Death in a surfer paradise
SAN DIEGO &
They are sons of La Jolla, five friends who came of age on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
They all played on La Jolla High School's football team. Off the field, they cruised around town and hung out in coves beneath seaside bluffs lined with spectacular homes. As they grew from youngsters to young men, they also sometimes threw a few punches.
One eventually left on an athletic scholarship but kept in touch. The others started calling themselves the "Bird Rock Bandits," drawing on the name of La Jolla's most affordable neighborhood where a house can still be found for less than $1 million.
Now, together, the five stand accused of first-degree murder, charged with beating to death one of La Jolla's most accomplished and popular surfers in front of the home he shared with his mother.
Authorities say the killing of Emery Kauanui Jr. was the tragic culmination of assaults spanning several years by the Bird Rock Bandits. Kauanui's death &
and the violent encounters that came before &
has generated a wave of soul-searching in this seaside haven of 50,000 residents north of downtown San Diego. Were parents too indulgent or preoccupied? Were police too slow to spot the pattern? Were those aware of the beatings too afraid to speak up?
The night that ended so horribly began with a petty beef in a crowded La Jolla restaurant and bar in late May. Kauanui spilled a beer on one of the five friends. Within an hour, the 24-year-old surfer was hospitalized, his skull fractured, his brain bleeding.
The San Diego district attorney's office has accused the five friends of following Kauanui home and beating him unconscious with their fists and feet.
Prosecutors say the "most deadly weapon of all" was Bandits leader Seth Cravens, 21. Only he remains in jail, unable to post bail of $1.5 million. Cravens has pleaded not guilty, as have Eric House, 20; Matthew Yanke, 21; Henri "Hank" Hendricks, 21, and Orlando Osuna, 22.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 2008.
Lawyers for the defendants, who would not let their clients be interviewed, contend that prosecutors succumbed to public passions over Kauanui's death and filed charges that are excessive. They say Kauanui, who knew his alleged killers, instigated the fight and that several of the accused did not hit him. The death, they say, was accidental.
"This wasn't a killing," says Alan Spears, one of Cravens' attorneys. "It was a fistfight."
La Jolla residents say the death has forced them to look beyond the luxury boutiques, six-figure incomes and sunny beaches to the town's darker realities.
Anne Cleveland, president of the Town Council, has soaked up the La Jolla life since 1961.
"It's easier to sanitize these things in a place like La Jolla, to sweep it under the rug and go on with your life," Cleveland says. "But you can only do that for so long."
Seth Cravens cut a menacing presence. He had big, punishing fists, and friendssay he liked to use them.
"He definitely liked to be intimidating," says buddy Matthew Schneider.
Most adversaries would back away to save themselves, Schneider says. "I've never seen him get dropped."
Cravens was the "odd one out" in a family of 13 brothers and sisters, says Schneider. They lived in Mount Soledad, an exclusive hilltop enclave in La Jolla with panoramic views of the coast. While his siblings were charting careers and building families, Cravens, the second-youngest, was getting suspended from middle school for fighting.
Cravens' parents tried to control him, says a sister, Sarah.
"My parents never made excuses for Seth," Sarah says. "Ultimately, the child is going to do what he is going to do, despite the best efforts of the parents."
At a party in La Jolla in summer 2002, Cravens, 17, was accused of punching Thomas Barrow in the head as many as 20 times, causing hearing loss and jaw damage.
Barrow, also 17, was beaten after he came to the defense of a young woman Cravens allegedly had threatened to hit.
"I remember trying to shield my head and thinking, 'Don't fight back.' If I were to fight back, I'd have 10 people on me," Barrow recalls.
Barrow's mother, Clare, was horrified when she saw his bruised and lumpy face. "My son was not the first," she says.
The family pressed charges. The San Diego County probation department recommended that Cravens be prosecuted in juvenile court.
Cravens' parents, however, sent him to live with relatives in Hawaii. The Barrows say prosecutors explained that they didn't press ahead because Cravens no longer was a threat.
Cravens' parents had hoped he'd mellow after a year in the islands. He didn't. Court documents allege Cravens was involved in at least five beatings.
Last fall, he and friends showed up uninvited at a party thrown by Libby Schneider, 16.
When Libby asked Cravens to leave, he allegedly hit her chin and slugged the tearful girl in the chest.
Libby's dad, David Blende, confronted Cravens' father on the phone.
"I told him I thought his son was out of control," Blende told police. "He was polite and apologized. I got the impression he had heard these reports before about his son and was kind of at wit's end."
Blende, a San Francisco dentist who was staying with his daughter while his ex-wife traveled, did not press charges. When asked about his decision, he says he was afraid Cravens might retaliate and he'd be unable to protect his daughter and ex-wife from 600 miles away.
On New Year's Eve 2006, all five men accused in Kauanui's death &
Cravens, House, Osuna, Yanke and Hendricks &
were among a group who tried to crash a party at — a.m.
Stopped at the door of the La Jolla home, Cravens and Hendricks allegedly started swinging. One man told police Hendricks opened a gash in his head that needed stitches. Another recalled being sucker-punched, then falling to the ground, where he was kicked in the head. Standing over him, he said, was Cravens, who allegedly warned: "I'm going to ... kill you."
The intruders bolted before police arrived.
"I didn't want to explain why I had blood on my hands," Hendricks later told authorities investigating Kauanui's death.
early May, Cravens had become so notorious for fighting that The Shack Bar Grill banned him and his friends. The final straw came after a patron, walking to his car, was beaten bloody.
The next day, this message was posted on a MySpace Web page that authorities say belonged to Cravens: "Bird Rock Bandits: May 10, 2007 3:32 p.m. ... I can't go to the shack for a while because I murdered someone hahahaha no biggie call me up and lets get krunk" (sic).
But the door was still open for Cravens and the Bandits at another popular spot, the La Jolla Brew House. Two weeks after the beating at The Shack, they stepped inside.
Emery Kauanui practically owned Windansea Beach, home to one of the most famous breaks along La Jolla's rocky coast. In the mid-1960s, author Tom Wolfe immortalized the spot and its rowdy locals in his essay, "The Pump House Gang."
Kauanui started surfing there when he was a teen, after his mother, Cindy, moved her three sons from Hawaii in 1992 in the wake of a divorce from Emery Sr., a Kauai native.
The lanky kid was soon nicknamed "The Flying Hawaiian" because of his dazzling aerial maneuvers. No one dominated Windansea's left-breaking wave better than Kauanui.
Recognizing Kauanui's potential marketability, surf shops and board shapers hustled to recruit him. Among his first sponsors was Lightning Bolt Surfboards, founded by Gerry Lopez, who in the 1970s had carved the waves of Hawaii's famed Pipeline with a skill and grace never before seen.
No one seemed to have more friends than Kauanui, mostly fellow surfers who were attracted to his big heart and positive nature.
"So many people don't enjoy their life and here's this kid loving every minute of it," says Todd Bartlett, whose Liquid Foundation surf shop was a sponsor. "He was never crying about nothing."
"But Kauanui was a surfer, not a saint. The aggressiveness, even recklessness, that helped him excel on a board occasionally surfaced &
especially when alcohol was involved.
In 2003, on the Fourth of July, Kauanui was drinking at the Orlando World Center Marriott with Michael Penu, 20, of Tarpon Springs, Fla., whom he'd just met. Kauanui grabbed a beer from a duffel bag next to Penu's chair.
When Penu asked him to put it back, Kauanui erupted.
A police report said Kauanui punched Penu in the face and threw a beer bottle at him above the left eye. Blood was still flowing from the 4-inch gash when police arrived. Kauanui pleaded guilty to felony assault. He was sentenced to 18 months' probation and ordered to make restitution.
One year later, he grabbed a surfer in Oceanside around the throat. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery.
That case had barely been resolved when Florida authorities issued an arrest warrant accusing Kauanui of violating probation by failing to make court payments. For nearly a month, he sat in a San Diego County jail awaiting extradition.
His mother was deeply worried about his drinking and his life beyond the waves. She would not bail him out.
"It was his time to grow, his time to change," she says. "It was very hard as a mom, but I had to stick to my guns."
Kauanui vowed to be more responsible. He pledged the same to his girlfriend, Jenny Grosso.
"I wanted him to succeed so badly," she says.
On the Wednesday before Memorial Day, the two decided to meet at La Jolla Brew House. "It's all about the BRB!" Cravens yelled above the voices and music in the Brew House, his face close to the video lens.
"Bird Rock Bandits!" shouted Matthew Yanke. A videographer was shooting footage for a promotional piece, but the Bandits kept crowding him, so he stopped filming.
"These guys were getting in my face. They were wound up," he says. "It was uncomfortable."
Jenny Grosso saw the men as she danced with Kauanui.
"Here comes trouble," she thought.
Grosso had known Cravens for years. He once was close to Kauanui's younger brother, Nigel. Even though she was disgusted with the Bird Rock Bandits, Cravens had always been friendly. She asked how he was doing.
"'I smoked seven blunts today,'" Grosso says he replied.
"Glad you're doing so well," she responded sarcastically.
As Kauanui danced, he spilled a beer on Eric House. Grosso says it was an accident. House contends Kauanui intentionally doused him because he was talking to Grosso. The two started arguing.
The Brew House booted out Kauanui. House left after the bar's security man confirmed the drunken patron was underage.
Because Kauanui had been drinking, Grosso drove him home in his car and then jogged back to retrieve hers from a parking lot near the bar. She saw Cravens and the others jump into a black Ford Explorer.
"'I know where he lives,'" she quoted Cravens as saying. "'Let's go f""- him up.'"
Grosso burst into the Brew House.
"Emery's going to get jumped!" she screamed.
then, Kauanui and House had already decided during a cell phone conversation to fight. Inside the SUV, Cravens pumped up his friend, according to an account by one of the participants.
"You can beat Emery," Cravens said. "You can win."
Just after 1:30 a.m., the Explorer rolled up to Kauanui's home. Kauanui emerged and stripped off his shirt.
The fight began as a one-on-one between House and Kauanui, who quickly got the better of it. He knocked out House's front tooth. Neighbors, who called 911, yelled that police were on the way.
When Grosso arrived, House was straddling Kauanui.Although small and slender, she started kicking House with all her power until Hendricks pulled her away.
Neighbors say that as many as four men pounded Kauanui with their feet and fists. Other witnesses say that only two, maybe three, joined the fracas.
But there's no disagreement over the final punch, the one that buckled Kauanui's knees and dropped him backward to the pavement with a crack. He was hit with a hard left to the head by Cravens, who intervened while House stumbled around looking for his tooth.
Cravens told investigators he acted in self-defense after the 145-pound surfer took a swing. Witnesses told police that he sucker-punched Kauanui.
As blood pooled around Kauanui's head, the men fled, except for House, who was still searching for his tooth when police arrived. Officers arrested him on suspicion of battery.
Kauanui was transported to the University of California, San Diego, Medical Center, where he was treated for bleeding in the brain, facial fractures and multiple contusions. He was alert.
Three days later, Kauanui's condition worsened. His brain was swelling. As doctors wheeled him into surgery, his mother called Cravens' mother.
"My son's been badly beaten, and your son did it," she informed Karen Cravens. "He might not live."
She says the response was muted, something like: "Oh, OK."
"Maybe she was in shock," Cindy says.
On Memorial Day, four days after the fight, Emery Kauanui was pronounced dead, sending a wave of anger through La Jolla and the San Diego surfing community.
When homicide detectives arrived on the Cravens' porch the next day, the father said simply: "Come in. We were expecting you."
Only Hendricks, not yet identified as a suspect, remained free. The others now were wearing the blue uniforms of the San Diego County Jail.
Two weeks after Kauanui's death, 300 surfers stroked into the ocean at Windansea. Hundreds more lined the beach and bluffs for the traditional Hawaiian "paddle out" ceremony.
The surfers formed a circle around a boat that carried Cindy. With youngest son Nigel beside her, Cindy poured Kauanui's ashes into the sea. Within days, she and Nigel returned to Hawaii.
Locals laugh off the idea of the Bird Rock Bandits as a gang. Their families and friends say the gangster tag is wrong. They describe the accused as gentle and caring boys who've been demonized by overzealous prosecutors.
Prosecutors, however, were unmoved. The four suspects had barely been fingerprinted when police received two dozen calls alleging that some of these same guys had been terrorizing the town for years.
Homicide detectives investigated. In September, a slew of assault, battery, intimidation and "gang-enhancement" charges were added to the murder counts. This meant prosecutors could introduce the earlier cases of alleged violence during trial to prove that the Bird Rock Bandits fit the legal definition of a gang and that its members should be subjected to stiffer sentences.
A new defendant was added: Hendricks, who may not have struck Kauanui but did admit to restraining the surfer's girlfriend and fleeing the scene.
The preliminary hearing is still months away, but the La Jolla Light already has offered its verdict in an editorial headlined "Bird Rock Bandits are our own creation."
The weekly newspaper argued that the defendants do not "represent some mutant strain of the La Jolla lifestyle." Like other young people, they found sustenance in the beach and in partying, beyond the control of parents, schools, churches and police.
"How does a group of wayward young men openly embark on a lifestyle that is so repugnant to our communal standards and not feel the pinch of public censure until it is too late? How does a smart, caring community like La Jolla allow this kind of behavior for so long without taking notice?"
Police Chief Bill Lansdowne says officers can pursue only crimes they know about. The majority of victims, he says, did not file complaints. In some cases, witnesses were reluctant to cooperate or were unreliable because they'd been drinking.
Lansdowne says the department was surprised by the volume of calls after Kauanui's death and investigated those cases vigorously, leading to the additional charges.
"This was a unique case," the chief says. "It's unfair to say we didn't do enough."
Others point to a culture of fighting that has existed for years in La Jolla and neighboring San Diego coastal communities, a culture stoked by alcohol.
"I think this has been La Jolla's dirty little secret," says the high school's varsity football coach, David Ponsford. "No one has wanted to address it."
Kauanui's death has pushed the problems of drinking and brawling onto a public stage. On Labor Day, three months after Kauanui's death, 17 people were arrested after a drunken free-for-all erupted on Pacific Beach, south of La Jolla. Police in riot gear were pelted with beer cans and plastic bottles.
As a result, the San Diego City Council voted to ban alcohol for one year on city beaches, a restriction imposed long ago by virtually every other city along the Southern California coast. Alcohol already had been banned on four La Jolla beaches.
Many community leaders and residents say the Kauanui case has been a wake-up call. Cleveland, the Town Council president, says there's plenty of responsibility to go around: parents, police, money, alcohol and, most important, the defendants themselves.
"These kids had been doing this since high school," she says. "It was hidden in plain sight. That's the crux of the tragedy. It could have been avoided if people had spoken up about it more vociferously. As a result, six young lives are basically over."
Times researcher John L. Jackson contributed to this story.