Fact Check

Chris Kyle and 'American Sniper'

'American Sniper' Chris Kyle did not shoot dozens of Hurricane Katrina looters, kill two attempted carjackers, and punch Jesse Ventura in the face.

Published Jan. 22, 2015

American Sniper subject Chris Kyle shot dozens of looters after Hurricane Katrina, killed two attempted carjackers, and punched Jesse Ventura in the face.

The release of the film American Sniper (based on the autobiographical book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History) on 16 January 2015 brought the late Chris Kyle's story to a wide audience. While the former Navy SEAL achieved a fair degree of fame before his death in February 2013, the release of the movie based on his book prompted renewed interest in both the events it depicted and other claims Kyle made during his lifetime.

Three particular incidents Kyle maintained he was involved in have caused the most controversy. They are:

  • In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Kyle traveled to New Orleans and killed about thirty "looters" from a perch on top of the Superdome.
  • During the funeral of a fellow Navy SEAL, Kyle punched out Jesse Ventura for saying something defamatory about SEALs.
  • In 2009, Kyle shot and killed two individuals who attempted to steal his truck and was released by police without questioning due to the intercession of the Department of Defense.

The film based on Kyle's book complicated an already tangled narrative, though adaptation of autobiographies to the silver screen frequently invokes creative license. But the rumors that quickly became part of Kyle's legend came not from the book-to-film evolution but rather from the man himself.

Chris Kyle's claim he'd fired upon and killed dozens of "looters" after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 preceded the other two tales. The story circulated through postings on several web sites and through a number of news articles, as well as being passed from person to person in both the online and offline worlds:

The SEALs began telling stories, and Kyle offered a shocking one. In the days after Hurricane Katrina, he said, the law-and-order situation was dire. He and another sniper travelled to New Orleans, set up on top of the Superdome, and proceeded to shoot dozens of armed residents who were contributing to the chaos. Three people shared with me varied recollections of that evening: the first said that Kyle claimed to have shot thirty men on his own; according to the second, the story was that Kyle and the other sniper had shot thirty men between them; the third said that she couldn't recall specific details.

Had Kyle gone to New Orleans with a gun? Rumors of snipers — both police officers and criminal gunmen — circulated in the weeks after the storm. Since then, they have been largely discredited. A spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, told me, "To the best of anyone's knowledge at SOCOM, there were no West Coast SEALs deployed to Katrina." When I related this account to one of Kyle's officers, he replied, sardonically, "I never heard that story." The SEAL with extensive experience in special-mission units wondered how dozens of people could be shot by high-velocity rifles and just disappear; Kyle's version of events, he said, "defies the imagination."

Indeed, the account does not hold water simply on the grounds cited in the passage quoted above. Imagining that SEALs were deployed to New Orleans in the chaotic days that followed Katrina is not exceptionally hard, considering the level of disorder that followed the devastation wrought by the hurricane. But the notion that dozens of Americans were shot dead on mere suspicion of (relatively minor) crimes, on American soil and with the full support of a system of law that otherwise does not allow for such summary punitive actions, challenges credulity to a very large degree. Moreover, thirty or so bodies of local residents slain in such a manner never turned up as corroborative evidence of such a claim. The circumstance Kyle claimed would have required the silence and compliance of all witnesses, the families of the dead, all involved law enforcement agencies, and untold others who might have become aware of killings meted out under inarguably public circumstances. Had Kyle and his fellows truly dispatched such a large number of looters or "residents who were contributing to the chaos" (who had neither been charged with nor convicted of any crime, much less a capital one), some other evidence of this tale would have emerged. One person disappearing under such circumstances is unusual; thirty or so is truly unbelievable.

The second claim involved a similar measure of street justice purportedly meted out by Kyle to what many would deem deserving recipients. In that tale, Kyle was nearly the victim of a carjacking at a gas station, but the deadly sniper was quicker than his would-be assailants: he drew and fatally wounded the unnamed men.

The story got odder, though, when police responded to the situation (in some accounts, Kyle called for intervention from the Department of Defense; in others, police discovered his special privileges when they checked his identification and received a mysterious message in response). An iteration of the rumor was promulgated by a New Orleans news outlet after the release of American Sniper, in which both the claims made by Kyle and their built-in lack of verifiability were questioned:

[W]riter Michael McAffrey is far less kind. He excoriates Kyle and reporters who have failed to question Kyle's bogus stories ...

Kyle also told a story about killing a pair of carjackers in Texas and then dialing up the Pentagon for the law enforcement officials who arrived at the scene. That's another story that nobody — no police, deputy, coroner or witness — has been able to confirm. McAffrey writes, "Just like he didn't shoot two car jackers in the middle of nowhere Texas, and he didn't shoot looters in the aftermath of Katrina. None of those things are true ... but that doesn't mean there aren't people who desperately need them to be true."

The most pervasive version of the rumor stemmed from a February 2013 article on a Dallas-based web site that referenced a very loose definition of the word "confirmed." According to the site, Kyle and some unnamed officers in the area in which the incident purportedly occurred (never directly specified), stated security camera footage of the incident existed and/or they had spoken to an individual who'd viewed the footage. But no footage matching the description provided by Kyle on the site in question has ever turned up, certainly an unusual circumstance in the wake of the large amount of attention Kyle and the film American Sniper have garnered:

[Kyle] proceeded to tell me about that day. It was in January 2009, just weeks after he retired from the Navy. It was cold that morning, and he was wearing a heavy winter coat. He was driving his truck — his now famous black F350 with the large rims and impressive grill — when he needed to stop for gas. He pulled into a station right off Highway 67.

Kyle told me that the entire incident was caught on the gas station's surveillance cameras. He said he gave the responding officers a phone number to call. Presumably someone high up in the government explained to the officers who Kyle was. He said the officers were very understanding, that they didn't want to drag a just-home, highly decorated veteran into a messy legal situation that would surely draw a harsh media spotlight.

Kyle told me that he knew the tape was out there somewhere, because he would randomly get emails from police officers all over the country, thanking him for "cleaning up the streets."

The site added some telltale markers of a genuine urban legend:

Several of Kyle's friends were familiar with the incident, and they had heard virtually the same story. After our talk, I called the police chiefs of several towns along [Highway] 67. Most of them had heard of the incident. One, speaking only on background, said he knew some of his men had at least seen the tape. But request after request provided no police reports and no tape.

All involved had heard the story, and some of them claimed to know of a person who had seen the purported footage — but all of them heard the story from the same source (Kyle himself), and none of them could personally attest to having viewed the alleged security camera footage. And just as in the Superdome sniping tale, the putative victims remain unidentified even now, so no one can possibly verify whether they're even dead, much less the circumstances under which they died.

While those claims were both extraordinary and by their very nature difficult to corroborate, the third was both a bit more high-profile and (eventually) involved a celebrity. In his autobiography, Kyle described a moment of defending the honor of SEALs against someone who'd impugned them at an unimaginably inappropriate time: while they were mourning the loss of a fellow SEAL at a bar:

Kyle wrote in his 2012 book, "American Sniper," that he punched out a celebrity while mourning the death of Navy SEAL and future Medal of Honor recipient, Master at Arms 2nd Class Michael Monsoor.

Kyle did not identify [the celebrity] by name in the book, but said that he swung at the individual after he "started running his mouth about the war and everything and anything he could connect to it." That included President George W. Bush and deployed SEALs, who "were doing the wrong thing, killing men and women and children and murdering," the man said, according to Kyle's book.

Kyle alleged that he tried to get the man — identified only as "Mr. Scruff Face" — to keep it down, and he responded by saying the SEALs in the bar "deserve to a lose a few." The man eventually took a swing at him, Kyle alleged, and all hell broke loose.

"Being level-headed and calm can last only so long," Kyle said in his book. "I laid him out. Tables flew. Stuff happened. Scruff Face ended up on the floor."

Yet again, the story eventually developed another intriguing twist when Kyle elaborated upon it during a 2012 appearance on Fox News channel's The O'Reilly Factor. During that segment, Kyle claimed the previously unnamed individual he described was none other than Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler, governor of Minnesota, and member of the Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams during the Vietnam War era.

While the claims about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the carjacking incident were met with some general disbelief, the mention of Ventura's name introduced a separate credibility issue for Kyle in the form of a lawsuit filed by Ventura against Kyle after the latter's appearance on O'Reilly's show. After Kyle died in 2013 the suit continued against his estate, and a jury eventually found Kyle's estate had improperly profited from claims made by the decedent that had no basis in provable fact and awarded Ventura $1.8 million dollars in damages:

Legal experts said Ventura, a former Navy SEAL, had to clear a high legal bar to win, since as a public figure he had to prove actual malice. According to the jury instructions, Ventura had to prove with "clear and convincing evidence" that Kyle either knew or believed what he wrote was untrue, or that he harbored serious doubts about its truth.

[Ventura attorney David Bradley] Olsen said Kyle's claims that Ventura said he hated America, thought the U.S. military was killing innocent civilians in Iraq and that the SEALs "deserve to lose a few" had made him a pariah in the community that mattered most to him — the brotherhood of current and former SEALs.

Olsen said inconsistencies in testimony from defense witnesses about what happened the night of Oct. 12, 2006, were so serious that their stories couldn't be trusted. He also pointed out that people who were with Ventura that night testified that the alleged confrontation never happened. And he said Ventura would never have said any of the remarks attributed to him because he remains proud of his and his parents' military service.

However, it should be noted the jury in the case did not specifically have to determine whether Kyle had in fact punched out Ventura (for whatever reason) in order to find in favor of the plaintiff, and its verdict may not have been unanimous:

The jury told the judge that it didn't believe it could reach a unanimous verdict, but the judge instructed them to continue. Attorneys for both sides agreed the verdict did not need to be unanimous and would allow a verdict if only eight of 10 jurors agreed.

U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle, who is not related to the author, told jurors they weren't charged with determining whether Ventura was punched, but rather whether he was defamed by the remarks Kyle attributed to him.

So while Chris Kyle's historical legacy as one of America's most lethal snipers in foreign wars may be confirmed and corroborated, his claims about various "take charge" incidents in the U.S. are lacking in substantiation. No record of any shooting deaths matching the description of Kyle's purported carjacking victims has ever surfaced, nor has anyone produced the supposed security camera video of the incident (or even evidence such a video truly exists). New Orleans authorities did not log some thirty unaccounted-for shooting deaths in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; and even if Kyle's claim proved in any way plausible, the government-sanctioned street execution of American citizens on American soil without due process would have prompted a large-scale civil rights scandal.

Moreover, the single claim of this group that stood a legal test of its veracity failed: Kyle's claims about Jesse Ventura were sufficiently non-provable that a jury (deliberating in a country that, by and large, holds a large measure of respect and pursuant leeway for American servicemen) saw fit to award damages to Ventura totaling seven figures, even with the knowledge that Kyle himself hadn't lived to see the sanction and the damages would be levied against his widow and other beneficiaries of his estate.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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