Four of the five defendants from La Jolla accused in the beating death of professional surfer Emery Kauanui, last year, pleaded guilty to lesser charges in Superior Court on Friday, June 27.
Eric House, 21; Orlando Osuna, 23; and Mathew Yanke, 21, all pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, while Henri Hendricks, 22, pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact. In addition, Osuna and Yanke pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery charges stemming from previous unrelated assaults. All other charges against the four have been dismissed and sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 5.
By accepting the plea agreements, the four defendants will avoid possible life sentences. House and Yanke will face maximum sentences of 3 years in state prison, while Osuna faces a maximum of 5 years. Hendricks, it appears, will not face any jail time and can have his felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor after successfully completing the terms of his probation. He currently faces a maximum of 3 years in prison.
Seth Cravens, 22, is the only defendant in the case to reject the prosecutions plea offer, He re-entered a not-guilty plea and has been ordered to face additional charges of making a criminal threat, battery and assault causing great bodily harm in connection with a series of unrelated incidents dating back to 2004. Craven’s is scheduled to stand trial on August 22 and is the only defendant still in custody. If convicted he faces 15 years to life in prison.
Prosecutors have said they have testimony from eye witnesses who said they saw Cravens deliver the blow that knocked Kauanui to the ground, rendering him unconscious and bleeding from his head. The fall likely caused him to fracture his skull in three places. He died four days later of an epidural hematoma at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla.
After the hearing, attorneys in the case spoke to reporters. Mary Ellen Attridge, Attorney for Cravens, said that she feels confident about her client’s case. She said her client should have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and not murder.
“I think their pleas help my case, and I’m happy to go forward,” she said of the other defendants.
Kerry Steigerwalt, attorney for Yanke said, “My client accepted the plea because we finally got a resolution to a very unfortunate event.” He said, “He, as well as all the young men in this case, are just grief-stricken over what happened.”
Fredrick Reich, attorney for Osuna said, “Mr. Osuna was never going to be found guilty of the charges he was initially charged with.” He said Osuna should be sentenced for what he did, which was driving his four friends to the scene of the fight.
Richard Gates, attorney for Hendricks, said that his client failed his friend when he left Kauanui in the street. “It wouldn’t have made any difference to Emery’s condition because when he hit the pavement he suffered such a horrible injury to his head. He obviously couldn’t survive it. But still it was the wrong (thing) to do, and Hank has always known that it was the wrong thing to do.”
According to officials, San Diego Superior Court Judge, John S. Einhorn, is not bound by the plea agreement and could put the defendants on probation at the September sentencing hearing.
Einhorn granted a defense request to lift an order prohibiting the men from associating with friends named as witnesses in the case, but refused to modify another order barring the defendants from gathering at La Jolla beaches.
After the preliminary hearing in May, Judge Einhorn said that he did not feel the slaying of Kauanui, 24, was first-degree murder, but felt that there was enough evidence against all five to face a jury on a second-degree murder charge. At that time, the judge also ruled that the defendants were not part of a criminal street gang, despite having taken the name “Bird Rock Bandits.” Had the prosecution convinced the judge of those allegations, the defendants would have faced much stiffer penalties.
According to investigators on May 24, 2007, a fight broke out at the La Jolla Brew House on Faye Avenue over a drink that may or may not have been spilled intentionally on House by Kauanui. Afterwards Kauanui was driven home in his car by his girlfriend Jennifer Grasso.
Prosecutors contend that the five men then drove to Kauanui’s home and beat him.