‘Bandits’ trial begins

Last week, the much-anticipated preliminary hearing began for the five young men from La Jolla accused of murdering 24-year-old professional surfer Emery Kauanui, Jr., in front of his home on Draper Ave., May 24, 2007. The accused are: Seth Cravens, 22; Eric House, 21; Matthew Yanke, 21; Henri Hendricks, 22; and Orlando Osuna, 23; all graduates of La Jolla High School. All have pleaded not guilty to the charges and, with the exception of Seth Cravens, remain free on bail.

According to investigators, a fight broke out at the La Jolla Brew House on Fay Ave. over a drink that may or may not have been spilled intentionally on House by Kauanui. After being asked by the staff of the Brew House to leave the bar, Kauanui was driven home in his car by his girlfriend Jennifer Grasso.

Prosecutors contend that the five men then drove in Yanke’s black Ford Explorer to Kauanui’s home and that upon arriving shortly after 1:30 a.m., found him alone and unarmed. Prosecutors said that according to neighbor accounts, Kauanui was then attacked by four men and, while on the floor, was repeatedly kicked and punched by the group. Prosecutors said they have testimony from eye-witnesses who said they saw Cravens deliver the final blow which knocked Kauanui to the ground rendering him unconscious and bleeding from his head.

Kauanui’s skull was fractured in three places; he died four days later of an epidural hematoma at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla.

Prosecutors said that immediately following the incident, all of the suspects, with the exception of House, fled the scene and later met up at the home of Yanke.

Prosecutor Sophia Roach alleged that the five are members of a street gang known as the Bird Rock Bandits. As such, she contends that the group should be prosecuted under tough state laws that apply to street gangs and carry with them significantly increased sentencing penalties.

Because the DA’s office is attempting to establish that the Bandits were a gang, they are allowed in the preliminary hearing to bring up past charges, whether prosecuted or not, that would otherwise be disallowed in court.

The question of whether to call the group a gang has resonated with all, with reports appearing in venues such as the New York Times and on Good Morning America.

In September, prosecutors announced that they had compiled sufficient evidence from reports by frustrated citizens who, after hearing about Kauanui’s death, contacted police with information on previously unreported assaults.

Prosecutors alleged that these reports outline a pattern of violence dating back to 2002 in which numerous victims were battered by the defendants and left with extensive injuries. Many of those citizens blame the death of Kauanui on the ineffective response of police. Some La Jolla residents have questioned how police could not have known about the group.

Attorneys for the defendants asserted that the DA has given in to public pressure and is now throwing the politically motivated case into the hands of the courts. They admitted that all involved were drunk on May 24, but they say that Kauanui was friends with the five young men and that his death was accidental.

The defense claimed that Kauanui had a blood alcohol level of 1.7 with traces of marijuana in his system. The defense further contended that witnesses said that on the night in question, they didn’t see a group fight and that Kaunaui was the aggressor, having gotten the better of House by punching him several times and knocking out one of his teeth. Lawyers for the defense reported that House told Kauanui, “You got me, it’s over.”

The defense painted a picture of Kaunaui as a young man who would never run from a fight and had a criminal history of violence stemming from a felony conviction for assault in Florida and a misdemeanor conviction for battery in Oceanside.

The defendants were described by their attorneys as college students, athletes and volunteer coaches that up until the death of Kauanui had no criminal histories.

Attorney for Cravens, Mary Ellen Attridge said, “The defendants were a close-knit group that liked to go out and drink and get into fights, like most other college kids.” She said “there are no gang signs, no colors or an initiation ceremony commonly associated with street gangs.” Only one police officer called upon by the prosecution in the case admitted ever hearing of the Bird Rock Bandits prior to Kauanui’s death.

At the end of the preliminary hearing, Judge John S. Einhorn will decide if there is sufficient evidence for a trial.

This week the prosecution is expected to finish presenting evidence and then the defense will put on its case. In total, there are eight attorneys present for the defense each day in the cramped courtroom. They are cooperating with one another and have worked out specific roles that each will play in presenting their case. Cravens is being represented by Deputy Alternate Public Defender Mary Ellen Attridge. Yanke is being represented by veteran La Jolla attorney Kerry Steigerwalt. Hendricks is being represented by Deputy Public Defender Richard Gates. Osuna is being represented by veteran trial attorney James J. Warner. House is being represented by attorney Earll Pott.