Avtar Singh sat on a curb next to a small pool of his own vomit in front of the Bayfront Hilton at 2 a.m. on December 20, 2013. Blood trickled onto his chin from his lip. The knot on his forehead grew hard and pulsated. He looked at the shattered driver’s side window of his cab and worried how his boss would react. He never saw the punch coming. He only heard the glass crack and felt his head snap back. From the curb, Singh tried to make sense of not only the first punch but also the several thrown after.
He looked across the driveway where Harbor Police officers interviewed 24-year-old Navy SEAL, Kyle Blackwell. Singh had picked Blackwell and his fiancee up at the Shout House in the Gaslamp a few minutes before closing time.
The seven-minute ride to the hotel was quiet. Singh and Blackwell’s fiancee Jennifer Reynolds spoke only a few words. After arriving at the hotel, Singh told the couple they owed him $11.20 for the ride. Reynolds gave him a $20 and told him to keep the change. She exited the cab and walked toward the parking garage elevator. Singh looked down at his iPhone while he waited for Blackwell, who sat directly behind him, to exit. He heard Blackwell shifting around in the back seat. The car door finally closed. Moments later, he noticed Blackwell standing outside his window, which had been rolled down three inches. That’s when the first punch came, breaking the top of the window and stopping at his forehead.
Dressed in his Navy blues, Blackwell told officers that he had accidentally closed the cab door too hard, causing the rear window —not the driver’s window as was the case — to shatter. According to his statement to police, he said Singh started to yell and jumped from the cab. Blackwell feared Singh was from Iraq or Afghanistan, quite possibly “a Muslim extremist and wasn’t sure what he was capable of.” He told his fiancée to run and headed for the parking garage elevator. Singh chased after them. Added Blackwell, “I’m a Navy SEAL and part of SEAL Team 5. If I wanted to hurt him, I could have real easily. I just wanted him to back off. I felt threatened by his behavior and was in fear for my life.”
Singh described Blackwell’s actions as a drunken rampage. According to his statement, after the punch the 33-year-old cab driver from northern India exited his cab. He told Blackwell that he needed to pay to fix the window. Blackwell, not saying a word, threw another punch, this time hitting him on his bottom lip. The Navy SEAL walked away. Singh followed and continued to yell at Blackwell to pay for his window. As they made their way toward the elevator inside the Hilton’s parking garage, Singh called the police. Singh blocked the door to prevent the elevator door from closing. Blackwell punched him twice in the mouth. He fell back. His lip exploded. Blood gushed into his mouth. Blackwell grabbed Singh’s iPhone and threw it down. Singh grabbed it and redialed 911. Blackwell and his fiancée exited the elevator and walked toward the stairs. Singh chased after them. On the phone with a police dispatcher, Singh stopped midsentence to yell at Blackwell for breaking his window. Blackwell grabbed the phone again and threw it, this time out of the parking garage. Blackwell hit Singh again. He and Reynolds exited the stairs on the fourth floor where security guards stood waiting.
Alfred Banks, also a cab driver, had witnessed the altercation while dropping off a fare and alerted security guards.
Banks later told officers that he saw Blackwell and his girlfriend wanting to get into the elevator. Singh was on his phone blocking the door from closing. He then saw “Blackwell punch Singh in the face approximately six times.”
After interviewing the witnesses, officers tried to negotiate a deal between the cab driver and the Navy SEAL. They asked Singh to take money for his window and let Blackwell and Reynolds go on their way. “They asked that I not make trouble and wanted me to do the right thing for a serviceman,” Singh said in statement.
He didn’t want to forget. He wanted Blackwell to pay, not only for the window but also for his brand new iPhone that he and police officers were unable to find. Singh wanted Blackwell to pay for his actions.
San Diego Harbor Police, however, decided not to arrest Blackwell, because they had not been present to witness the alleged violations first-hand. Officer Jose Torres, one of two reporting officers, had other doubts. Despite Singh’s statement, the location of the knot on his head, and Blackwell’s admission that he broke the car window (albeit the rear window), Torres felt the window shattered from the inside, meaning it was possibly Singh and not Blackwell that threw the initial punch.
Still looking for justice and assurance his window would get fixed, Singh declared a citizen’s arrest against Blackwell. Officers issued a citation against the Navy SEAL for two misdemeanor counts of simple battery. Blackwell was to appear in court on February 26, 2014.
The next day, before getting his window replaced, Singh went to Harbor Police headquarters to get a copy of the police report. As he waited at the body shop, lips still swollen and the knot on his head visible, he read the conflicting versions from Blackwell and Reynolds, as well as the officer’s opinion that he had possibly thrown the first punch from inside the cab.
To Singh, the whole thing reeked of favoritism — a Navy SEAL over an immigrant cab driver. It contradicted everything Singh had learned while studying to become a U.S. citizen in 2004. This type of favoritism was not foreign to him, much worse happens where he is from. He was stunned the same could happen in America.
Hours later, Singh’s taxi had a new window and his wallet was $150 lighter.
The following morning Singh called Blackwell’s superiors asking if they were aware of the altercation. He made an appointment to meet with Commander Master Chief Shane McKenzie, Blackwell’s commanding officer, at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. Once at the base, he handed McKenzie a copy of the police report, along with photos of his injuries and the broken window. The commander assured him the matter would be addressed.
But Singh didn’t hear back from the Navy.
In January 2014, Singh traveled to India to visit family. He asked attorney Steve Arnold to keep him informed.
On February 26, Blackwell failed to show up for his arraignment. The following month, Superior Court judge Howard Shore issued a bench warrant for Blackwell and rescheduled the hearing for August 2014.
Arnold spent much of April and June contacting the city attorney’s office and Harbor Police for updates.
He visited Michelle Garland, the deputy city attorney, responsible for filing formal charges against Blackwell. He feared the city would not prosecute Blackwell. Arnold showed Garland photos of a beaten and bloodied Singh. She made copies. Arnold says the deputy city attorney assured him the case was moving forward.
“She said, ‘We’re going to charge him with two counts of misdemeanor battery and property damage,’” Arnold told the Reader in October 2014. “She told me that when there are pictures of victims bleeding, they never dismiss or accept a plea deal, not unless there is at least one count of battery as no-contest.”
But promises from the city attorney’s office weren’t enough to ease his concerns. Arnold called Harbor Police officer Jose Torres. Arnold told Torres he wanted to see the case go before a judge. A few hours later Arnold received a strange phone call.
“I received an unsolicited call from Blackwell himself. I had not called Blackwell nor had I ever heard from him before.
“[This] could not have been just coincidence that Blackwell reached out to me unless Officer Torres had called him after our conversation.”
The suspicious phone call validated Arnold’s fears; the justice system was playing favorites; that a young, inebriated Navy SEAL could beat up an immigrant and authorities would do their best to forget it ever happened.
Arnold hounded the city attorney’s office. In June, Blackwell was formally charged with three misdemeanor counts — two of battery against a transportation worker and one of vandalism. He was glad to hear the case would go before a judge. But things changed as the trial approached.
The prosecutor, Deputy City Attorney Nicole Kukas, and Blackwell’s attorney, Mike Malowney, met before a judge on August 1 at a pretrial readiness conference to discuss the case. Days later, without consulting Singh or his attorney, Kukas dropped all charges against Blackwell. According to a disposition form issued after the readiness conference, Kukas cited “D133” as the reason for dropping the case.
D133, according to the city attorney’s office, is the code used when a defendant completes a rehab program.
Frustrated, Arnold contacted Kukas. The deputy city attorney said there were too many holes in the case. The issues centered on Officer Torres’s statement in his report that the window appeared to be shattered from inside of the vehicle.
On August 11, Singh learned of the city attorney’s office decision not to prosecute. The closest thing to an explanation arrived in the mail in the form of a letter. Inside was a note from the city attorney’s office and a check for $150 from Blackwell’s attorney.
The letter on official City Attorney letterhead read:
“Enclosed you should find a restitution payment in full made payable to Avtar Singh in the amount of $150.00 from Kyle Richard Blackwell.
“Please sign your name below acknowledging receipt of the money order and return this letter to our office in the enclosed self-addressed envelope.”
Judge Keri Katz, the judge assigned to the case, never approved or signed off on any restitution order. The alleged backroom dealing doesn’t come as a surprise to one source close to the city attorney’s office. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source says there was an unspoken protocol for ensuring dismissals or favorable plea deals for SEALS and other military personnel. Prosecutors, says the source, typically notified Navy commanders and other high-ranking personnel of minor charges against members of the military. The commanders and others would then write letters on the accused’s behalf.
“To a lay person that might not sound necessarily unethical. But for lawyers, all of whom are officers of the court, legal boundaries are rarely blurry — even if ethical ones are from time to time,” the source told the Reader.
“[They’re] not supposed to be doing that.”
The source could not say for sure whether the practice continues under City Attorney Goldsmith, but did confirm that many of the same prosecutors are still employed by the city attorney’s office.
The city attorney’s office declined to say whether anyone from the Navy contacted the prosecuting attorneys before dismissal.
Nearly one year after the assault, Singh sits inside Arnold’s Bankers Hill office. He wears khakis, sneakers, and a button-down shirt. A Padres hat rests in front of him on the large meeting room table. “The uniform means a whole lot to me,” he says of Blackwell. “He represents the military. To me he’s a hero. He fights for the country. He’s a soldier, and I give him mad props, mad respect. If I have to give him a free ride I would, because he fights for the country. He’s supposed to protect and not hurt. The strangest part about it is that I’m not even Muslim. I’m from northern India, bro. People call me Muslim and I get offended by that, you know what I mean.”
Singh is still baffled by the incident.
“Harbor Police came up to me three times to negotiate. I said no. He said, ‘Look, let him just pay for the window.’ I said, ‘You tell me he’s going to pay for my window and we are done? What about my lip? What about my phone? No, I want to press charges.’”
Continues Singh, “I felt that Harbor Patrol didn’t want to get him in trouble with his Navy department. It wasn’t all about the money, though it is important. I had worked something like 16 hours that day. That means I worked that day to allow for him to break my window. So, yeah, I wanted him to go to jail. Police officers told me that the court would deal with it. They had me get in my cab and go home. I said, ‘That’s it?’ And, they said yes.”
Singh looks at the check from Blackwell’s attorney. He shakes his head. “Now I can see the system is corrupt on the inside, you know? I’m pretty sure that because this guy is an American, in the military, they like him more than me. That’s it.”
Singh admits he made some mistakes that night. He says chasing after Blackwell and yelling at him to pay for the window was probably not the right thing to do. He believes that may have had something to do with Officer Torres’s police report.
Singh stops himself mid-sentence.
“But what else could I do? I mean, the guy broke my window and then runs. What if he went to his hotel room? I would have never found him and I would’ve had to pay for the window on my own. Wouldn’t have made much difference, I guess.”
Singh’s attorney says there are still many unanswered questions.
“Why did they dismiss the case? What made them decide to grant restitution? Who negotiated the deal?”
So convinced is Arnold that the city attorney acted in bad faith he is now considering suing Jan Goldsmith for violating his client’s 14th Amendment rights.
“I’m not sure that they’ve broken the law,” Arnold said. “But they may have a pattern of exercising their discretion as far as it can go, because it’s a SEAL case.”
In an email statement, spokesman for the city attorney’s office, Gerry Braun, said the “case had a number of issues that are common in battery and vandalism cases. A successful case is supported by witness statements, admissions, and/or corroborating physical evidence capable of proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt. This case began with evidence that initially appeared to corroborate the alleged victim’s story. However, after a thorough review of the police report and witness statements, we found the evidence was conflicting, at best.”
Continued Braun: “[T]he officer at the scene believed the car window appeared to have been broken from inside the vehicle, contrary to the alleged victim’s statement.
But the city attorney’s position has holes as well. First, is the matter of restitution: The city attorney’s office claims the $150 check from Blackwell’s lawyer via the city attorney’s office was “separate from the case.”
The Reader asked Braun how the city attorney reconciles accepting Blackwell’s offer to pay for the broken window despite conflicting evidence.
Braun responded, “There was no court order for the defendant to pay restitution. Because of the evidentiary issues with the case, our office was prepared to dismiss the case. Separately, defense counsel offered to have his client reimburse the alleged victim for the damage to his window. That offer was accepted.”
Braun insists that the check from Blackwell was not restitution, despite the letter from his office saying otherwise.
“The taxi driver sought $150 from Mr. Blackwell to cover the cost of the broken window. Mr. Blackwell chose to write him a check for $150. Your question as to his motives is best directed to him. His offer had no bearing on this office’s decision to drop the charges. Mr. Blackwell’s attorney gave the check to one of our deputies during a court hearing, and the deputy then saw that it was forwarded to the other party’s lawyer. It was not requested by our office nor was it restitution. This was not our normal process. Our deputy simply wanted to help the taxi driver.”
But Singh’s attorney, Arnold, says that neither he nor his client ever accepted such an offer. He believes the City Attorney’s office acted in bad faith, sweeping a violent crime under the rug because the alleged perpetrator is a “good-looking, all-American war hero” and the alleged victim is “just a dark-skinned taxi driver and an immigrant to this country.”
Singh refuses to cash the $150 check. Doing so, he says, would make it look as if he had agreed to the offer.
Mike Malowney, Blackwell’s attorney, declined to provide specific details about the payment. He questioned Singh’s attorney’s motives for going to the press and the authenticity of the police report he provided.
“Mr. Singh claims my client broke a window on his taxi and then battered him. The cause of the damage to the window remains greatly in dispute, however, my client has always maintained a willingness to pay for the alleged damage to resolve a civil claim for damages. My client has always maintained his innocence to any criminal conduct. He pled “not guilty” to the charges of battery and vandalism (intentional destruction of property) and was prepared to have a jury listen to the evidence and decide the case.
“I met with the City Attorney’s office and discussed the complete facts available to both parties. It became clear that Mr. Singh’s version of the events were not sufficiently supported by the evidence. I reminded the City Attorney’s office my client was willing to reimburse Mr. Singh for the broken window, but was unwilling and unable to plead guilty to any criminal charge. I asked the City Attorney to inquire of Mr. Singh as to any cost to repair or replace the window and was told the value was $150. I was directed to make payment payable directly to Mr. Singh.”
Singh’s attorney also questions the “D133” code used as the reason to dismiss the case.
According to the city attorney’s office, the code indicates completion of a program. Blackwell was never ordered to enter into any such program.
Braun, however, dismissed the code as meaningless.
“The dismissal code is used for statistical purposes. It has no legal significance,” he said via email. “D133 means ‘program completed.’ In this case it likely refers to the fact that the defendant compensated the alleged victim for damage that occurred during the incident.”
Braun maintains that the city attorney considered the evidence in the Blackwell case carefully and took the allegations seriously.
“The City Attorney’s Office works hard to meet its legal responsibility only to prosecute cases where there is sufficient evidence to support a reasonable expectation of conviction at trial,” says Braun. “Given the conflicting evidence, we were unable to meet our legal and ethical obligations in this case and as such, moved to dismiss the charges.”
Singh’s attorney Arnold plans to file a lawsuit against Blackwell, the Navy, and possibly against the city. Arnold listed the damages at $100,720.24, of which $150 is for the window, $570.24 is for the lost iPhone, and the remaining $100,000 for pain and suffering.
Asked what this experience means to him, Singh buries his head in his hat before sliding it on top of his head. “If this is how America works, man, if it turns out people get special treatment based on their rank or where they are from, when they commit crimes, then there’s no hope for humanity.”