In wake of Ventura defamation verdict, Kent Studebaker tells his story
In the aftermath of a devastating jury decision against his widowed daughter, Lake Oswego Mayor Kent Studebaker says he wants to tell the real story about events that came to a crescendo two weeks ago in a Minnesota courtroom.
Its a very personal tale, with tragic twists and surprising turns. It pits the most deadly military sniper in American history a much-decorated combat veteran and Studebakers late son-in-law, Chris Kyle against former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who once railed against the Fascist States of America and said he would no longer salute the American flag.
Ventura won his defamation suit against Kyle and his estate July 29, and a federal jury awarded him $1.8 million in damages. But Studebaker staunchly defends Kyle as a dedicated U.S. Navy SEAL, patriot, husband and father whose mantra was God, country, family.
Chris Kyle was, in Studebakers estimation, larger than life. His military accomplishments made him a hero, he said during an interview last week.
Studebaker dismisses Ventura as an opportunist who looks out for No. 1. Jesses only interested in Jesse, he said, and hell always be only about Jesse.
Ventura has been a politician, a professional wrestler and a TV personality. At various times known as The Body and The Mouth, the 63-year-old Navy veteran insisted in his lawsuit that Kyle fabricated a passage in his best-selling 2012 autobiography, American Sniper.
In the anecdote, Kyle claimed he punched a celebrity called Scruff Face whom he later identified as Ventura in a California bar in 2006 for disturbing a wake for a fallen comrade and making a derogatory comment about SEALs.
Jesse said it never happened that he didnt get hit and he didnt say the things Chris said he did, Studebaker said. But Chris knocked Jesse to the ground. The evidence by the defense was absolutely compelling.
Lawsuit filed in 2012
In January 2012, shortly after the book came out, Ventura sued Kyle for defamation. Thirteen months later, on Feb. 2, 2013, Kyle and a companion, Chad Littlefield, were killed at a Texas pistol range by a fellow veteran they were trying to help. Kyle had previously affirmed in a sworn deposition that the anecdote in the book was true. He also said he hated Ventura with a passion, his father-in-law acknowledged.
After Kyles death for which accused shooter Eddie Ray Routh is awaiting trial on capital murder charges in a Texas jail Ventura named Kyles widow, Studebakers younger daughter Taya, in the lawsuit, claiming he was motivated by a desire to restore his sullied reputation.
Studebaker doesnt buy that. Jesse kept saying it wasnt about the money, but in the end it most certainly was, he said.
The mayor insists that anyone who reads the transcript chronicling the defamation proceedings will know the jury made a big mistake in awarding damages to Ventura.
I sat through the whole trial, said Studebaker, a former attorney. The issue was whether Jesse was defamed. The prosecution had to provide clear and convincing evidence that Chris intended to do Jesse harm and injure his reputation.
Prosecutors didnt reach that bar, Studebaker insists. Yet after two weeks of testimony during which seven SEALs and several civilian witnesses said they either heard Ventura denigrate the specialized Navy unit (which stands for Sea, Air, Land); saw Kyle deck Ventura at McPs Irish Pub & Grill in Coronado, Calif., on Oct. 12, 2006; or watched Ventura get up off the ground with help from his friends, Studebaker said jurors returned an 8-2 verdict in favor of Ventura.
Attorneys wanted a unanimous verdict, but later allowed the split decision after jurors balked.
The verdict came as a complete and utter surprise, Studebaker said. I am at a loss to understand how they could come back like that.
I would challenge anybody to go over the transcript and come to the same conclusion those eight jurors did, he added.
The idea that Kyle conspired with writers Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice to make up a story about Ventura to include in his book is preposterous, Studebaker said. For the jury to accept that happened, he added, is beyond belief.
He called the 379 pages of American Sniper a great read that gets to the heart of what it means to be a SEAL, including the sacrifices their families make while theyre serving.
Ventura releases video
On Aug. 7 in St. Paul, Minn., U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kyle upheld as reasonable the $1.3 million unjust enrichment portion of the award, which relates to jurors belief that Kyles estate made money off a false story contained in his book, and the $500,000 award for defamation.
While Studebaker could not pinpoint the sum Kyles estate has made from book sales, he confirmed Kyle had received a $100,000 advance for American Sniper and an additional $700,000 sometime after that.
Ventura also released a video last week, talking about his vindication while wearing a T-shirt advertising his Ora TV show, Off the Grid.
The jury considered and believed the evidence, Ventura said in the six-minute presentation, in which he thanked truth seekers who supported him.
Right after the books release, he said, he met Kyle face to face and asked him to admit he made up the story and apologize. I told him ... that if he did that, we could shake hands and go our separate ways, Ventura said in the video. But he would not do it.
Instead, Ventura filed the court case. When youre accused of treason, youre going to fight it, he said.
Ventura, who has hinted at a possible run for the presidency in 2016, currently splits his time between homes in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and Dellwood, Minn.
Mayor back to work
Meanwhile, Studebaker is back in his office on the third floor at Lake Oswego City Hall, tending to business while processing all the changes in his life over the past 18 months.
Hes still grieving over the loss of Kyle and the impact its had on Taya, his grandchildren and the entire family.
He maintains that on the day he died, Kyle was living out his desire to help others by saying yes to a plea from a friend not unlike his charge as a military marksman.
Chris said many times that it wasnt the number of kills that was important in his career, said Studebaker. What he considered significant were the number of lives he saved by making those kills.
Theres no doubt Studebaker is smarting over the court verdict, and his face reddens when he speaks Venturas name. Hes adamant that, this time, something went quite wrong in the judicial process.
You cant fix stupid sometimes you get juries who make bad decisions, said Studebaker, a 1963 graduate of Lake Oswego High School and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. These guys were really out to lunch.
Studebaker said Taya and her children, ages 10 and 8, are at home in the Dallas, Texas, area and that she is committed to moving forward.
Taya, 39, makes regular appearances with the Patriot Tour, a group that speaks to audiences across the nation about the challenges facing veterans, first responders and their families. Shes also working on a book, tentatively titled American Wife, which she began writing in 2011.
On the day of the court ruling, Taya wrote the following on her husbands Facebook page: Nothing that happens today or any other day rewrites history. The truth is still the truth.
Chris ... stood for what is right and fiercely protected it with everything he had, including his life. I will do no less.
Her fathers smile shows his pride and his pain.
Taya is very loyal to Chriss memory, he said. Its been a real tough thing, but she is strong and talented. Shes going to be OK.
Shell defend her husband to anyone who asks, but shes also feeling, What more can I do?
Studebaker himself champions Kyles integrity with a steely-eyed gaze and a deliberate, even tone. His son-in-law was intelligent, had a great sense of humor and was a good ol Southern patriot, he says.
In the case of the two-page anecdote in his book in which Kyle said he punched Ventura for saying the SEALs deserve to lose a few Kyle also was a truth-teller, according to the mayor.
Chris did not lie, Studebaker said flatly.
Wake for a fallen friend
Kyle and some of his buddies were at the bar that evening to mourn the loss of their comrade, California-born SEAL Michael Monsoor, who died after leaping onto a grenade to save fellow soldiers in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
The way Kyle told it, Ventura was in the same establishment the same night, attending a reunion of his Underwater Demolitions Team unit, when he started slamming the SEALs.
Scruff started running his mouth ... the guys were getting upset. Finally, I went over and tried to get him to cool it, reads an excerpt from Kyles book. Ventura bowed up as if to belt me one, Kyle wrote, and I laid him out.
Tables flew. Scruff Face ended up on the floor.
After the verdict, the books publisher, HarperCollins, began selling versions with the two controversial pages deleted, according to Studebaker.
He supports Kyles actions that night.
Jesse was making statements that were not particularly appropriate for a funeral, he said. He was criticizing President (George) Bush, criticizing the U.S. government. He said we were not fighting the war on terror right.
Kyle asked him to keep it down and be more respectful and quiet, and when Ventura kept it up, Chris knocked him to the ground, Studebaker said.
Whether Ventura sustained facial bruising was a point of contention in the trial, even though Chris never said (Ventura) had black eyes, Studebaker said. They evidently scored some points with the jury on that.
Living a lie
Bringing up a fine point thats hotly debated by civilians and soldiers alike, Studebaker says Ventura himself is living a lie by posing as a SEAL. He went through basic underwater demolition (BUD) training and served in the Navy during the Vietnam War on an underwater demolition team, but he is not a SEAL he never has been.
Most of Venturas time overseas was spent in the Philippines, according to Studebaker, who noted Ventura refused to answer questions about his service during the defamation trial. Hes always put himself out there as this big, battle-hardened hero and he isnt.
Chris Kyle whose record of at least 150 kills between 1999 and 2009 has been confirmed by the Pentagon and who was awarded two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars with Valor, two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals and one Navy and Marine Corps Commendation was the real deal, notes Studebaker.
After serving four combat tours in the Middle East, Kyle got out of the Navy in 2010 and went home to start Craft International, a tactical training company for private and military security personnel. In his spare time, he aided troubled veterans.
This is a guy who knows what the SEAL trident really means, Studebaker said of Kyle and the official insignia, a golden pin worn by the tight community of between 1,100 and 1,200 SEALs. It means that the warrior, the eagle, is humble and he approaches his mission that way.
An appeal of the verdict could be forthcoming; Taya Kyles lawyers are talking about it, Studebaker said. But whatever shape future court action might take, a film based on Kyles book is in the offing.
Warner Bros. has secured the rights to make American Sniper into a feature-length movie with Clint Eastwood directing and actor Bradley Cooper portraying Chris Kyle sans the bar incident allegedly involving Ventura.
That was such a minor thing it never was going to be in there, Studebaker said.
Production started in March. There is no release date.