Second-degree murder suspect in custody; GoFundMe account set up to help find second suspect
By Jennifer Kotila
DASSEL-COKATO, MN The Cokato native assaulted last June while out celebrating a friend’s birthday has died as a result of the serious brain injury he suffered in the attack.
John Hillstrom, 36, a 1996 Dassel-Cokato High School graduate, passed away Nov. 30 at Cokato Manor after being hospitalized since the assault.
For six months, Hillstrom struggled to overcome the traumatic brain injury he suffered June 14 when he was assaulted outside of Outtakes Bar and Grill in New Hope.
The assault occurred around 1 a.m. after a verbal altercation between Hillstrom’s group and another group of patrons at the bar, in which he was punched by one suspect, and then a second time by another suspect.
The incident has now been ruled a homicide with one suspect charged with second-degree murder, and the other still at-large.Hillstrom’s father, Chuck, said he has “no idea” what the arguments were about in the bar that night.
“It’s really a senseless situation,” Chuck said. “There was no connection, that I am aware of, with anyone in the [other] group.”
“As far as I can see, this was an uninstigated random assault,” said Hillstrom’s brother Karl in June shortly after the incident took place.
After the assault, Hillstrom was rushed to North Memorial Hospital where he immediately underwent surgery to remove a blood clot and part of his skull to relieve swelling of his brain, according to his CaringBridge site.
His family later learned that, during the surgery, doctors also removed a permanently damaged portion of Hillstrom’s brain.
Throughout the first week after the assault, Hillstrom was heavily sedated to allow him to rest and heal, but began making improvements and was weened off sedation and the ventilator the following week.
Then, Hillstrom continued to improve throughout the summer months, moving to Bethesda Hospital July 2 to begin therapy, and to Courage Kenny Aug. 12.
As he improved, Hillstrom had some complications, including tremors. Doctors could not pinpoint the source of the tremors, but a change in medications seemed to alleviate them, according to his CaringBridge site.
During a conference meeting with Hillstrom’s doctors in early September regarding his psychological evaluation, the family was told that Hillstrom would be regaining what he lost cognitively for two to three years.
He had difficulty understanding expressive and receptive communication, and he could not complete any task that required thinking.
It was stated in the evaluation that John would be unable to report to work in any capacity within one year of his injury based on his current level of impairment and rate of improvement.
Doctors gave the go-ahead in late October for the surgery to replace the portion of Hillstrom’s skull that had been removed immediately after the assault.
He underwent surgery Nov. 3, and everything seemed to have gone well. However, as Hillstrom awoke from anesthesia, he began having what doctors thought were seizures or a possible stroke, and was placed on a ventilator and sedated, according to his CaringBridge site.
Throughout the following week, medical staff attempted to find the cause of Hillstrom’s sudden change, with his neurosurgeon finally telling the family Nov. 12 that he had never before encountered anything like this.
The family was also told that the current theory was that Hillstrom had suffered one or two strokes deep in his middle brain, along with possible seizures.
Although Hillstrom was able to be weened off the ventilator by the following week, he was not attempting to communicate and only sporadically “tracking” people or objects with his eyes.
A CAT scan revealed many small blotches of something showing up in his brain, which had not been there before his surgery.
The swelling of his brain following the skull-replacement surgery was also no longer improving.
Doctors could not explain the blotches, nor why the swelling was no longer improving.
The family was informed Nov. 24 that there was nothing medically that could be done to bring Hillstrom out of his current state, and he would be moved to a nursing facility within the next week.
Facing difficult decisions, the family made arrangements to move Hillstrom to Cokato Manor and enroll him in hospice care. The feeding tube was removed, and a “do not resuscitate” order was given, according to his CaringBridge site.
Multiple blood clots were also forming throughout the left side of Hillstrom’s body at the time, and an ultrasound revealed clots in both lungs.
Hillstrom moved to the nursing home Nov. 28, and was able to receive multiple visits from friends and family throughout his last two days.
A preliminary summary from the medical examiner lists Hillstrom’s manner of death to be homicide, and the cause to be complications of blunt force trauma to the head.
An autopsy will be performed on Hillstrom’s body in an attempt to determine the cause of his decline following the skull-replacement surgery, according to his sister, Ann Bassett.
Funeral services took place Friday. Read his full obituary inside the Enterprise Dispatch.
Throughout the evening that Hillstrom was assaulted, his group and another group had been arguing back and forth, with things getting heated at times.
During one of the confrontations, the bartender had to grab one of the suspects from behind, according to a criminal complaint from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.
At the time the assault took place outside on the patio, the bartender had instructed Hillstrom to go inside as the two suspects and their friends were leaving.
However, the suspects’ group came back, and the first suspect allegedly punched Hillstrom, knocking him to the ground, according to the complaint.
When he attempted to stand back up, the second suspect allegedly ran over, punching him again and knocking him hard into the concrete, according to the criminal complaint.
Following the assault, the New Hope Police Department was able to successfully identify the man who allegedly first hit Hillstrom as Christopher Howard Gantt, 29, of Minneapolis but residing in Iowa.
Gantt was originally charged with first-degree felony assault for inflicting great bodily harm, and was in custody June 26, making his first court appearance June 27.
That charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $30,000 fine if convicted; he has since been released on bail.
The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office filed an amended criminal complaint with Hennepin County District Court Thursday charging Gantt with second-degree murder without intent while committing a felony.
This charge carries a significantly longer prison sentence (40 years maximum), so a nationwide warrant has been issued for his arrest, according to the criminal complaint.
Gantt was taken into custody Thursday, and made his first court appearance Friday. The judge ordered a chemical dependency evaluation and set several conditions for release, including posting a $500,000 bond.
Gantt is currently in the Hennepin County Jail, and his next court appearance is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 19 at 1:30 p.m.
A jury trial for Gantt is scheduled to begin Monday, Jan. 5 at 9 a.m. in Hennepin County District Court; it is unclear whether the new charges will push that date back.
Second suspect still at-large
Another suspect is still at-large, and Hillstrom’s father has started a GoFundMe account, “Stop One Punch One Kill!” to hire a private investigator in an attempt to find that suspect. Click here for the link.
A link to Hillstrom’s CaringBridge site can be found here.