Paddleboarder gets 5 years prison for Sunset Cliffs assault on surfer

A paddleboarder described by a prosecutor as a "bully on the beach" was sentenced Thursday to five years in state prison for clubbing a surfer on the head with a paddle at Sunset Cliffs last summer.

Deputies immediately handcuffed Paul Taylor Konen, 34, to take him into custody. Konen, of Ocean Beach, had remained out of jail while awaiting trial and sentencing.

"Today is a good day for the surf community of San Diego," Deputy District Attorney Matthew Greco said out of court, noting that the stiff sentence should send a message to potential troublemakers.

A San Diego Superior Court jury found Konen guilty in April of assault causing great bodily injury and personally inflicting great bodily injury to Kevin Eslinger, a Point Loma resident and longtime surfing coach in the East County.

Eslinger, 56, suffered brain damage from the blow that has caused a continuing speech impediment. He has taught swimming at El Cajon Valley High School and at Heartland Swimming Association for around three decades.

"Two lives have irrevocably been changed, but I feel a sense of justice," Eslinger told reporters after Konen's sentence was imposed.

In court, Eslinger told the judge it is hard for him to communicate and people wonder if he is drunk, on drugs, "or damaged." He suffers pain in his head and has a hard time sleeping, he said. He noted, too, that his medical bills have topped $100,000, but most was covered by insurance.

Eslinger testified at trial that he and his wife, Janae Kelley-Eslinger, went surfing the morning of June 26 at a popular Sunset Cliffs spot called The Boil, near Ladera Street. He said a paddleboarder, later identified as Konen, blocked his way, then got into his wife's way.

The two men had words, then Konen started paddling away. Eslinger said he wanted to continue scolding Konen for his behavior, so he went after him, lying flat on his surfboard and paddling with his hands. Then, he said, the paddleboard cut across his path near his head. He put out his hands, then blacked out.

Eslinger suffered a gashed head, and his wife got him to a hospital. Konen was later arrested.

Judge Robert Trentacosta said Thursday that he found the testimony of Eslinger and his wife to have been credible, and that he did not believe Konen's testimony that he felt afraid for his life because the surfer was approaching him.

The prosecutor said Konen's version of events changed several times. Defense attorney Brian McCarthy argued that Konen has mental issues that made him fearful even if he wasn't in real danger.

McCarthy asked the judge to grant probation, noting Konen has no criminal history.

The judge rejected that, citing the severe injury Eslinger had suffered. He chose the lower term of two years in prison for the assault and three years for causing great bodily injury.

Konen's mother, sitting with his father and other supporters, burst into tears when she heard the five-year total term.

Eslinger said in his early surfing days, competition to claim a spot in the waves was common. With the growing popularity of the sport, he said, "that doesn't happen any more." But he added that there are still a few bullies out there.

"We're going to overwhelm them with kindness," he said.

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