Marine who hit Iraqi restaurant employee with chair avoids prison
By AIMEE GREEN | The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. | Published: March 2, 2018
PORTLAND, Ore. (Tribune News Service) — A Marine who slammed a chair into the shoulder of an employee at an Iraqi restaurant in Northeast Portland was sentenced Friday to five years of probation and $21,000 in fines.
Damien Rodriguez was charged with a hate crime and assault that could have put him in prison for a mandatory five years and 10 months under Oregon’s Measure 11 sentencing law.
But Rodriguez's defense attorney presented evidence that Rodriguez is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder from witnessing fellow soldiers die while in combat in Iraq.
Rodriguez also had been drinking too much and delirious when he hurled insults at staff and customers at the DarSalam restaurant on Northeast Alberta Street last April 21, his attorney said. The insults included derogatory statements about Iraq and the statement, "I'm American. You guys aren't American."
Video shows Rodriguez, 41, picking up a chair and swinging it at a male employee, striking him in the neck and shoulders. Rodriguez has said he doesn’t remember any of it -- the slurs or assaulting the employee with the chair. But he does remember police putting handcuffs on him.
“He did say some ethnically insensitive things, but he is not a racist,” said defense attorney Sean Riddell.
After his arrest, Rodriguez was forced to retire after 20 years of service in the military. His most recent rank was sergeant major, and he’d been awarded the Bronze Star for killing 10 enemy combatants during an ambush in Ramadi in 2004. Ten Marines in his battalion also died that day.
He remembers terrible scenes, including how he had to recover the body of a 19-year-old Marine, covered in flies, from battle.
Prosecutor Amity Girt said her office became convinced that Rodriguez's actions were a byproduct of trauma from his military service after delving into the facts of the case and Rodriguez’s medical history.
Girt said the two victims in the case -- the employee who was struck and a food server who got caught up in the melee -- both support Rodriguez’s sentence, which allows him to avoid prison.
Rodriguez pleaded guilty to a hate crime -- second-degree intimidation -- and attempted second-degree assault in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
He took deep breaths as he spoke. He offered his “deepest apologies” to the restaurant staff and owners. Rodriguez said the encounter prompted him to seek treatment for his PTSD, something he had pushed off addressing.
“The incident that took place in your restaurant breaks my heart,” Rodriguez said, reading from a typed apology letter. “That is not the man and Marine I am. But what took place only underscores that I have been deluding myself of.”
Rodriguez has offered to apologize to his victims and the restaurant owners in person, but they have declined, he and his attorney said. The victims and owners didn't attend the hearing and don't want to comment, their attorney said.
The attack has left them and other workers at the restaurant deeply afraid, investigators said.
After the attack, supporters of Rodriguez hounded the restaurant with negative reviews and criticism on the internet. Some wrongly placed blame on the owners, incorrectly believing that they wanted a long prison sentence for Rodriguez despite his four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and the psychological trauma he’s suffered because of them.
Rodriguez said he wants critics to back off the restaurant.
“To them, I say this … Please leave DarSalam restaurant, its owners and its employees alone. They have been compassionate and kind toward me. They are good people who did nothing wrong and deserve to be left alone.”
He agreed to pay an $11,000 compensatory fine to the employee he struck and a $10,000 compensatory fine to the server. Rodriguez also has agreed to continue his intensive mental health treatment and said he has quit drinking.
He now lives in Southern California.