Sucker punch

Witnesses report unprovoked downtown assault; one Missoula man in hospital




On Dec. 7, Russ Talmo, Liz Fairbank, Erik Thompson and another person left a friend’s graduation party at Charlie B’s in downtown Missoula and walked south on Higgins Avenue toward their homes. The group toyed with the idea of grabbing a late-night snack, ultimately deciding against it. None of them could’ve anticipated what happened next.

Fairbank says a man standing next to a parked vehicle muttered something that she didn’t understand. There was no exchange of words and no obvious aggressive posturing before the man attacked, sending Talmo crumbling to the ground.

“He was basically already unconscious (before he hit the ground),” Fairbank says. “It happened all in just a few seconds.”

Fairbank dropped to her knees and asked Talmo to respond. He didn’t. “It was unprovoked,” she says. “(It) seems totally random.”

Erik Thompson says he was about a half-block behind Talmo and Fairbank, and engaged in another conversation when the attack occurred. He agrees that the assault appeared unprovoked. “Things happened way too fast for anything to have been said,” Thompson says.

Thompson and other onlookers tried to stop the assailant, but before they could he hopped into the car and sped off. Witnesses report there was more than one suspect involved in the attack.

As of press time, the Missoula Police Department had released few details about the alleged beating, other than to say that law enforcement responded to the scene. “We did find a male on the sidewalk,” says MPD Sgt. Travis Welsh. “The case is active and ongoing.”

Talmo, meanwhile, was hospitalized following the attack. His mother, Linda Fritz, who last week flew in from her Colorado home to care for her son, says that Talmo’s injuries range from bleeding and swelling on the brain to multiple hairline skull fractures and a fractured orbital socket. Talmo’s eyes were nearly swollen shut. Doctors used staples to close a gash in the back of his head. Talmo also lost a tooth, either as a result of the assailant’s blow, Fritz says, or while landing on the sidewalk.

Fritz says her son is still in a considerable amount of pain. Though he was discharged Dec. 9 from the hospital, he had to be readmitted on Dec. 13. As of press time, Talmo, 35, remains there.

Since moving to Missoula 13 years ago, Talmo has been involved with numerous local organizations. He volunteers on the Missoula Ultimate Federation Board of Directors and works as a conservationist, most recently as a project assistant for Defenders of Wildlife. His friends are holding a fundraiser on Dec. 19 at Montgomery Distillery to help cover his medical expenses.

“He’s a good person who treats people very well,” says Katy-Robin Garton, a friend who immediately visited Talmo at the hospital following the attack. “You always think that good people don’t deserve to have bad things happen to them.”

Largely because Talmo doesn’t remember the assault and also because witnesses including Fairbank and Thompson didn’t actually see it occur, Fritz is working to piece together what happened to her son. She believes that the assailant either hit Talmo with something heavy from behind and sent him to the ground, where he landed unconscious on his face, or that Talmo was punched in the face and that his head snapped back to hit the building behind him.

Regardless of how it happened, why it happened remains frustratingly unclear. The uncertainty has prompted some of Talmo’s acquaintances to speculate that he fell victim to what’s called “knockout,” a game in which people attempt to floor a victim in just one punch and then post the assaults online.

Knockout’s origins are disputed, but the media reported on a series of assaults in St. Louis in 2011, including one perpetrated by four young men who killed a 72-year-old Vietnamese immigrant and injured his wife. In the wake of the St. Louis attacks, knockout reports surfaced in Washington, D.C., New Haven, Conn., and New York City.

While the media devotes a significant amount of attention to knockout, law enforcement cautions that the game could be getting blown out of proportion. The New York Times last month quoted New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly saying, “We’re trying to determine whether or not this is a real phenomenon.”

In Missoula, Sgt. Welsh tells the Independent that he hadn’t heard of the game until a reporter covering the Talmo case asked him about it.

Garton, Fairbank and Fritz say they don’t care so much about what to call the unprovoked violence directed at Talmo and at knockout victims, but believe the incident deserves attention. “Give it a name, don’t give it a name,” Garton says. “It’s still the same thing.”

The effects of the attack are still being felt by Talmo and witnesses. Fritz says her son worries when she leaves his side at the hospital and asks her to get a security escort to her car. As for Fairbank, she’s having a hard time sleeping and is now wary of walking downtown.

“It’s a really scary thing to think that there’s someone out there who’s willing to do this to somebody randomly, who they don’t even know,” she says.

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