Man found guilty of assaulting popular local surfer at Sunset Cliffs

SAN DIEGO — A man who struck a popular local surfer in the head with a carbon fiber paddle in the water at Sunset Cliffs was convicted of assault Thursday.

Paul Taylor Konen, 34, faces up to seven years in prison when he’s sentenced next month for the June 26, 2018, assault on Kevin Eslinger, 56.

Eslinger sustained a gash to the back of his head that Deputy District Attorney Matthew Greco said fractured his skull and caused brain damage, rendering him unable to speak until days after the injury. Greco  alleged that an emergency room physician said the injury looked “like a hammer  blow.”

Eslinger, who testified last Friday in somewhat stilted speech, said he tried to explain his condition and the situation to hospital staff and police, but it was “as if someone had their hand over my mouth from the inside.”

The prosecution contended that after Konen nearly ran into Eslinger on the water — forcing Eslinger to duck his head in order to avoid being struck by Konen’s paddle board — Eslinger objected to Konen’s flouting of proper surfing etiquette. Konen remarked, “If I can catch a wave, it’s mine,” the victim alleged.

Konen then ran into Eslinger’s wife and regular surfing  partner elsewhere among the waves, knocking her off her board, Eslinger testified.

When Eslinger paddled out towards the defendant to ask him why he did that, he was struck in the head by an unknown object, which he later came to believe was an intentional blow from Konen’s paddle.

Konen was arrested the next day when police tracked him down to his father’s van. Inside the van was the paddle used to assault Eslinger, still with a strand of hair stuck to a portion of the paddle that appeared damaged. According to Greco, efforts to match that strand of hair to Eslinger through DNA testing were unsuccessful, because there was no root attached to  the stray hair.

Eslinger, who has also filed a lawsuit against Konen, said his now- impaired speech has affected his teaching jobs at El Cajon Valley High School and elsewhere, where he finds it difficult to communicate with his swim students, though he said “everyone has been extremely understanding of my condition.”

Defense attorney Brian McCarthy alleged that after the initial encounter with Eslinger, Konen was simply trying to get away. He argued that Eslinger took umbrage and pushed Konen’s board away at first, which Eslinger testified was only to avoid injury.

After seeing his wife go into the water, McCarthy said Eslinger tried to cut Konen off, which Eslinger did not contradict, as he wanted to let Konen know “this kind of behavior is not going to be tolerated by the `tribe,”‘ according to Eslinger.

McCarthy alleged that Eslinger has changed his story several times since the incident, including telling an emergency room nurse that the back of Konen’s board struck him in the head.

“The question is did my client intentionally assault Mr. Eslinger or was there a situation where Mr. Eslinger got in front of my client’s path and got hurt?” McCarthy said.

Greco alleged that Konen admitted striking Eslinger to another person just before he was arrested. The prosecutor said Konen stated that Eslinger “was going to kill me” and that he swung at him to defend himself.

Eslinger made local headlines in 2005 when he traversed 120 miles paddling from Santa Barbara to Ocean Beach in just over a day.

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