Defamation trial reveals somber side of former Gov. Jesse Ventura

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 25, 2014 - 1:08 PM

The string of accusations from witnesses has had an impact on this “sensitive man,” his former press secretary says.

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Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura

Photo: Jim Mone, Associated Press

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As a villain in the make-believe world of professional wrestling, Jesse Ventura had to develop a thick skin, listening to the jeers and insults hurled at him night after night.

But the former Minnesota governor appeared to be less than comfortable in a federal courtroom in St. Paul, where he heard the withering testimony of witnesses who claimed they now despised him as a result of comments they said he made eight years ago in a Southern California bar.

After some days of the trial of his defamation suit, Ventura would joke or exchange pleasantries with reporters, some of whom he called “jackals” during the testy days of his governorship from 1999 to 2003.

But his demeanor seemed to grow more serious after a phalanx of witnesses described events that he flat out says did not occur and stated that they had lost respect for him.

Ventura, strictly warned by attorneys to say nothing about the case, has not commented.

But the accusations have had an impact on him, says John Wodele, his former press secretary.

Beneath Ventura’s bravado is a “sensitive man” who generally “does not show it in public,” says Wodele, now a marketing vice president for Doran Cos., a developer and construction firm.

Ventura sued Chris Kyle, the author of “American Sniper,” who included three pages in his memoir about a bar incident that Ventura says were fabricated. Kyle died in 2013; Ventura continued the suit against his estate and his widow, Taya Kyle, who runs the estate.

Jury leaves after 19th hour

The jury completed its third day of deliberations Thursday — for a total of about 19 hours — without reaching a verdict.

Shortly before 11 a.m. Thursday, attorneys for both sides were called to U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle’s chambers after jurors submitted their third question in three days to the judge.

It is not known what the questions have been, but Paul Sortland, a Minneapolis lawyer who has tried hundreds of civil cases, said three jury questions in three days is not unusual.

Minneapolis attorney Linda Holstein, who has had extensive civil trial experience, said the number of questions “is not unusual, but it’s on the high end.” She said it was likely that jurors are asking Judge Kyle how to view the evidence in light of his instructions.

Searing testimony

Ventura testified early in the trial, but after that had to sit back silently as attorneys for Kyle introduced a group of former Navy SEALs, some of whom testified that they once idolized Ventura as a wrestler and tough-talking actor in the movie “Predator,” and as a frogman-turned-governor, only to discover that he opposed the SEAL mission to Iraq and allegedly said they “deserve to lose a few.”

Debbie Lee, the founder of America’s Mighty Warriors, offered the most searing testimony, claiming that Ventura blew her off at the bar that night in 2006, even though her son, Marc, the first SEAL killed in Iraq, had died only weeks before.

“It was like a stab in the heart,” Lee testified. “My son gave his life for Jesse Ventura, and Jesse Ventura could care less.”

The suit itself was an issue for several witnesses who supported Kyle’s version of what happened in the bar.

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to continue this lawsuit … especially against a widow,” testified Jeremiah Dinnell, a former Navy SEAL, now a sales manager. “There was no need for it.”

Knowing Ventura, Wodele said, he does not believe he would ever have made the remarks attributed to him at the bar that night. He said he sent a note of support to Ventura during the trial.

“It is a painful experience for the governor and his family, especially when you are not in the position to talk to the individual SEALs and tell them it didn’t happen,” Wodele says.

Lighter moments

There were lighter moments, especially in the early days of the trial that began July 8.

After one day’s proceedings, Ventura talked about wanting to lose weight, going from 240 to 210 pounds — not because he was overweight, but because he felt that he should weigh less as he grows older. He said that he was exercising daily but that he no longer follows his diet as a wrestler when he downed 40 raw eggs a day to gain muscle.

One day, when Ventura said he was very hungry at lunch break, a reporter suggested he consider bringing his own lunch.

“I don’t cook,” said Ventura.

“Maybe you could write a sequel to [‘Ain’t Got Time to Bleed’],” the reporter said. “You could call it ‘Ain’t Got Time to Cook.’ ”

Responded Ventura: “It would have to be called ‘Don’t Know How to Cook.’ ”

 

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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