investigating the assault on Strommen if had sought to arrest Delgado in which Halverson said he did not. Rosenquist then asked if Halverson knew if Torres went back outside Crooks Club with a knife to which Halverson replied that he did not.
State’s attorney Johnson asked Halverson if during his questioning of Strommen if he had noticed any blood or cuts to which Halverson replied he did not see anything except the bruise on his right thigh.
The fourth witness called to the stand was Roger Delgado Jr., friend of Torres and Saenz. Delgado said he had been friends with Torres since 1997 and was asked by “Henry” to come over on Christmas Day 2015. He said he and his girlfriend Melissa Martinez went over to Torres and Saenz’s house in East Grand Forks and later traveled to Crookston to go to Crooks Club bar to meet up with some of Torres’ cousins.
He stated when they arrived at Crooks, his girlfriend bought off-sale and then they sat down for a drink. Delgado said Torres spoke with someone in the bar, Michael Ramirez, who Torres knew. Some time later before or after Torres’ cousins arrived, the group moved from the north side of the bar to the south side of the bar and Delgado mentioned that Torres had felt “uncomfortable” like someone was looking at him “weird.”
Later, Delgado thought Torres and Michael were going outside to smoke and when they returned Torres was kind of “hunched over” and distraught. He said Torres had a “wet” shirt and was holding the side of his face. Delgado said Torres didn’t look well and when he went over to him he noticed it was blood on his shirt.
He asked Torres who did this to him and Torres replied saying three white guys jumped him.
Delgado said his first instinct was to find out who had done this to Torres so he went back outside with his girlfriend behind him. He said he saw three men standing outside and one of them, which he later identified as Brock Strommen, was “hyped up” and jumping around. Delgado said he asked the men who did this to his friend and Strommen lunged at him which is when Delgado said he hit Strommen in the face or mouth area causing Strommen to fall down. Delgado said Strommen got up and came at him again aggressively so he hit him in the face or mouth again causing him to fall down again.
He then said that Strommen got up and ran off towards the alley after his brother, Zach, said something to him.
Delgado said that Torres did make his way back outside after Brock had run away and he, again, asked Torres who had done this to him. Torres said, “they did” and then took out a pocket knife and exposed the blade. Delgado said he then reached across Torres and took the knife away before proceeding to Torres’ van.
Delgado said they drove the van across the street and waited in the bank parking lot for Martinez and Saenz before traveling back to East Grand Forks.
It wasn’t until they were on their way that they discovered the severity of Torres’ injuries. Torres allegedly started screaming that his head hurt and the party thought that maybe his earring had been ripped during the altercation. Once they arrived at Altru Hospital in Grand Forks, Torres was unable to walk so Martinez got him a wheelchair. Torres also allegedly yelled for “Rocky” (Roger Delgado Jr.) and told him to take care of his kids.
Torres did not leave the hospital after being admitted.
Delgado had previously testified in front of a grand jury and was indicted for disorderly conduct.
State’s attorney Johnson then called Melissa Martinez to the stand as his fifth witness. Martinez said she met Torres through Delgado and confirmed that they went to the Torres/Saenz house on Christmas Day before traveling to Crookston. She said when they got there, all eyes were on their party. Martinez said she felt “uncomfortable” and wanted to leave. Martinez bought off-sale and the party sat down on the north side of the bar.
Martinez said Torres, who was looking to sell a Nikon camera, went to talk with his friend Michael Ramirez possibly about selling it and then Torres approached the bartender that night (Cooper Goering) to cash a $10 check. That’s when Martinez said she noticed three males across the bar staring at their party. Some time after that they moved to the far end of the bar as they met up with Torres’ cousins.
For what she knew, there were no altercations or arguments inside the bar. Soon thereafter, Torres went outside and when he came back in Delgado told her that something was wrong with Torres. Martinez followed Delgado outside after hearing that Torres was possibly jumped by three guys and when they got out there and Delgado asked who had done this to their friend Brock Strommen allegedly lunged at Delgado. Roger hit Brock and Brock fell to the ground. Zach Strommen then allegedly got in the middle saying, “That’s my brother” and “I’m the good guy.” After Brock took off running, Torres came back outside and brandished a pocket knife. Martinez confirmed that Delgado took the knife away and they planned to leave after that.
As Martinez was leaving the bar, she found a puddle of blood on the ground and she took a picture of it with her phone (Exhibit 43.) She said the next day there were people posting pictures on social media of Zach and Brock Strommen.
Martinez reiterated that the party was just going to travel back to East Grand Forks until Torres started screaming that his head hurt and there was blood coming out of his ear. She said Rita Saenz panicked so they went to Altru Hospital in Grand Forks where Torres was admitted and later died.
When defense attorney Rosenquist began questioning Martinez and they spoke about how their party felt uncomfortable in the bar, she said that Crookston was a “white community” and they were “Mexican” so “of course they were going to look at us” and they weren’t “locals.” Rosenquist asked if their party had anticipated trouble and Martinez said they had been places where they were discriminated against before and that she didn’t want to get “too intoxicated” in case any problems were started.
The next witness was Dr. Mark Koponen, Associate Professor of Pathology at the University of North Dakota and a coroner for parts of North Dakota and Minnesota. His specialty is forensic pathology and he was the one who performed the autopsy on John Henry Torres. He explained that under Minnesota law, a manner of death is needed to be determined after performing an autopsy. Koponen said the manner of death is then classified as natural, suicide, accident, homicide or undetermined.
Koponen said Torres’ death was labeled as homicide.
During the first part of the autopsy, the body is examined externally where they de-robe and wash the body looking for any external injuries. Next they do an internal dissection, take specimens and, at the end, sew up the body and release it to the funeral home. Koponen said they also review medical records and police records when determining any treatment made and how they conclude the manner of death.
He said Torres died because of blunt force trauma to the head.
In exhibits 44 and 45, the jurors saw photographs of a deceased Torres used for identification after his death, photos of where the craniotomy incision was made at the hospital, and, in exhibits 46-48, pictures of Torres’ brain where Koponen had his investigation to determine if and how many injuries caused his death.