FARGO - Julie Bruce managed to pack senior year studies into her junior year in order to graduate a year early from Fargo North High School.
On May 31, 1999, one day after graduation, a farmer checking his fields east of Casselton, N.D., found the 17-year-old lying on a gravel road in a pool of her own blood and vomit, the victim of a severe beating.
Rick Majerus, then-chief investigator and now retired from the Cass County Sheriff's Office, first saw Bruce that night in her hospital room.
"The victim was so bruised up and swelled up, it was very, very difficult for anybody to identify her," Majerus said, looking back on the brutal attack.
Blaine Ellis, the person responsible, will soon be a free man.
Now 37, he's being released from the North Dakota Department of Corrections on Thursday, May 10, after serving most of a 20-year prison term for attempted murder.
A DOC spokesperson said Ellis requires "zero supervision" upon release because he's served at least 85 percent of his sentence.
Forum News Service recently contacted Bruce to ask about her attacker's release, but she declined to be interviewed. An interview request to Ellis went unanswered.
Though his sentence is finished, the impact of the crime lingers with those closely involved as well as the public in general.
"The whole community was like, 'This shouldn't be happening here. Maybe in the big city, but not here in Fargo,'" Majerus said.
Surviving the attack
Details of the attack, and what led up to it, were laid out at Ellis' February 2000 trial in Cass County District Court.
Bruce and Ellis had both attended a senior keg party near Oriska, N.D., about ten days before graduation. After drinking alcohol that night, the two had sex in a tent.
The afternoon of the attack, Bruce and Ellis agreed to talk about the chance he may have gotten her pregnant during that one-time encounter.
They met at a northside grocery store, she got into his car and Ellis headed west, out of Fargo.
As he drove to a rural area outside Casselton, he told her to enjoy her 'last cigarette.'
When he stopped on a gravel road, Ellis pushed Bruce out of the car and hit her multiple times in the head with a baseball bat, breaking the bat.
Several of Bruce's teeth were knocked out and she was vomiting blood. The farmer who found her said he saw she was breathing, so he rushed to call 911 and covered her in a sheet until an ambulance arrived.
The motive of the attack would become clear during the trial.
A childhood friend would testify that Ellis admitted to the beating because he had a girlfriend and didn't want Bruce interfering with that relationship.
The friend also said Ellis wasn't worried about getting caught because he thought Bruce would die or "most likely be a vegetable."
Doctors kept Bruce in a drug-induced coma for two weeks as they tried to reduce swelling in her brain. She needed reconstructive surgery to repair some of the seven major facial fractures she suffered.
As she worked to recover, the community rallied around the family to help cover some of the mounting medical expenses.
It was long before the days of online crowdfunding, so friends and strangers alike held benefit dances, a carwash and sold bratwursts to raise tens of thousands of dollars.
After nearly two months in the hospital, a smiling Bruce was allowed to go home to her overjoyed family in late July 1999, the scars of the attack still visible.
Upon her release, she told the media everyone's prayers and her family helped get her through the ordeal.
"I always knew I was going to survive," Bruce said at the time.
In early September 1999, then 19-year-old Ellis was arrested and charged with attempted murder a week after Bruce was able to recall details of the assault in interviews with investigators.
At trial the following February, Bruce was the first to testify against him.
Ellis' attorney, Brian Nelson, asked jurors to consider her testimony "highly suspect," claiming law enforcement created the memories for her.
He also pointed out the bloody bat was never found.
Majerus said that didn't matter, because prosecutors were able to put enough of the puzzle pieces together for the jury.
"There was enough evidence presented at the case that they were able to convict without the actual weapon," Majerus said.
At sentencing, when Ellis addressed the court, he didn't apologize to Bruce or her family.
Instead, he pleaded with the judge to give him a second chance.
"I guess all I'd have to say is, I could get an education and have a family one day. And in 20 years, I'll be kind of an old man. Not old, but you know, it'll be hard to start over," Ellis said at the time.
Ellis showed no emotion as he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. There were several legal twists, before and after Ellis went to prison.
Prior to the trial for Bruce's assault, Ellis was convicted of felony reckless endangerment for intentionally hitting a man with his car during a fight in downtown Fargo a year prior.
Ellis was sentenced to 26 months in prison in that case.
In the years that followed, appeals to have the attempted murder conviction reversed or his sentence reduced were turned down.
With his prison term now served, Ellis will leave custody of the North Dakota Department of Corrections.
Public information officer Michelle Linster said information about what kind of inmate he's been is "exempt or confidential." She also wouldn't say where Ellis intends to live.
She did say like other inmates nearing release, Ellis has recently received help from a case manager in finding housing and job opportunities.
As Majerus reflected on one of the most shocking cases he's investigated, he said he always hopes a sentence matches a crime.
"If it did in this case, I'm not the one to say," Majerus said.