Former Governor and professional wrestler, Jesse Ventura, was mounting an offensive in the St. Paul, Minnesota courtroom. He and his team of lawyers exhibited over a hundred t-shirts Ventura owned, displaying his affiliation and adoration for the Navy SEALs, the military outfit he had served with decades earlier. He even offered to take off his shirt and show the court the Navy SEAL tattoo painted on his chest. Ventura’s goal was to convince the jury that he was a patriot, one who would never badmouth his beloved SEALs or the country that they served.
The supposed slander leveled against him — by Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper” with over 150 enemy kills to his name portrayed by Bradley Cooper in the upcoming Clint Eastwood film — was simply character assassination to Ventura.
“…The emotion is [about] what’s been taken from me,” Ventura told the Star Tribune. “I can’t go to UDT [Underwater Demolition Team]-SEAL reunions anymore because that was the place I always felt safe, and who will be next to throw me under the bus? I’d have to spend my time looking over my shoulder.”
Ventura felt slighted by a passage in Kyle’s 2012 best-selling memoir, American Sniper, and the former Governor was here in court to not only sue Kyle and his family, but to clear his name. The alleged incident occurred in a bar, but Ventura claims it never happened. He was never in the bar on that day, and furthermore, Chris Kyle was a liar.
A Fallen Brother
Master at Arms 2nd Class Michael Monsoor was Navy SEAL, but on this day — Sept. 29, 2006 — he would become a revered hero. He and his fellow soldiers were in the midst of an operation in Ramadi, Iraq, when a live grenade was tossed in their vicinity, threatening to kill him and his brothers-at-arms. Seeing no other option, Monsoor jumped on the explosive. It killed him, but every soldier surrounding him was spared.
It was the following month, after a wake for the fallen soldier at a bar in San Diego, that the event spurring Ventura’s lawsuit would occur. Chris Kyle and his fellow SEALs were having drinks, reminiscing about their friend who had sacrificed everything. That’s when a few virulent whispers allegedly began overwhelming the clinks of beer mugs.
A celebrity, who Kyle only identified as “Scruff Face” in his book, proclaimed that the SEALs “were doing the wrong thing, killing men and women and children and murdering.”
Kyle claimed he asked the man to keep his opinions to himself, especially in this time of mourning, but the man persisted. He added that the soldiers “deserve to lose a few.” Further words were exchanged, and “Scruff Face” took a swing at Kyle — whose special forces training kicked in.
“Being level-headed and calm can last only so long. I laid him out,” Kyle wrote in his memoir. “Tables flew. Stuff happened. Scruff Face ended up on the floor.”
When Kyle’s book was released in 2012, many began wondering who exactly was this “celebrity” that the war hero supposedly slugged in defense of his fallen comrade and his elite group of warriors. The can of worms was opened when Kyle’s book tour took a stop at the Opie and Anthony Show.
Shortly after the Opie and Anthony interview, Kyle traveled the media circuit, admitting — several times — that Scruffy Face was indeed Jesse Ventura. The same year that the book was released, Ventura filed a defamation and unjust enrichment lawsuit against Chris Kyle. Unfortunately, due to tragic circumstances before the trial’s first scheduled date, Kyle would never get the chance to defend his account of the incident in court.
“The Bad Guy”
Jesse “The Body” Ventura was familiar with playing the “heel” role. In the WWF and AWA, he would routinely strut around the ring, flashing his biceps while taunting his opponents as well as the crowd. When Ventura transitioned to the color commentator role, he would validate the actions of other baddies, proclaiming they were within their rights whenever they performed a vile action.
Behind the scenes, Jesse was a politically astute animal. He was one of the first to suggest that wrestlers form a union, receive benefits, as well as other comforts afforded to similar athletes, many caveats that are enjoyed now by the current crop of wrestling superstars. Later, he became the governor of Minnesota, emerging as a figurehead for independent politics. For a time, Ventura was a popular figure, fighting for issues like freedom of information and gay rights.
Ventura’s legal actions against Chris Kyle hit a snag in 2013 when Kyle and a fellow soldier were murdered at a Texas gun range by a soldier battling PTSD, a soldier Kyle was mentoring and trying to help. After Kyle’s death the target of Ventura’s lawsuit shifted from Kyle to Kyle’s family and estate. Due to the SEAL sniper’s tragic and untimely death, the trial was rescheduled to July of 2014.
Kyle’s estate and family reaped some financial benefits from the American Sniper memoir, with various tallies putting their income from the book and film rights over $3 million. Ventura, meanwhile, not only wanted his name cleared, but he also wanted to be compensated for being defamed. Not many believed Ventura had a chance against the family of a slain war hero. Dan Lamothe of The Washington Post wrote about his uphill battle:
It will be a tough case for Ventura to win. As a public figure, he must prove to the jury that Kyle knew the story was false, or that he told it without regard for the truth.
The public outcry against Ventura began mounting, as evidenced by this tweet by Marcus Luttrell, whose own story was manifested into the Lone Survivor film with Mark Wahlberg:
Jesse was the public “bad guy” again; he was viewed as a villain looking to slip his hands into the pockets of a war hero who could no longer defend himself against Ventura’s accusations. The classic battle was at hand, but instead of performing at the behest of 30,000 screaming fans, it would be fought in front of a jury of peers, and instead of the hulking protagonist seeking to avert the diabolical tactics of the “heel,” it would be the grieving family of a slain soldier on the defense.
A Swerve Ending
A filmed deposition given by Chris Kyle in 2012 was shown to the jury. Kyle’s confidantes came to his defense as well; 11 witnesses attested to Kyle’s depiction of the events that night in San Diego.
Ventura fought back. His attorney’s alleged that all of the witnesses at the bar that night were imbibing, and their accounts of the incident were called into question when several witnesses offered differing statements as to the exact location of the fight. Along with the SEAL t-shirts and tattoo that Ventura threatened to display (the judge would not let him take his shirt off, although he did show reporters after the trial), his lawyers provided photographs that showed him with no visible marks on his face after the time of the alleged brawl. Jesse took the stand and posited that it was unlikely that Kyle could even knock him down:
I am 6 feet 4, I weighed 255 pounds and I’ve wrestled Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, and this guy is going to knock me down with one punch and [leave] no mark on me whatsoever?
After hearing arguments from the prosecutors and the defense, the jury deliberated for six days. When they came back with a split decision, the judge asked them to attempt to come to a solution one more time. This time, though — perhaps with a bit of false confidence — Kyle’s attorneys had agreed that they’d accept a verdict of 8-2. It was a mistake.
When the verdict came back a second time, the jury has decided 8-2 in favor of Jesse Ventura. Shock filled the courtroom. Taya Kyle spoke to Military Times about the devastating effects the lengthy trial and outcome had on her and her children:
It was extraordinarily painful. It robbed me of a lot of time with my children, and grieving with them. If you’ve never been through something like this, you might think you just hire a lawyer and move on with your life. It’s so not that. It’s painful. It’s maddening. It was very taxing emotionally. I just tried to get through it, but in the end, my jaw is still on the floor.
Jesse spoke to the Star Tribune about his elation over the verdict. “I am overjoyed that my reputation was restored which is what this whole lawsuit is all about.”
Ventura was awarded $1.845 million, $500,000 of which was paid by American Sniper’s publisher HarperCollins. The rest has to be paid by Taya Kyle. Chris Kyle’s widow moved for a re-trial, but the judge dismissed it, stating that the verdict had “substantial evidence.”
When the jury’s decision was finally decided, Taya Kyle was told at home, attending to her children; when Jesse was notified of his victory, he was on the golf course. Ventura is currently suing HarperCollins for the sum of $150,000. He addressed the lawsuit and the film recently on his podcast.
“[One] of the grave misconceptions about this lawsuit: I was taking money from a widow and her children — no I wasn’t. Her expenses were paid entirely from a giant insurance company. The Kyle family hasn’t suffered one dime of monetary loss,” Ventura said. “My lawsuit was to clear my name and show this was a fabrication and a lie… My lawsuit was originally started because this person in the chapter, Scruff Face, committed treason. The chapter took the book to number one and ultimately got it the movie deal. The point is, this was fabricated. It never happened. I would never say anything like that against my own unit or the military itself.”
Ventura went on to claim that he was offered financial settlements “four or five times” before going to trial, but that the publisher refused to remove the chapter about Scruff Face, which Ventura says was a breaking point in the negotiations.
“I refused to settle because to me it wasn’t about money, it was about the truth,” Ventura said on the podcast. “The jury gave me what they felt I was damaged. The majority of that money is going to my attorney. Again, this will cost the Kyle family nothing for the lie that was written about me.”