Defense attorney says Ventura punchout story was embarrassing and true
By MARINO ECCHER | Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. | Published: July 14, 2014
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Laura deShazo didn't have many doubts about what she saw the night of Oct. 12, 2006: Jesse Ventura was hit in a bar fight with another man.
But some details of her account — particularly where the former Minnesota governor was standing when she saw the incident — don't match with other versions of the story that prompted Ventura's defamation lawsuit against a former Navy SEAL sniper and author.
DeShazo testified Monday in federal court in St. Paul in Ventura's case against the estate of Chris Kyle. Kyle wrote in his 2012 bestseller "American Sniper" about punching out a celebrity called "Scruff Face" after the man spoke ill of fallen SEALs at a military wake in a Coronado, Calif., bar.
Kyle identified Ventura as Scruff Face in promotional interviews for the book. Ventura claims the story was fabricated, ruined his reputation in military circles and drove employers away. He is a former member of the Navy's Underwater Demolition Team, a unit that later merged with the SEALs.
Kyle was shot to death last year at a Texas gun range, allegedly by a fellow veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Ventura continued the lawsuit against his estate, represented by Kyle's widow, Taya. Her attorneys say the story was true — and that Ventura has done far more to damage his own reputation than the account in the book.
DeShazo, the sister of a Navy SEAL and an education specialist for Utah's public schools, testfied that she was at the bar the night in question for the wake of Michael Monsoor, a slain SEAL.
DeShazo, the first witness called by the defense, said someone pointed out Ventura to her and that she, her sister and another woman posed for a picture with him. Otherwise, she said, she had little interaction with him.
Later that night, she testified, deShazo said, she saw an altercation involving a group of people in the bar. Ventura was involved.
"I saw Mr. Ventura get hit," she said.
But she didn't know who hit him. She only watched for a few seconds, she said, before turning away because she wasn't interested in a bar fight.
She said she didn't discuss it with her sister or others afterward.
"It was not a priority of ours," she testified.
DeShazo said she was certain the fight took place on the bar's patio, where the wake was held and where Ventura and his Navy classmates had gathered for a reunion of their own.
Other accounts, including Kyle's testimony in a 2012 deposition, place the incident on a sidewalk outside the patio and in the opposite direction from where deShazo said she witnessed it.
Earlier Monday, Kyle's attorneys played video of a radio interview with the owner of the bar. In that clip, the owner said he heard about a fight that happened "off my property."
Chuck Webber, an attorney for the Kyle estate, cross-examined Ventura for much of the morning. Webber raised many of Ventura's own colorful statements in an effort to illustrate that the former professional wrestler and celebrity needed no help from Kyle in sullying his own name.
Those ranged from a news conference outside a courthouse in which Ventura declared he was seeking Mexican citizenship to escape the "Fascist States of America" to a book passage that described "an Army run by Christianist extremists" to another passage saying women had to expect some level of harassment on the street.
Ventura said controversy and offensiveness were in the eye of the beholder. It wasn't up to him, he said, to say how other people reacted to him.
"You're not aware of what your reputation is?" Webber asked, pressing Ventura to admit that he had a penchant for controversy.
"Is anyone aware of what their reputation is?" Ventura responded.
Webber named a number of witnesses who he said would testify that they saw or heard parts of Kyle's story happen. Were they all wrong? he asked.
They were, Ventura said.
Did Ventura sue to get back at Kyle for an embarrassing but true story? Webber asked.
Ventura said he did not.
Webber also delved into whether the book had hurt Ventura's earnings.
Tax returns showed Ventura made more than $13 million in the decade before "American Sniper's" release. Much of that came from his contract for an MSNBC talk show in 2003-05, but Ventura took in $676,000 in 2011, the year before the book came out.
After Kyle's autobiography was released, Ventura's earnings dipped to $190,000 in 2012. Ventura said job offers, usually plentiful, "came to a screeching halt." The third season of his TruTV series "Conspiracy Theory" was put on hold because of the story, he said, and the series eventually was canceled.
Webber asked if anyone told Ventura they wouldn't hire him because of Kyle's story.
"They never tell you why," Ventura said.
Could he quantify how much money the story had cost him?
Ventura acknowledged he could not.
Webber raised the issue of a petition that's been discussed by other witness in the trial to remove Ventura from the Underwater Demolition Team-SEAL Association for dishonorable conduct. He got Ventura to admit that the petition lambasted him only for his continued pursuit of the lawsuit after Kyle's death, not for the conduct described in Kyle's story.
Ventura said the lawsuit was the only way to clear his name under oath after Kyle refused to apologize or issue a retraction.
Webber asked Ventura if he thought he was entitled to all the earnings from "American Sniper" — along with the earnings from the film adaptation starring Bradley Cooper. Ventura said it was up to a jury to decide damages.
Ventura's wife, Terry, also testified Monday, saying she had never heard her husband disparage U.S. military personnel and had never known him to lie. If there had been a fight, "he would have told me," she said.
The day concluded with testimony from Debbie Lee. Her son Marc was killed in Iraq in 2006, the first SEAL to die in the war.
Debbie Lee got to know Chris Kyle and other SEALs after her son's death. She, too, was at Monsoor's wake the night Kyle claimed to have hit Ventura.
Lee recalled being introduced to Ventura at the bar — and being "disgusted" when he started rattling off his own accomplishments rather than talking with her about her Marc.
"He didn't want to know about my son," she said. "All he wanted to do was talk about himself."
Lee's testimony will continue Tuesday.
This report includes information from the Associated Press.
Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura returns from lunch to the federal courthouse in St. Paul, Minn., Tuesday, July 8, 2014, the first day of a trial in a lawsuit Ventura filed against the estate of the late former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Ventura filed the defamation lawsuit claiming that Kyle's account of a bar fight in a book he wrote was false.