By JAKE ZUCKERMAN
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — More than 12 years after Eric Porterfield, who made national news earlier this year comparing the gay community to the Ku Klux Klan, lost his vision in a parking lot brawl, his legal battle against the bar where it happened continues.
Porterfield, now a Republican member of the House of Delegates from Mercer County, started that night in 2006 at a strip club in Harvey, Illinois, a tough suburb just south of Chicago.
It ended in a fight involving as many as 10 people outside a now-closed Indiana bar about 30 minutes away. The fight left Porterfield completely blind at 32 years old.
Porterfield has said he earned his divinity degree at Hyles-Anderson College, an unaccredited Baptist school in nearby Crown Point, Indiana. He did not pursue criminal charges against anyone involved, but sued the bar, Cavanaugh’s Sports Bar and Eatery, several months later.
Depositions and court documents from that lawsuit, as well as from a police report obtained via Freedom of Information Act request from the police department in Schererville, Indiana, detail significantly different versions of the fight.
Porterfield’s lawsuit alleges Cavanaugh’s failed to provide adequate security that could have prevented the fight and seeks unspecified damages. He cited five other fights at the bar that year, and a high area crime rate that should have prompted more security that night. The lawsuit has been in the Indiana court system for more than a decade, and the latest filings came last week.
Porterfield directed a request for comment to his lawyer for this report. He also threatened to sue the Charleston Gazette-Mail and a reporter over the story. His lawyer, A. Leon Sarkisian of Merrillville, Indiana, did not respond to multiple phone calls.
The first punch
According to his own deposition, Porterfield and a friend, Steven McPherson, left Sky Box, a strip club in Harvey, Illinois, around 10:30 p.m. on the night of Saturday, Dec. 10, 2006. They headed across the Indiana state line to Cavanaugh’s, where they remained until closing time around 3 a.m.
According to her statement to police, Andrea Acevedo, a patron at Cavanaugh’s, was walking to her car with her cousin and two friends nearby, after the bar closed. McPherson approached her and touched her arm without permission. She told police McPherson told her to “shut the f–k up”; in her deposition in the lawsuit, she told attorneys he said “f–k you bitch.”
She said she told him it was late and he was drunk. He apologized. McPherson told police he knows he said something derogatory to Acevedo, and he might have told her to “shut the f–k up.”
Then, according to Acevedo, Porterfield approached.
“What are you apologizing to this bitch for?” Porterfield said, according to Acevedo’s deposition. “You don’t have to apologize.”
As two of her cousin’s friends, Jesus Venegas and Jason Dorado, approached, Porterfield addressed the bunch. “What are you bitches gonna do about it?” he said, according to Acevedo’s deposition.
According to Acevedo and her friends, Porterfield threw the first punch. Dorado said he’s 100 percent sure Porterfield took the first shot. Venegas said Porterfield threw the first punch, knocking him out cold.
Anthony Acevedo, Andrea Acevedo’s cousin, said he heard yelling before the fight.
“I just noticed like people were yelling and it kind of caught my attention, and then like I turned around and looked over, and I see this guy hit Jesus,” he said in his deposition.
McPherson told police the fight began among Porterfield and the others, not himself. He also told police that Porterfield told him not to talk to police.
The police officer writing the report said McPherson changed his account. “I was concerned that he was also not being truthful with me about his involvement in the fight or him being hit at the beginning of the fight,” the report states.
McPherson, per the report, eventually conceded he did not know who took the first swing.
“He was not looking at [the others] so he does not know who threw the first punch,” the report states.
The documents paint a chaotic picture of a fight, further muddled by changing statements to police and depositions taken years after the incident.
Dorado told police he saw Porterfield swing and knock down Venegas. According to Dorado’s deposition, Anthony Acevedo then hit Porterfield and the two went at it. Jumping in, Dorado said he grabbed Porterfield and put him in a headlock, when Porterfield bit his ear, gnawing off a piece of it.
In the police report, an officer details information from a doctor, who said Dorado told a nurse that Porterfield bit his ear when Dorado had him in a headlock.
Dorado then “poked his eyes out,” during the fight.
“What the f–k do you want, he bit me?” Dorado said to the nurse, according to the report.
In his deposition, Porterfield said he may have bitten someone’s ear, but he didn’t know whose.
“I don’t necessarily recall it, but it’s very possible with just a bunch of guys on you just doing anything to get loose from them,” he said. “It’s not like a specific, you know what I mean, target of biting. And without my sight, I don’t know what or if I bit and what it was. It’s hard to tell.”
According to the attending physician, Porterfield was diagnosed with bilateral globe perforation — meaning he had his eyes poked out.
Porterfield told police he doesn’t remember anyone poking his eyes and that his injuries were from punches.
McPherson told police that after he fell into some nearby bushes, he was hit at least 10 times. From the ground, he looked up and saw Porterfield on the hood of an SUV with about four men beating him.
In his deposition in his lawsuit against the bar, Porterfield said he didn’t know what started the fracas. He said he was leaving with McPherson, and as he walked through the lot, he turned around and saw his friend surrounded. He asked the men to leave McPherson alone and said that he didn’t want any trouble.
“Unfortunately, Eric’s effort to extricate his friend from the confrontation was unsuccessful, and the incident resulting in his injuries ensued,” Porterfield’s attorney wrote in a brief.
Describing the fight, attorneys for Cavanaugh’s do not specify who Porterfield claims threw the first punch, only that it was McPherson who was hit, and that he was surprised the altercation occurred.
Porterfield said he wasn’t drinking the night of the fight. In their report, police officers noted the smell or effects of alcohol on almost everyone involved except Porterfield.
McPherson’s deposition aligns with Porterfield’s account, although it differs from what he told police. In his deposition, McPherson said several men came up behind him and Porterfield and said something. When he turned around, McPherson said, the group was coming at him and signaling a fight, seemingly without provocation.
“Man, I’m just here to have a good time,” McPherson said he told them. “I don’t want to fight anybody.”
McPherson said he took the first punch, knocking him into the bushes. He told police, when confronted about his story changing over multiple statements he provided, that he did not take the first punch.
Police also found reason to doubt Porterfield. After speaking with witnesses and participants, some of whose accounts differed from Porterfield’s earlier statements, an investigator described Porterfield as “vague” and “evasive” about the beginning of the fight, about six months after it all happened.
“I asked him if he threw the first punch of the fight,” the report states. “He stated that it was possible. He became argumentative. He stated that he could not talk to me about it and he wanted to take time to remember.”
In June 2007, several months after the fight, Porterfield arrived at the police station with an attorney, where he declined to provide a statement and said he did not want to pursue criminal charges against anyone involved in the fight, a request police heeded.
Four months later, Porterfield filed suit against Cavanaugh’s in Lake County Superior Court.
The case has since been appealed by Cavanaugh’s attorneys to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state’s second-highest court.
The lower court ruled with Porterfield and struck down Cavanaugh’s motion for summary judgment. The order does not determine whose account is the truth, only that enough facts are in dispute that summary judgment would not be appropriate.
The case is ongoing, with the latest filing having been submitted Monday.
Earlier this year, Porterfield garnered notoriety statewide for his anti-gay and lesbian sentiments and use of a slur in a committee meeting. He entered the national spotlight when, defending himself, he compared gay people to the Ku Klux Klan, “without wearing hoods.”
In a 20-minute broadcast interview, he repeated the sentiments and cast himself as the victim, given the feedback and threats he said he received. When asked how he would respond if his son and daughter, as teenagers, told him they were gay, he seemed to imply drowning them.
“Well, I will address my daughter first: I would take her for a pedicure, I’d take her to get her nails done, and see if she can swim,” he said. “If it was my son, I would probably take him hunting, I would take him fishing, and I’d see if he can swim.”
In a previous interview, Porterfield detailed a public war of words between him, a pro-choice OB-GYN and a local magistrate that involved a temporary personal safety order being filed against him.
To the openly expressed frustration of many House Democrats, Porterfield retains his committee assignments. With a degree of prescience, he said back in November he would make waves in Charleston, before he ever even took his oath of office.
“Wait ‘til they get a hold of me in the Legislature,” he said.
Reach Jake Zuckerman at
[email protected], 304-348-4814 or follow
@jake_zuckerman on Twitter.
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