Avtar Singh sat on a curb next to a small pool of his own vomit in front of the Bayfront Hilton at 2 a.m. on December 20, 2013. Blood trickled onto his chin from his lip. The knot on his forehead grew hard and pulsated. He looked at the shattered driver’s side window of his cab and worried how his boss would react. He never saw the punch coming. He only heard the glass crack and felt his head snap back. From the curb, Singh tried to make sense of not only the first punch but also the several thrown after.
He looked across the driveway where Harbor Police officers interviewed 24-year-old Navy SEAL, Kyle Blackwell. Singh had picked Blackwell and his fiancee up at the Shout House in the Gaslamp a few minutes before closing time.
The seven-minute ride to the hotel was quiet. Singh and Blackwell’s fiancee Jennifer Reynolds spoke only a few words. After arriving at the hotel, Singh told the couple they owed him $11.20 for the ride. Reynolds gave him a $20 and told him to keep the change. She exited the cab and walked toward the parking garage elevator. Singh looked down at his iPhone while he waited for Blackwell, who sat directly behind him, to exit. He heard Blackwell shifting around in the back seat. The car door finally closed. Moments later, he noticed Blackwell standing outside his window, which had been rolled down three inches. That’s when the first punch came, breaking the top of the window and stopping at his forehead.
Dressed in his Navy blues, Blackwell told officers that he had accidentally closed the cab door too hard, causing the rear window —not the driver’s window as was the case — to shatter. According to his statement to police, he said Singh started to yell and jumped from the cab. Blackwell feared Singh was from Iraq or Afghanistan, quite possibly “a Muslim extremist and wasn’t sure what he was capable of.” He told his fiancée to run and headed for the parking garage elevator. Singh chased after them. Added Blackwell, “I’m a Navy SEAL and part of SEAL Team 5. If I wanted to hurt him, I could have real easily. I just wanted him to back off. I felt threatened by his behavior and was in fear for my life.”
Singh described Blackwell’s actions as a drunken rampage. According to his statement, after the punch the 33-year-old cab driver from northern India exited his cab. He told Blackwell that he needed to pay to fix the window. Blackwell, not saying a word, threw another punch, this time hitting him on his bottom lip. The Navy SEAL walked away. Singh followed and continued to yell at Blackwell to pay for his window. As they made their way toward the elevator inside the Hilton’s parking garage, Singh called the police. Singh blocked the door to prevent the elevator door from closing. Blackwell punched him twice in the mouth. He fell back. His lip exploded. Blood gushed into his mouth. Blackwell grabbed Singh’s iPhone and threw it down. Singh grabbed it and redialed 911. Blackwell and his fiancée exited the elevator and walked toward the stairs. Singh chased after them. On the phone with a police dispatcher, Singh stopped midsentence to yell at Blackwell for breaking his window. Blackwell grabbed the phone again and threw it, this time out of the parking garage. Blackwell hit Singh again. He and Reynolds exited the stairs on the fourth floor where security guards stood waiting.
Alfred Banks, also a cab driver, had witnessed the altercation while dropping off a fare and alerted security guards.
Banks later told officers that he saw Blackwell and his girlfriend wanting to get into the elevator. Singh was on his phone blocking the door from closing. He then saw “Blackwell punch Singh in the face approximately six times.”
After interviewing the witnesses, officers tried to negotiate a deal between the cab driver and the Navy SEAL. They asked Singh to take money for his window and let Blackwell and Reynolds go on their way. “They asked that I not make trouble and wanted me to do the right thing for a serviceman,” Singh said in statement.
He didn’t want to forget. He wanted Blackwell to pay, not only for the window but also for his brand new iPhone that he and police officers were unable to find. Singh wanted Blackwell to pay for his actions.
San Diego Harbor Police, however, decided not to arrest Blackwell, because they had not been present to witness the alleged violations first-hand. Officer Jose Torres, one of two reporting officers, had other doubts. Despite Singh’s statement, the location of the knot on his head, and Blackwell’s admission that he broke the car window (albeit the rear window), Torres felt the window shattered from the inside, meaning it was possibly Singh and not Blackwell that threw the initial punch.
Still looking for justice and assurance his window would get fixed, Singh declared a citizen’s arrest against Blackwell. Officers issued a citation against the Navy SEAL for two misdemeanor counts of simple battery. Blackwell was to appear in court on February 26, 2014.
The next day, before getting his window replaced, Singh went to Harbor Police headquarters to get a copy of the police report. As he waited at the body shop, lips still swollen and the knot on his head visible, he read the conflicting versions from Blackwell and Reynolds, as well as the officer’s opinion that he had possibly thrown the first punch from inside the cab.
To Singh, the whole thing reeked of favoritism — a Navy SEAL over an immigrant cab driver. It contradicted everything Singh had learned while studying to become a U.S. citizen in 2004. This type of favoritism was not foreign to him, much worse happens where he is from. He was stunned the same could happen in America.
Hours later, Singh’s taxi had a new window and his wallet was $150 lighter.