Monday Oct 03 2011
Not guilty in battery trial involving radio personality, Newcastle man tells his story
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
“Sports Guy” Pat Walsh says he's frustrated with outcome after freeway offramp confrontation
John O’Neill said he’s thankful that a Placer County jury found him innocent of battery charges filed after an Interstate 80 offramp altercation with Sacramento radio personality Pat Walsh. But O’Neill, a 52-year-old Newcastle resident, said he doesn’t feel as if he won anything when jurors came back with a not-guilty verdict Sept. 22. Walsh, known as radio station KFBK’s “Sports Guy,” O’Neill, O’Neill’s son, Cory Taylor O’Neill, 23, and another man who had been riding in O’Neill’s SUV were involved in a physical confrontation after pulling over at the Applegate exit June 1, 2010. Walsh provided a markedly different version of the incident to law enforcement from the one by O’Neill that jurors ultimately believed. Walsh said Monday that he feels frustrated with the jury’s decision, that he was trying to avoid road rage attack at all costs during the confrontation, and now carries Mace as a precaution against possible future assaults. O’Neill reiterated his story in an interview with the Auburn Journal. O’Neill said he’s a non-violent person. If anyone should have been charged with battery – or reckless driving – it should have been Walsh, he said. O’Neill said he turned down three separate plea-bargain offers from prosecutors so that he could go to trial and ultimately clear his name. His son, Cory, also decided to go to trial and also was found not guilty. “I didn’t win,” O’Neill said. “Walsh won because he was able to speed up to 90 mph, he was able to road rage, he assaulted me and he maliciously prosecuted me.” Walsh said that he was the innocent victim of an inexplicable road-rage attack. “I feel frustration – that these guys got away with attacking me,” Walsh said. O’Neill said he went through a year of worrying and sleepless nights after the incident. Initially, prosecutors offered six months in jail if he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor battery charge, he said. “You find out who your friends are,” O'Neill said. “I’ve been unemployed and trying to get a job. My name’s out there. That didn’t help.” Walsh said he was attempting to help a tractor-trailer driver whose rig had been stuck behind a slow-moving wide load and was signaling to turn out. Walsh said he moved into the middle lane and then flashed his lights to allow the semi to turn out. His plan was to stay in the center lane, giving the trucker an opportunity to move out and pass, he said. O’Neill’s SUV “came barreling out of nowhere” and he pulled off eastbound I-80 after all three occupants of the other vehicle harassed him with obscene gestures, Walsh said. O’Neill said that one of the key moments at trial came after jurors were shown footage from a Sacramento TV station’s video of Walsh explaining what had happened. In the video, Walsh said that he pulled over to apologize – indicating to O’Neill that Walsh had done something wrong while driving. Walsh said he was willing to take the high road with an “apology” for what O’Neill might have misconstrued as an error while driving but that he had done nothing wrong. “I was ready to say that I didn’t know what they thought I did but all I was trying to do was let a truck through,” Walsh said. “How this all began, I’m still not sure. It’s very unfortunate that this incident ever took place.” O’Neill said he was traveling up I-80 to pick up a Jeep to repair in Alta and was behind two tractor trailers. He pulled out into the middle lane on the three-lane roadway and Walsh was speeding and attempted to squeeze through a small amount of space between his vehicle and the semi, he said. Walsh slammed on his brakes when he couldn’t make it and then yelled for his vehicle to pull over a few seconds later when he caught up, O’Neill said. Walsh said all three occupants were harassing him as they drove and his vehicle was blocked by the O’Neill SUV after he stopped at the exit. O’Neill said Walsh approached him and the other two men after both parties had left their vehicles. “Until he got to us, he didn’t look like a crazed maniac,” O’Neill said. “But when he got to us everything changed. He got into my face like coaches do with umpires in baseball.” Walsh claimed he was cutting him off on the road, O’Neill said. But he calmly denied it and responded that Walsh was driving dangerously, he said. Walsh bumped his chest and with fists clenched, screamed “What are you going to do about it,” O’Neill said. O’Neill said he took a step back and Walsh moved forward again. The other two men surrounded Walsh and he left the circle to return to his truck, O’Neill said. A trucker was standing nearby and Walsh told him to watch – that it was three against one, he said. Walsh maintains that he signaled the trucker to watch at the beginning of the confrontation. “He gets into the center of the circle and says again ‘What are you going to do about it?’” O’Neill said. “His right hand came up and I gave him a push to the chest with two hands and he falls down. He comes back at me and I put my foot up and he goes down again. He did it a second time and I put my foot up and pushed him down again.” Walsh said O’Neill came at him and then told the others “Let’s take him out, boys.” The sportscaster said one grabbed him in a full nelson hold and another sucker punched him in the jaw before O’Neill “cracked” him in the jaw. Walsh said the attack continued off the road. “They came after me and began to boot me in the head, face and kidneys,” Walsh told News10. O’Neill said the three were wrestling with Walsh and just he and the KFBK personality fell down off the road. In the struggle, sunglasses Walsh had on his forehead may have gouged into his skin causing a wound, O’Neill said. Walsh said he wasn’t wearing sunglasses and the cut, which required seven stitches, occurred when he was punched in the head. O’Neill said he left after his son said it wasn’t worth it to stay and they feared Walsh might pull a gun out. They proceeded along I-80 to get the Jeep. Walsh said someone chased the three off “with a stick.” Back home in Newcastle that evening, O’Neill said he turned on the TV news and learned that Walsh was claiming he had been “badly beaten in a road rage incident.” Walsh said his injuries have healed but it’s upsetting when anyone doing a Google search of his name turns up “road rage” stories. Walsh, 51, has been with KFBK for 18 years, is a Placer County resident, says his driving record is a good one and he’s built a solid reputation over the years in the community that has been bolstered by regular charity work. “Today I’m going to a charity event for cystic fibrosis,” Walsh said. “It wasn’t road rage or a fight. It was an assault, an attack. I don’t know why it was hard to convince the jury.” Fifteen months after the incident, O’Neill has been absolved of blame by a jury and says he’s thankful to his public defender, Heidi Pope, and even to taxpayers, who paid for his defense. An auto technician, he’s been out of work for more than two years. “I received a fair trial,” O’Neill said. “I could have pleaded no contest and received no jail time in the final offer but a plea bargain is for guilty people. I wasn’t guilty and I was willing to risk a jury trial to prove it.” ***Corrected version reflects errort on quote attribution. John O'Neill has been "unemployed and trying to get a job."