Vt. man testifies he pulled away before eyebrow bitten off in fight at his wedding reception

By John Curran, AP
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Vt. man: I pulled away before eyebrow bitten off

BARRE, Vt. — A decorated Iraq war veteran whose eyebrow was partially bitten off in a fight at his wedding reception told jurors Tuesday that he voluntarily pulled away moments before the other man lunged and bit him.

His left eyebrow noticeably shorter than his right, Ryan Kessler, 27, testified in the trial of Kevin Gartland, who’s charged with aggravated assault.

When asked how it felt, Kessler said: “Extremely painful, more or less shock at first.

“It happened, and then there was just sort of extreme pain all of a sudden and blood started running down my face. … I was just, like, ‘I just got bit.’ I started screaming, ‘You just bit me.’”

Gartland, 35, of Fayston, says it was self defense. One of his lawyers told jurors in the trial’s opening day in Vermont District Court that the wrong man was on trial.

Kessler, a U.S. Army veteran who served tours in Iraq in 2003 and 2005 and earned a Bronze Star, described the unexpected turn of events at the June 28, 2008, wedding reception on his bride’s parents’ farm in Duxbury.

He said he came to blows with Gartland after his sister told him Gartland had thrown a drink on her at the reception.

Kessler confronted him, and words led to shoving and then a flurry of punches. The fight lasted only seconds, according to Kessler. He said he had disengaged from Gartland and put his hands up when Gartland — whom he knew only in passing as the boyfriend of his wife’s cousin — suddenly attacked, sinking his teeth into Kessler’s forehead and gouging out a chunk of flesh and hair.

It was never found, despite efforts by the bride’s father and others, who combed the farm property with flashlights, looking.

Kessler, who was shown color photos of his face that were taken immediately after the incident, needed plastic surgery to address the wound. Pointing to lumps on the middle of his forehead as he testified, Kessler, of Waterbury, said he may have more surgery.

His wife, Elizabeth King, her voice quavering, testified that she didn’t see who threw the first punch in the altercation.

In questioning Kessler and his wife Tuesday, Gartland’s lawyers suggested that Kessler was the aggressor and asked him about how many drinks he’d had before the fight, which occurred about 11:30 p.m., more than seven hours after the wedding ceremony.

Kessler said he’d had two beers, at least one gin and tonic and a shot of tequila, but he told police at the time he wasn’t drunk.

Defense attorney Jordana Levine told jurors in her opening statement that Gartland wasn’t at fault and that people who know him will testify that he is peaceful and honest.

“We are confident that after you have heard from all of these witnesses, that you will determine that the wrong person is on trial,” she said.

If convicted, Gartland could get 15 years in jail. He’s expected to testify Wednesday.

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