New York Times: Pro Surfer’s Death Exposes Beach Town’s Violent Side

Published: May 12, 2008 -

New York Times


SAN DIEGO - The affluent community of La Jolla has long produced beach cliques, most formed around the inclination of surfers and other beachgoers to guard their local break.

In particular, the locals who frequent Windansea Beach - a storied break once frequented by the professional surfer Emery Kauanui Jr. and a little-known group whose members call themselves the Bird Rock Bandits - are among the most territorial in all of California.

But last spring, Mr. Kauanui was beaten to death, and five young men from La Jolla, all in their 20s, were charged in his murder. In court last week, prosecutors said that because the men were members of the Bird Rock Bandits, they should be prosecuted under tough state laws that apply to criminal street gangs.

The men have pleaded not guilty, suggesting that Mr. Kauanui’s death was an accident, and they deny that their group is a gang. At a hearing that began Wednesday, in San Diego Superior Court, their lawyers are seeking to have the gang-related allegations - so-called enhancements that can result in much stiffer penalties at sentencing - dropped.

“They are as much a gang as any fraternity,” said Mary Ellen Attridge, the lawyer for one of the men, Seth Cravens, 22.

Some La Jollans say these local groups have moved beyond the adolescent high jinks of the past. The Bird Rock Bandits, named after a La Jolla neighborhood, have members who have begun to emulate the Hollywood version of street gangs, the residents say, complete with drug dealing and premeditated violence.

The California penal code defines a gang as a group of three or more people with a common name, an identifying symbol and a primary activity of committing crime.

“The law doesn’t look at socioeconomic background,” said Paul Levikow, a spokesman for the San Diego district attorney’s office. “It looks at actions.”

The beating of Mr. Kauanui, who was 24, outside his mother’s La Jolla condominium on May 24, 2007, disturbed the sleep of more than a few neighbors.

“Flesh hitting flesh” is how one caller described the commotion to a 911 operator. When the beating stopped, neighbors reported to the police, Mr. Kauanui was left lying on the concrete in a pool of blood.

Or at least it seemed all the men had left, one neighbor told the police, until a moment later: “This kid with blonde hair and no shirt on was walking in circles yelling, ‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’ ”

The authorities say the shirtless man was Eric House, 21, with whom Mr. Kauanui had been drinking at the La Jolla Brew House, a nearby bar. It was there that Mr. House may or may not have flirted with Mr. Kauanui’s girlfriend, according to the police, and there that Mr. Kauanui may or may not have intentionally spilled a drink on Mr. House. Witness accounts are contradictory.

What seems beyond dispute is that a security guard at the bar asked Mr. Kauanui to leave and that Mr. House and four others - Mr. Cravens; Orlando Osuna, 23; Matthew Yanke, 21; and Henri Hendricks, 22 - later drove to Mr. Kauanui’s home, prosecutors say to retaliate against him.

Mr. Kauanui’s head “buckled up and down like a bobblehead doll” during the fight, Mr. Hendricks told the police. When Mr. Kauanui fell back onto the sidewalk, his head landed on the concrete with what Mr. Cravens described to the police as “a loud thud.”

The police might have cast the beating as a typical bar fight with a tragic ending had interviews not uncovered the existence of the Bird Rock Bandits and the men’s link to it.

As word spread of Mr. Kauanui’s death - he died four days after the beating from head injuries at Scripps Memorial Hospital - more than a dozen people reported assaults by one or more members of the Bird Rock Bandits, most of which involved at least one of the defendants. By the end of last summer, all five men were facing not only charges of first-degree murder, but also the gang allegations.

The death galvanized La Jolla, a rather idyllic place unaccustomed to violent crime - the killing was the first murder in five years - and where homes this year have sold for an average of $3.9 million.

The paddle-out, the ritual surfers use to honor their dead, for Mr. Kauanui was the biggest La Jolla had seen. “We are a community of well-educated, family-oriented people,” the local paper, La Jolla Light, said in an editorial. “How can it happen here?”

But for many other residents, the events were not entirely surprising. Violence had long been a part of the local culture at Windansea; one group, the Windansea Surf Rats, had for decades used physical violence to intimidate outsiders and tagged the group’s initials in surf wax on the sidewalk near the beach.

Still, some residents say the Bird Rock Bandits represented a departure: Their brand of violence went beyond the one-on-one fights that sometimes break out on the beach, and their victim in this case, Mr. Kauanui, was himself a local.

“This was Lord of the Flies,” said Tim Bessell, 50, a La Jolla-born surfboard shaper. “They may have been playing make-believe as a gang, but in their case, it came true.”

Others have found it implausible that prosecutors are equating a beach clique, however unpleasant, to a criminal street gang.

“They weren’t gangsters,” says Richard Kenvin, 47, a filmmaker who grew up surfing Windansea. “They were gangsta chic.”

Among the gang-related factors that prosecutors are asking the judge to take into consideration is the spray-painting of “BRB” on walls around town; the frequent flashing of hand signs by members forming the letter B; and the writing on MySpace by a user going by the name Bird Rock Bandits, not long before Mr. Kauanui died, that “this is gonna be a ... bloodbath of a summer.”

One acquaintance of the five men told the police that “it was all planned out,” according to a transcript of his statement. “They were going to jump him. They were trying to be a gang.”

Yet where the prosecution sees a premeditated attack, the defense sees an accident. The five men were all friends with Mr. Kauanui, defense lawyers say. There is no evidence of a hierarchy within the group, no initiation rituals, the lawyers say, and the weapons found in the men’s homes were basically harmless - pocketknives of various sizes, a BB gun and a potato launcher.

“This is not the Bloods and the Crips,” said Ms. Attridge, the lawyer for Mr. Cravens.

It does not have to be, said Mr. Levikow, the spokesman for the prosecution.

“They’re not standing on the corner selling crack or pimping, but they were terrorizing the community,” he said.

The preliminary hearing is scheduled to continue Monday.