His voice choked with emotion, former Gov. Jesse Ventura lost his composure on the witness stand Friday as his attorneys mounted a case that he was so devoted to the Navy SEALs that he’d be incapable of making disparaging remarks like the ones claimed by the late Chris Kyle in his bestselling memoir, “American Sniper.”
Ventura teared up and spoke haltingly about being named Co-Frogman of the Millennium in a cover story of a magazine for veterans of the SEALs’ underwater demolition teams, which Ventura joined as an 18-year-old right out of Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis.
“It’s probably the biggest honor in my life,” Ventura said.
“Bigger than being governor?” his attorney David B. Olsen asked.
Yes, Ventura told him.
Ventura said he brought to court four or five boxes containing more than 100 SEAL T-shirts that he has acquired over the years at reunions despite protests from his wife, Terry, who he said asked him, “Haven’t you got enough?”
Olsen held up one of the shirts so the 10-member jury could read the slogan, “Cold, wet, tired and miserable.”
Ventura testified that he insisted his official portrait hanging in the State Capitol building show him with an underwater demolition team pin on the lapel of his suit, and that he has a SEAL insignia tattooed on his chest.
“Do I need to show it, or will opposing counsel believe me?” Ventura asked, looking over at the three lawyers defending against his lawsuit. “Maybe opposing counsel wants to see it.”
U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle answered first.
“You’re not going to show it,” he said.
Judge Kyle, who is unrelated to Chris Kyle, is presiding over the trial of Ventura’s suit, which claims that Chris Kyle defamed him in a three-page account of a barroom fight in which Kyle said he punched Ventura in the face. While the book does not name Ventura, Kyle identified him in interviews promoting the book.
Kyle wrote that he knocked Ventura down after the former governor made loud comments that included a profane remark about President George W. Bush, harsh criticism of U.S. policy in Iraq and an assertion that the SEALs “deserve to lose a few.”
Ventura was attending an underwater team gathering at the Coronado, Calif., bar on Oct. 12, 2006, while Chris Kyle was there for a wake for a SEAL who had been killed in Iraq. Ventura denied Friday that he was involved in any confrontations at the bar and said he was never punched or knocked down.
While some younger SEALs were drinking heavily, Ventura said he hasn’t consumed alcohol since 2002 because of medications he takes and had nothing to drink that night.
He said he arrived at the bar around 8:30 p.m., spoke to many people, posed for photographs and signed autographs.
“If you don’t drink, you don’t close down bars,” he said.
Olsen led Ventura through a series of questions to recount his life story, including growing up two blocks from the Lake Street bridge, setting some Minneapolis high school and district swimming records and serving for four years with the underwater demolition team.
After he got out of the service, Ventura said he joined a movement to stop the draft and a movement for equal rights for women, attended North Hennepin Community College for a year, then became a professional wrestler, choosing to play the bad guy. “I wanted to be a villain,” he said. “You can be much more creative.”
He served one term as mayor of Brooklyn Park, became a play-by-play football announcer, then sports talk show host, and was elected governor in 1998, defeating Republican Norm Coleman and DFLer Skip Humphrey. He cited his biggest achievements as returning money to taxpayers, revamping the property tax system, and getting the first line of light rail in the Twin Cities approved.
He said he was hired by the MSNBC network, but was taken off the air when he opposed U.S. military intervention in Iraq.
Asked by Olsen about the television show on conspiracies that he hosted for three years, Ventura began reciting details about the conspiracy to kill President Abraham Lincoln. Judge Kyle cut him off, telling him to answer the questions.
Son details online hostility
Before Ventura took the stand, his son, Tyrel, read some of the online comments posted on websites after Kyle gave interviews naming his father on Sirius XM radio and the Bill O’Reilly show on the Fox News Channel. Many were profane.
“There were a lot of death threats,” he said. “I’ve never seen [so much] hatred of my father.”
Under cross examination by attorney Chuck Webber, Tyrel Ventura conceded that there had been positive comments about Ventura on the same website.
About that tattoo
The trial, which began Tuesday, is expected to last about two more weeks. The suit is against Kyle’s estate, which is run by his widow, Taya Kyle. Kyle was killed in 2013 by a young veteran he was mentoring.
Ventura will be on the stand in U.S. District Court in St. Paul again Monday.
After the judge declared court in recess Friday afternoon, several people stood at the rail separating the public gallery from the inner portion of the courtroom where Ventura and Taya Kyle were seated.
Someone asked Ventura if he would show his tattoo. The former governor pushed aside his tie, undid two or three buttons and briefly opened his white dress shirt to reveal the tattoo on his chest.
One of his lawyers pulled on his shoulder and Ventura turned away, closing the shirt.