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'Unbelievable grief': 42-year-old Fargo lawyer found dead at rest stop had baby on the way

FARGO - Craig Richie had known Steve Light since he was a small boy growing up in north Fargo, when Richie was an upstart lawyer and politician knocking on doors in his legislative district.

As they got older and Light gained prominence as a defense attorney, he would assist Richie, his elder by 22 years, with cases when he needed help.

That willingness to help was the driving force in Light's career, Richie said.

"He's just been a guy you could turn to," Richie said. "It wasn't about just making a living or making money. It was about helping people, and that was why he did it."

On Thursday, the Traill County Sheriff's Department identified Steven M. Light as the man found dead Wednesday evening inside an Interstate 29 rest area near Hillsboro. He was 42 years old.

The sheriff's office received a 911 call at 6:49 p.m. for a medical emergency at the Elm River Rest Area on I-29, a news release stated.

Light's body was sent to the state medical examiner's office in Bismarck for an autopsy, and his death remains under investigation, the sheriff's office said. No additional information was released.

Richie, acting as spokesman for Light's mother, said the death is "devastating" for Light's family. Funeral arrangements are pending

"They're going through unbelievable grief," he said.

Light and his wife had a 2-year-old daughter and were expecting their second child, and he also had two step-daughters, said Leah Viste, an assistant Cass County state's attorney and friend.

"They were everything in the world to him. He absolutely adored them," Viste said.

Light earned his University of North Dakota law degree in 1996 and became a member of the North Dakota bar in 1997.

Viste first met Light in 1998 when he was a defense attorney in Grand Forks. She was a UND law student interning at the state's attorney's office there. In Fargo, they remained friends despite being occasional adversaries in court.

"My experience with Steve is he was a zealous advocate for his clients. I think he was a competent attorney who worked really hard," Viste said.

"As a personal friend of mine, he had a kindness that not everybody knew, a sensitive side that was very sweet and endearing," she added. "And I don't think a lot of people knew that because Steve was a presence when he came into a courtroom."

In his youth, Light was wrongly accused and acquitted of a crime, which fueled his desire to practice criminal defense, according to his biography on the website of Larivee & Light, the firm he co-founded with defense attorney Alan Larivee, who died in 2000.

In recent years, Light represented defendants in several high-profile cases in the Red River Valley.

He defended former Minnesota State University Moorhead basketball player Deandre Buchanan, who was acquitted by a Cass County jury in the June 2006 shooting death of his friend, Jeremy Cook.

He served as local legal counsel for Gene Kirkpatrick, the Oklahoma man convicted in July of hiring his handyman to kill Fargo dentist Philip Gattuso.

He also represented Rodney Chisholm, the Manvel man convicted last May of murdering his brother, Donald, in June 2010.

Monty Mertz, supervising attorney at the Fargo Public Defender's Office, said Light had a busy practice, and attorneys were already talking Thursday morning about how they could help lighten the caseload for Light's office.

"A lot of his clients are going to be left in the lurch. It's important for the legal fraternity to band together to help with something like this," Mertz said.

Mertz worked closely with Light's brother, Robert Light, before he was disbarred from practicing law in North Dakota in 2009 after a 2007 terrorizing conviction for sticking a loaded pistol in a police officer's face.

Richie said Steve Light had shed a significant amount of weight in recent months, so much that Richie started calling him "Twiggy."

Mertz said Light's weight loss was the subject of their last conversation.

"It just seemed like he had a new lease on life," Mertz said.

But being a trial attorney is a high-stress, difficult job, and Light took the responsibility of that to heart, colleagues said.

"He really took the weight of the world on his shoulders," Richie said.