Sunset Cliffs
Sunset Cliffs in San Diego. Photo by Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons

A man who struck a popular local surfer in the head with a carbon fiber paddle in the water at Sunset Cliffs was sentenced Thursday to five years in state prison.

Paul Taylor Konen, 34, was convicted last month of assault, with a great bodily injury allegation, for the June 26, 2018, assault on Kevin Eslinger, 56.

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

Eslinger, who testified during the trial 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.”

Addressing the court at Konen’s sentencing hearing, he said the attack continues to affect his daily life, how he communicates with his wife and swim students at El Cajon Valley High School, and has led to around $100,000 in medical bills. Eslinger said he wishes he could ease the pain and stress of his wife Janae, but “she’s reminded of it every time I speak.”

According to the prosecution, after Konen nearly ran into Eslinger on the water — forcing him 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.

The victim said Konen remarked, “If I can catch a wave, it’s mine,” then ran into Eslinger’s wife and regular surfing partner elsewhere among the waves, knocking her off her board.

Eslinger testified that when he paddled out toward 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. The prosecutor said efforts to match that strand of hair to Eslinger through DNA testing were unsuccessful, because there was no root attached to the stray hair.

Defense attorney Brian McCarthy, who maintained during the trial that Konen was simply trying to get away from Eslinger and may have accidentally struck him with the paddle, sought probation for his client.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Trentacosta declined to grant probation, citing the extent of Eslinger’s injuries and a lack of remorse on Konen’s part along with a variety of changing stories from the defendant, including telling one detective that no encounter happened at all, while also telling a friend that Eslinger attacked him and he struck Eslinger in self-defense.

“I don’t get a sense that the defendant either understands or appreciates his actions or the results of his actions,” Trentacosta said.

However, due to Konen’s lack of criminal history, the judge did impose the low term of two years for the assault count, in addition to three years for the great bodily injury allegation.

Outside court, Greco said, ” It’s a good day for the surfing community. It’s a good day for the community of San Diego. It’s a good day for the beaches to ensure that when people are out in the water, they’re safe and they understand that the rules that are on land apply in the ocean and people will be held accountable for assaultive behavior.”

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

–City News Service