SAN DIEGO — A popular local surfer was struck in the head with a carbon fiber paddle by a “bully of the beach” last year, leaving the victim with afflictions that affect him to this day, a prosecutor alleged Friday.
But a defense attorney said the alleged victim was the aggressor, and the injuries he sustained were likely inadvertent.
Testimony began Friday morning in the trial of Paul Taylor Konen, charged with assault with a deadly weapon for allegedly striking Kevin Eslinger in the head with a paddle, as the men were out in the water at Sunset Cliffs on June 26, 2018.
Eslinger, 56, 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 at all until days after the injury. Greco alleged that an emergency room physician said the injury looked “like a hammer blow.”
Eslinger, who testified 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 contends that after Konen nearly ran into Eslinger out 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 allegedly ran into Eslinger’s wife and regular surfing partner elsewhere among the waves, knocking her off her board.
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 allegedly 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 civil 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 incidental 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 ER 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.