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Ventura denies being in bar fight with author

By Marino Eccher

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — On the witness stand in his defamation trial against a former Navy SEAL sniper-turned-author, Jesse Ventura had no shortage of things to expound upon: his high school football team, his T-shirt collection, Johnny Depp’s beard, the Abraham Lincoln assassination.

Asked if he’d been in a fight at a SEAL reunion, however, the former Minnesota governor responded with one emphatic word:


Ventura testified Friday at the civil trial of his defamation lawsuit against the estate of Chris Kyle, author of the best seller “American Sniper.” In the book, Kyle claimed he had punched out a man dubbed “Scruff Face” after the man bad-mouthed SEALs at a 2006 wake for a fallen soldier.

Kyle was shot to death in 2013 at a gun range in Texas; his widow, Taya, represents his estate.

As he has from the time he was first publicly outed as the subject of the story, Ventura denied the fight ever happened. He recounted an unremarkable evening of mingling with old friends and younger SEALs at a Coronado, Calif., bar that ended with his heading back to the hotel at a reasonable hour to prepare for a busy upcoming day.

Ventura said there may have been political discussions, as others have testified, but no clashes with the younger crowd — and certainly no showdown that ended with Kyle knocking him to the ground.

“I have no recollection of him whatsoever,” Ventura said.

He said he would never speak ill of military servicemen, as Kyle claims he did in the lead-up to the punch.

Even when he doesn’t agree with a war, “I view those veterans as victims,” Ventura said.

Ventura’s attorneys emphasized his affinity for the SEALs, from his regular attendance at reunions to boxes full of SEAL T-shirts that Ventura said make up his regular wardrobe, “much to the chagrin of my wife.”

Ventura’s service in the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team in the 1970s — a unit later merged into the SEALs — was “the proudest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

He was gregarious in his accounts of his journey from the military to professional wrestling to politics, with his hard-nosed public persona on full display at times. At one point, he jokingly offered to show the Navy tattoo on his chest to prove to defense attorneys it was there.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kyle, who is no relation to Chris Kyle, shut down that idea quickly.

Ventura became more emotional when attorney David Olsen showed him a cover of “The Blast,” a magazine for “frogmen” — a term for Underwater Demolition Team and SEAL team members. In that issue, Ventura and another man were named “Frogmen of the Millennium.”

The other man deserved the designation, Ventura said, choking up. “I didn’t.”

It was “probably the biggest honor I’ve ever gotten,” he said, because “I’m part of the team. They’re me.”

In describing the 2006 reunion at which Kyle claimed the fight occurred, Ventura shed light on the genesis of the “Scruff Face” moniker. He’d been wearing a full beard that he wanted to pare down in the hot Minnesota summer. He was also a fan of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow character from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, who sported colorful facial hair.

Ventura said he went into a Minneapolis salon with a picture of the character and walked out with the long braided goatee he was later seen wearing at the reunion.

He said he arrived at McP’s bar on the night in question by 8:30 p.m. As is often the case, he was approached by many strangers asking to meet him and take photos, he said. A few photos shown in the courtroom showed him posing for pictures with smiling younger men and women, his arms around them.

Chris Kyle said in his deposition that he introduced Ventura to an injured SEAL to whom Ventura seemed indifferent. Ventura said he only vaguely recalled the meeting and wasn’t trying to be rude.

The younger SEALs were there for the wake of Michael Monsoor, a slain comrade. They were drinking heavily, according to Ventura and other witnesses. Ventura said that’s not unusual for a SEAL wake.

He said he wasn’t drinking and hasn’t done so since he started taking blood-thinning medication after his term as governor ended. The medication also causes him to bleed and bruise easily, he said — to the point where he no longer uses bladed razors and sustains bruises from otherwise unremarkable bumps and knocks.

His attorneys have been seeking to establish that in the days after the bar gathering, Ventura had no black eyes, bruises or other injuries that would result if a physically imposing man like Kyle had struck him.

Earlier Friday, Robert Leonard, Ventura’s classmate from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, took the stand. Leonard was at McP’s during the 2006 reunion. Like another classmate who testified earlier in the week, he said he saw no confrontation or fight, nor heard of one after the fact.

He said he can’t imagine Ventura — whom his classmates know as Jim Janos, Ventura’s given name — saying the SEALS “deserve to lose a few” in the Iraq war, as Kyle claims.

“That just seems like an unbelievable statement,” Leonard said — and Ventura “told me to my face he didn’t say it.”

Charles Webber, an attorney for the Kyle estate, asked Leonard if he might simply have missed the incident.

It’s possible, Leonard said — though he said he still thought he would have noticed it or heard about it after the fact.

Webber asked if continuing the lawsuit against Kyle’s estate, represented by Kyle’s widow, was consistent with SEAL ethos. A petition circulated in 2013 seeking to remove Ventura from the Underwater Demolition Team-SEAL Association called his pursuit of the lawsuit after Kyle’s death dishonorable.

Leonard said he didn’t like the whole thing and wished it had been settled between Ventura and Kyle without airing any “dirty laundry” in public.

“My feelings are that we shouldn’t even be here,” he said.

Olsen followed up by asking if it would be becoming for a SEAL like Chris Kyle to fabricate a story about Ventura.

It would not, Leonard said.

Tyrel Ventura, Jesse’s son, also testified Friday. He called his father “an honorable man” and said the remarks Kyle attributed to him were “the furthest thing” from the way he’d heard Ventura speak of the troops.

Tyrel Ventura, also known as Tyrel Janos, said his father was “flabbergasted” when Kyle’s story came out.

“He was hurt, more than anything else, that someone would make those things up about him,” Tyrel said.

He described the differences between his father’s public and private personas. The former could be over-the-top and larger than life, Tyrel said — a wrestling villain or the host of a television show about conspiracy theories.

The latter, he said, was “a loving father and a beautiful human being.”

Did Ventura ever lie to his son?

“He lied to me when I was a little kid,” Tyrel Ventura said. “He told me Santa Claus was real.”

Jesse Ventura’s testimony will continue Monday.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.