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Mother defends man accused of throwing near-fatal punch

Joseph P. Messina

Joseph P. Messina

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A friend of a man paralyzed in a Mokena bar attack three years ago told a judge it took a simple comment about blood on Joseph Messina’s shirt to send him into a fit of rage.

Soon Eric Bartels was on his back outside 191 South, she said, blood pooling around his head. Prosecutors accused Messina of throwing the punch that knocked him down.

But Messina’s mother, Michelle Messina, said that’s just not her son.

“He’s nothing like what he’s being painted as,” she said this week.

She said her son is family-oriented, a great brother and a very good athlete — he starred at Lincoln-Way Central High School and South Suburban College before earning a baseball scholarship to St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. — who used to help out at youth baseball camps.

And while she said she can’t talk about what happened in the early morning hours of July 25, 2009 — the day after her son’s 21st birthday — she said the media has the wrong idea about him.

“He’s just not an aggressive person,” Michelle Messina said. “That’s just not him.”

Will County Judge Sarah Jones will ultimately decide whether prosecutors have the right man. She’s been presiding in Joliet this week as Messina is on trial for aggravated battery.

Jan Bartels, Eric Bartels’ mother, told reporters Monday her son still can’t see, speak or eat. And as of earlier this week she said he didn’t know the trial had started.

Jones heard Wednesday from Jason Siegert, a witness who said he saw Messina punch Bartels twice — once before Bartels fell and a second time while Bartels was on the ground. He said Messina straddled Bartels, threw the second punch and raised his hands in the air.

“Like he was the victor,” Siegert said.

Siegert teared up — and prompted Jan Bartels to cover her mouth tightly with her hand — as he told the judge he saw blood coming out of Bartels’ ears.

And the judge heard from Jody Sisco, a bouncer at 191 South who said he walked out of the bar just in time to see Bartels’ head jerk back as a man stood in front of him. Then Sisco said that same man punched Bartels as he fell to the ground.

The man who threw the punch got in a van, Sisco said, but the bouncer said he held the van door open and told him “Don’t even bother leaving.”

When police arrived, he said, he identified Messina as the man who threw the punch for police.

But Sisco said the only person he saw raise his arms in the air that night was Bartels. Siegert and Sisco each described Bartels in their testimony as the taller gentleman in the fight.

Messina’s chance to defend himself could begin Friday if prosecutors wrap up their case Thursday.

Michelle Messina said she sympathizes with the pain felt by Bartels’ family and can’t imagine what they’re going through. She said what happened July 25, 2009, was a tragedy.

“It’s a tragedy for everyone who is involved,” Michelle Messina said.



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