Ventura badmouthed SEALs, got decked, witnesses assert
ST. PAUL -- When Jesse Ventura’s defamation trial began against the estate of a Navy SEAL sniper who claimed he slugged the former Minnesota governor, defense attorneys presented a chart of witnesses they said would corroborate the story in bits and pieces.
After two days of testimony this week in federal court in St. Paul, the chart boxes are starting to fill up fast.
One former SEAL said he saw Ventura on the ground outside a Coronado, Calif., bar. Another said in videotaped testimony that he saw Ventura picking himself up with a bloody lip. A third said he overheard a commotion at the bar. The sister of a SEAL said she saw Ventura get hit.
Some differed on the details, but most agreed Ventura had no shortage of things to say that night — about politics, the war in Iraq, fallen soldiers, conspiracy theories or himself.
Chris Kyle, a SEAL-turned-author, wrote in his 2012 best seller that he dropped a celebrity with a punch after the man badmouthed a slain comrade. In promotional interviews for the book, he identified the man as Ventura.
Ventura says the story was fabricated, ruined his reputation and derailed his career. He sued Kyle after the book came out, and continued the lawsuit against Kyle’s estate after the author was shot to death at a Texas gun range in 2013.
On Tuesday, current SEAL John Kelly testified that he met Ventura in October 2006 at McP’s bar. Kelly was there with Kyle and other colleagues for the wake of a SEAL who died in Iraq throwing himself on a grenade. Ventura, a former Navy Underwater Demolition Team member, was there with Navy classmates for a reunion.
The Underwater Demolition Teams have since been merged into the SEALs.
When Kelly spotted the former professional wrestler, he was excited. Ventura had uttered one of the iconic action movie quotes of Kelly’s youth — a line from the 1987 “Predator” about the sexual prowess imparted by chewing tobacco — and Kelly chatted with Ventura about the behind-the-scenes story.
“You’re meeting one of your young idols,” Kelly said.
Then the conversation took a turn: Ventura, Kelly said, started sounding off on his opposition to the war in Iraq and the futility of the mission there. In the midst of a wake for a slain SEAL at the bar, it was the “wrong place, wrong time,” Kelly said. He said he walked away before he lost his temper.
Kelly saw Ventura on the ground later. Kyle later told him he’d put him there with a punch, and Kelly figured Ventura had it coming.
“You run your mouth, you get put on your ass,” Kelly said.
Kelly didn’t see the punch himself. He saw Kyle run from the scene — something superior officers tacitly encourage if SEALs get into dust-ups on the town, he said.
At the next bar, Kyle recounted throwing the punch after Ventura said SEALs “deserve to lose a few” in Iraq. The story was a hit among his colleagues, Kelly said.
David Olsen, one of Ventura’s attorneys, asked if the secondhand story was any stronger than gossip.
Kelly said he had enough direct knowledge of the night to feel he knew the story.
Like many of the other SEALs, Kelly was drinking heavily that night — he estimated he had 15 to 20 drinks and a hangover the next day.
Did that affect his memory, defense attorneys asked him?
He was confident in his recollection, he said.
Andrew Paul, a current SEAL reservist, was at the bar for the same wake. He didn’t see the punch either — but said he saw Ventura getting up off the ground with a bloody lip and yelling “I’m going to f—-ing kill you” at Kyle.
Like Kelly, Paul said he “thought it would be cool” to meet Ventura, who is well-known among SEALs as a former frogman who went on to fame and political success. But he said his opinion soured quickly when he saw Ventura pontificating to anyone who would listen about his political views, the Iraq war, Sept. 11 conspiracy theories and other views that struck Paul as radical.
“It was just sort of all about him and what he thought from his little soapbox,” Paul said in a deposition video played in court. He was not present himself.
The diatribe turned off the people who heard it, Paul said — and rubbed the families of fallen SEALs the wrong way.
He didn’t see the fight itself, but asked Kyle about it the next day and got the story.
Olsen asked Paul why he didn’t report the incident to military authorities or police as Kyle’s superior officer.
Paul said it wasn’t a big deal, especially in a testosterone-laden SEAL community that sees its share of scuffles.
Rosemary deShazo, a Utah doctor who is the sister of a SEAL, was also at the wake. She and her sister Laura posed for a photo with Ventura. Laura testified Monday that she saw him get punched; Rosemary said she didn’t see it.
But she said she did hear Ventura say Michael Monsoor — the slain SEAL for whom the wake was being held — “probably deserved it.”
Ventura said “they die all the time,” she testified.
The geography of the alleged punch is a point of divergence among witnesses. Some said it happened on the bar patio. Others claimed it was outside the patio walls on the sidewalk along a nearby street.
The first part of the video deposition of another SEAL, Bob Gassoff, was played in court Tuesday afternoon. Gassoff was also at the wake, and recounted hearing a commotion that night around the area in which Kyle claimed he hit Ventura.
Gassoff recalled introducing Ventura to the Debbie Lee. Her son Marc was the first SEAL killed in Iraq, and died about two months before Monsoor.
Lee testified Monday that Ventura was interested only in talking about himself, not about her son. Gassoff got the same impression, he said, and was disappointed Ventura didn’t show more compassion.
He thought: “Wow, that was not what I thought it was going to be,” he said.
Gassoff’s testimony will continue today.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.