A jury acquitted a Missoula Club bartender May 31 of charges that he beat a gay patron, broke his nose and dislocated his shoulder during a shift last year on Cinco de Mayo.
Ryan Blume was accused of misdemeanor assault, but the incident didn’t garner local media attention until the alleged victim, Reece Pierce, filed suit a month later against Blume and the bar in Missoula County District Court. A pending civil suit alleges the Mo Club violated a city ordinance barring discrimination in public accommodations because Blume had called Pierce a “fucking faggot” during the encounter. It was the first known civil action to be brought under the 2010 ordinance, city attorney Jim Nugent told the Missoulian at the time.
But whether Blume’s actions were motivated by bias was not at issue during the criminal trial in municipal court. Montana hate-crime laws don’t protect sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. Instead, Blume and his private attorney, former Griz running back Wayne Harper, argued that he acted in self defense against a drunk patron who was charging him, only to become the target of a shoddy police investigation.
The altercation began as Pierce and two female friends were escorted out of the bar in the early morning hours of May 6, 2017. Pierce’s friends, one of whom testified in court, had been involved in what city prosecutor Tiffany Cook described to jurors as a “cat fight” inside. Blume saw the women out as Pierce walked nearby.
Blume’s and Pierce’s stories about what transpired outside the bar doors diverged sharply.
“I saw Ryan talking to me, asking me if I ‘still wanted to talk shit, you fucking faggot,’” Pierce testified.
Pierce said he replied that he wasn’t trying to fight. Moments later, he was pushed from behind and tumbled into a steel security gate attached to the business next door. He said Blume then threw him onto the sidewalk pavement and continued hitting him before Pierce was able to throw a punch in self-defense and retreat to a nearby pole. Several other people then joined the attack as Pierce clung to the pole.
Police arrived at the scene after a witness flagged down a patrol car. Police photos presented to the jury show Pierce spattered with blood. “Is that a reasonable amount of force?” Cook asked the jury.
Pierce declined ambulance transport and told officers he didn’t want to press charges, testifying that he just “wanted to go home.” A friend took him to the hospital, where his injuries were diagnosed. Within 48 hours, he called a detective to say he had changed his mind about pressing charges.
The story Pierce told a jury was different from the one he’d told officers and has alleged in his civil suit. In his earlier statements to police, and in his civil complaint, Pierce said he was “sucker-punched” in the back of the head, but upon questioning at trial, he said he was not in fact punched by Blume, just pushed so hard that it felt like being punched.
Blume’s account, which his attorney told the jury his client had been “waiting over a year” to give, portrayed Pierce as the aggressor. Blume admitted using “strong words” to tell Pierce and his friends to leave the bar, and said Pierce responded by flipping off the bar on his way out while yelling, “fuck you, Mo Club, fuck you racist pigs,” in what Blume said he presumed was a reference to the fact that Pierce’s friends were both black.
Blume, a trained boxer, admitted to throwing the much smaller Pierce into the steel gate, but said he did so because Pierce rushed him. Blume introduced photos that show an apparent bite mark on his chest, which Blume said Pierce inflicted outside the bar.
Blume testified that he left Pierce outside, washed his hands and changed shirts because his had been ripped, and resumed bartending. When he saw Pierce again, after police had arrived, Blume said he was “honestly amazed by how beat up he was.” Blume had not called 911.
“I figured it was another Friday night downtown. I never knew it would turn into anything like this,” Blume testified.
His attorney impugned officers’ investigation, questioning why they hadn’t interviewed more witnesses at the bar or inquired about other individuals Pierce said had joined in the attack. In his closing argument, Harper suggested that the fact that Blume hadn’t knocked Pierce unconscious was evidence of Blume’s cool-headedness and restraint on the job.
“Why didn’t Ryan punch the kid, even once?” Harper said. “He was awfully nice to Mr. Pierce.”
The jury reached a not-guilty verdict after 45 minutes of deliberation. Blume shook his attorney’s hand after the verdict was read. Pierce was not present.