April 05, 2006

U.S. Navy SEAL found not guilty of murder

By Gordon Trowbridge
Times staff writer

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — A jury found Navy SEAL Ronald Gasper not guilty of murder on Wednesday, accepting his contention that he killed a fellow SEAL in self defense.

The family of Bradley Jondahl, the 24-year-old who died of a gunshot wound in Gasper’s Virginia Beach home, sobbed quietly in the front row of the courtroom as a clerk announced the verdict, which came after roughly three hours of deliberation over two days. Jurors found Gasper not guilty of second-degree murder, and also declined to convict him on a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.

Gasper’s family and friends — including several fellow SEALs who testified on his behalf — embraced the 31-year-old Ohio native outside the courtroom.

Outside the courthouse, Gasper made brief comments to reporters, saying he felt “deepest, heartfelt sympathy” for Jondahl’s family.

But he also said the relief of acquittal after nearly two years facing a possible life sentence was overwhelming.

“I can’t describe it. Elation,” he said.

Jondahl’s family was coping with another emotion.

“It was devastating to us to hear,” said Rodney Jondahl, Brad Jondahl’s father, as he and his tearful family left the courthouse. “We’ve been hurting the last year and a half, and now we’re hurting again. It’s going to stay with us for a while.”

Gasper, who testified for nearly four hours during the trial, told jurors the fatal shot was fired in his garage after a struggle with the much larger Jondahl, who had grown agitated and then violent after a night of drinking.

The two apparently had never met before the early morning of July 31, 2004, when they met on Virginia Beach’s oceanfront bar strip. Gasper said he recognized Jondahl as a fellow SEAL, and invited him to share a cab as a way of keeping Jondahl out of trouble.

But at Gasper’s home, the defendant said, Jondahl grew increasingly agitated and violent, and Gasper forced him out of the home. Gasper testified that Jondahl came back a short time later, breaking into the home, and that when he went to investigate, Jondahl attacked, choking him until he was nearly unconscious.

Gasper said he escaped, retrieved his 9mm handgun, and confronted Jondahl, trying to force him out of the home. Jondahl, he said, continued to attack, and he retreated to his garage, where, with his back against the garage door, he fired an unsuccessful warning shot before the struggle that ended with Jondahl shot in his lower abdomen.

While he no longer faces prison, Gasper’s legal troubles are not over. Jondahl’s family on Wednesday filed a civil lawsuit against Gasper, alleging wrongful death in their son’s killing.

It’s also unclear when Gasper — a member of the secretive Navy Special Warfare Development Group — will ever be able to resume his SEAL career. He refused to answer a question about his future in the Navy on Wednesday.