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Jesse Ventura’s lawyer says ‘American Sniper’ incident never happened

Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura leaves the Warren E. Burger Federal Building & United States Courthouse in downtown St. Paul, following the first day of his defamation case against Chris Kyle, the author of the best-selling book "American Sniper," on Tuesday, July 8, 2014. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

ST. PAUL – “Jesse Ventura,” the voice in the taped interview asked Chris Kyle. “What was that all about?”

The question was from Jim DeFelice, a co-author of Kyle’s best-selling book. The former Navy SEAL sniper responded with a now-familiar account: a military wake at a bar in California, a profoundly disrespectful anti-American rant from Ventura, a punch that dropped the ranter to the ground and a black eye that lingered for days.

The former Minnesota governor remembers it differently: a get-together with old friends, an unremarkable evening and a tall tale fueled by alcohol of a fight that never happened.

On Tuesday, a federal jury of 10 people in St. Paul began to hear the dueling narratives.

Ventura is suing the now-deceased Kyle for defamation. He claims the story – put forth in the best-seller “American Sniper” and raised in promotional interviews – is a fabrication that boosted sales and led to a movie option at the expense of his reputation.

Attorneys for Kyle’s estate, represented by his widow, Taya Kyle, say witnesses can corroborate the incident occurred.

The Ventura episode was a sliver of a much larger story, they say, and had little to do with the book’s success.

Opening statements in the trial of Ventura’s lawsuit began Tuesday afternoon. David Olsen, one of Ventura’s attorneys, said the evening described in the book – Oct. 12, 2006 – was an uneventful one for his client.

Ventura – who served as part of the Underwater Demolition Teams, later merged into the SEALs – was in San Diego to attend the anniversary of the graduation of his Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) class. He met a few old friends at a SEAL bar in nearby Coronado.

Another group of younger SEALs were at the bar for the wake of Michael Monsoor , a comrade killed in Iraq.

From there, Ventura’s account and Kyle’s diverge sharply. In a section of “American Sniper,” Kyle wrote that a celebrity, identified as “Scruff Face” in the book, was badmouthing the war, the nation and the deceased soldiers.

Kyle said he asked the man – whom he identified in radio and television interviews as Ventura – to tone it down. He said Ventura replied that SEALs “deserve to lose a few” men in the war.

Kyle claimed he then laid out Ventura with a punch that left him with a black eye.

Olsen said neither witnesses nor photos of Ventura after the fact back up that story. Instead, he said, Ventura visited with friends, snapped a few photos with other patrons and left at 11 p.m.

Witnesses will say “Kyle made the entire story up,” Olsen told the jury.

“Before the book came out, Gov. Ventura had never heard of Chris Kyle, and he does not recall ever having met him,” he said.

Instead, the account of the fight took shape as Kyle and his colleagues continued drinking at another bar that night, he said.

Olsen said it passed from person to another like a game of telephone, eventually taking on a life of its own.

Kyle changed the story several times over the years, Olsen said. He said the author removed Ventura’s name from the book only after a friend warned him he could be sued for telling stories that weren’t true.

Ventura holds “all the respect in the world” for military personnel and would never disparage SEALs, Olsen said.

He said the account in the book has ostracized him from his military colleagues and dried up a usually reliable stream of job offers in the entertainment industry.

John Borger, an attorney for Kyle’s estate, said in his opening statement that the “few scattered comments” about Ventura in the book didn’t drive its popularity or dent Ventura’s career prospects.

The reputation of the former professional wrestler, author, actor and television personality was “already in decline long before Chris Kyle’s book was published,” Borger said.

He also said witnesses can piece together testimony that backs Kyle’s story. The confrontation was quick and few saw the whole incident, Borger said, but many people saw or heard parts of it.

Ten witnesses will say “something happened” that night, Borger said.

He emphasized the burden of proof Ventura must meet to win the suit: As a public figure, Ventura must prove Kyle knew the story was false or told it with reckless disregard for the truth. To win damages, Ventura must show his reputation was quantifiably damaged.

“You will hear Chris Kyle testify that he was absolutely sure that what he wrote about Ventura’s behavior was true,” Borger said.

Kyle’s testimony will come from video of a deposition. He was shot to death at a Texas gun range in February 2013, allegedly by a Marine veteran he was trying to mentor. Ventura continued the lawsuit against his estate.

Taya Kyle, Chris’s widow, was called Tuesday as the trial’s first witness. Ventura’s attorneys grilled her on her husband’s promotional interviews for “American Sniper,” in which they claim he amplified the Ventura story.

Olsen played clips from Chris Kyle’s appearances on radio and television shows in which he discussed the book. He first confirmed the punch story was about Ventura in response to a question from a caller to “The Opie & Anthony Show.”

From there, it attracted widespread attention – something Chris Kyle later said he regretted.

“I didn’t want the whole thing to take off like that,” he said in a later interview. “I didn’t want to make money off of me putting him down.”

At one point, he offered publicly to sit down with Ventura and resolve the matter.

Olsen asked Taya Kyle if she had encouraged her husband to leave Ventura’s real name in the book.

“Why not say it?” she said. “If it’s true, it’s true.”

Did he tell her about the fight, Olsen asked? Did anyone call her to say, “Hey, your husband just punched out Jesse Ventura?”

She didn’t recall Chris saying anything right after it happened, she said, and didn’t think the incident was a big deal until the lawsuit.

Did Chris ever tell her he’d been warned of a possible libel suit, Olsen asked? Taya Kyle said she couldn’t recall.

Did she try to discourage him from talking about the story in future interviews after Ventura was first named?

“I don’t think we talked about Ventura at all,” she said.

Six men and four women were seated on the jury Tuesday morning from a pool of 26. A little less than half the prospective jurors said they’d heard about the case in the media, and many said they were familiar with Ventura from his political and entertainment careers. Most said they hadn’t formed an opinion of him that would bias their views.

One woman was sent home after she said she was a longtime family friend of Ventura’s, and a man was dismissed after saying he’d followed the case closely and didn’t believe Ventura’s side of the story.

Taya Kyle’s testimony will continue Wednesday, and Ventura’s attorneys will play Chris Kyle’s taped deposition.

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