Jesse Ventura trial: Late author said fight downplayed as book took off
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Within weeks of its debut, "American Sniper" was in the upper echelons of the New York Times Best Seller list and flying off store shelves faster than author Chris Kyle or his publishers had thought possible.
Something else was catching on just as fast: an account from the book about how the former Navy SEAL sniper slugged a belligerent man identified as "Scruff Face" outside a wake after the man badmouthed fallen soldiers.
Shortly after his autobiography's release, Kyle identified Scruff Face as Jesse Ventura. The media flocked to the story. One of Kyle's publishers emailed him a link to an article on the topic, writing "this is priceless."
Kyle said he didn't feel the same way.
He didn't want a three-page excerpt about a bar fight to overshadow a book about war, sacrifice and family.
"I was just trying to put it back in its place," he said.
Kyle's remarks came in a 2012 deposition with Ventura's lawyers. They were played Thursday in federal court in St. Paul in Ventura's defamation trial against the late author.
The former Navy Underwater Demolition Team member, professional wrestler and Minnesota governor is suing Kyle's estate, claiming the fight story was fabricated.
In his deposition, Kyle stood by the account, as does his estate, now represented by his widow Taya Kyle. But the video played in court Thursday offered a glimpse of how he struggled to rein in the story after the book came out — even as his publishers seemed to relish the attention it brought.
Ventura was identified when Kyle promoted the book on radio's "The Opie & Anthony Show" in January 2012. A caller asked if the passage referred to Ventura. Kyle seemed surprised, but confirmed it was.
It came up again in later radio and television appearances. In an email, his publicist described the interest surrounding the book as "hot hot hot!"
Less than a week after the book's release, Kyle got an email from his publicist, according to testimony from the deposition.
"I'm going to call you about Jesse V.," she wrote.
"Is there a problem?" he asked.
"No," she wrote, "but Jesse V. has come out and said it never happened."
Kyle said he was growing weary of the story and the controversy it generated. In an email to his publishers, he asked: "When is this going to end?"
Jim DeFelice, one of his co-authors, gave Kyle some suggestions on how to handle the issue, according to the deposition.
"Give the people that ask enough of what they want to satisfy them," DeFelice wrote in an email. He told Kyle to put the story in perspective with "the usual Chris Kyle smile" and his Texas charm.
But other exchanges raised by Ventura's attorneys suggested the publishers were in no hurry to move beyond the controversy.
One email read at the deposition said publishers were discussing an online marketing campaign that included "Jesse Ventura" as a keyword — a plan Kyle said he wasn't told about.
In another email, an executive said a planned talk show rebuttal of Ventura's denial would be "a nice little bonus hit for us." A publicist said "the so-called 'incident' has helped the book go crazy," according to emails excerpts read in the deposition.
Later Thursday, Bill and Charlene DeWitt — two witnesses from the bar the night of the alleged fight — took the stand.
Bill DeWitt has known Ventura since the two underwent Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training together in 1969. Ventura went on to join the Underwater Demolition Team, which later merged with the SEALs, while DeWitt was assigned to the SEALs.
The DeWitts, Ventura and other BUD/S classmates were in San Diego in 2006 for a reunion and graduation ceremony. They convened at McP's bar the night before the ceremony — the same night Kyle and his colleagues were at the bar for the wake of slain SEAL Michael Monsoor.
Charlene DeWitt had never met Ventura but said she tried to sit near him because she didn't know many people there and figured he would be interesting.
"I was eavesdropping on Jesse," she said.
She heard him criticize the war in Iraq but didn't hear him badmouth fallen soldiers or argue with younger servicemen. She said she didn't see him get into a fistfight or sport a black eye or bruised face in the following days.
The most memorable thing he said, she recalled, was, "I don't think this war is worth one SEAL dying for."
That's a far cry from Kyle's claim that Ventura said the SEALs "deserve to lose a few" in the war.
She also spent time around Ventura over the next few days. There were no signs of the bar fight Kyle described in the book, DeWitt said, nor any gossip or buzz it had occurred.
Bill DeWitt also testified that he hadn't seen or heard any of the events described in the book.
Leita Walker, an attorney for the Kyle estate, asked him if he might have missed the fight in the crowded bar or simply not heard Ventura's comments because he is hard of hearing.
If Ventura was being loud, as Kyle's story claims, DeWitt said, he likely would have heard him.
He said he saw Ventura mingling in civil fashion with the younger SEALs. If he or his colleagues had seen any sign of a fight with their classmate, he said, they'd have jumped in.
"You'd have had a whole bunch of 60-year-olds all over you," he said.
If he had heard Ventura say SEALs deserved to die, "I'd have been first in line" to confront him about it, DeWitt said.
A petition circulated in 2013 seeking to have Ventura removed from the Underwater Demolition Team-SEAL Association, citing the events described in Kyle's book and Ventura's pursuit of the lawsuit after Kyle's death. Dozens of military personnel signed it.
When the petition came to DeWitt, he said, he sent it back, saying, "you weren't there."