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Fight Videos Spark Outcry, Charges

September 29, 2002|BETH SILVER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LA MESA, Calif. — For months, the dark videos with the homemade feel beamed out over the Web site: Bedraggled men beating each other to a pulp. A scruffy street person ramming his head into a wall. Another poor fellow ripping out his own tooth with a pair of pliers.

But Bumfights.com offered only snippets. If you wanted a full dose of street mayhem you had to pay for the full video--at $19.95 a pop. By some accounts, 300,000 copies were sold.

Howls of protest ensued. Advocates for the homeless demanded that the young men promoting the video be prosecuted. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) called for a federal investigation.

But the FBI said it didn't have jurisdiction and prosecutors in Las Vegas--where Bumfights.com makes its home--saw no crime. It took the persistence of a nurse in the San Diego suburbs--disgusted by the repeated injuries to a homeless man who brawled for cash and 40-ounce beers--to get authorities to crack down last week on the "bum fights."

Now three Las Vegas men--Zachary Bubeck, Michael Slyman and Daniel Tanner--and Ryan McPherson, a La Mesa man who had long ago befriended the homeless video stars, stand charged with a felony for allegedly soliciting the violent acts.

McPherson, 19, spent a couple of nights in jail before posting $20,000 bail. He also faces four counts of witness dissuasion for allegedly offering two of the street people $25,000 each not to talk to police.

Through their lawyers, the defendants insist that they did nothing to provoke the edgy and often bloody scenes that unfold in their video "Bumfights: A Cause for Concern Volume 1."

According to one defense lawyer, the prosecution by La Mesa police and the San Diego district attorney's office is illegally chilling the burgeoning art of underground video.

Friendship, Anger

And the street-worn pugilists? They continue to soak in a sort of lukewarm celebrity, saying they still consider the young video-makers friends, but expressing anger that they were pushed so far and not paid what they say they were promised.

It was McPherson who first made contact with the homeless men who would become video stars: Rufus Hannah, 47, and his best friend, Donald Brennan, 53.

McPherson was a sophomore at Grossmont High School in La Mesa when he began filming them for fun, in addition to his normal subjects: neighborhood skateboarders. He saw the men almost every day and had them over for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, his attorney said.

Over the last two years, Hannah and Brennan say, they were each paid about $1,000 to appear in the videos--riding in a shopping cart down a flight of stairs, setting their hair afire, jumping off roofs and running head-first into glass signs and metal garbage bins.

A boarded-up former Taco Bell in this San Diego suburb served as the backdrop, as did several locations in Las Vegas, where the men were taken to film more scenes.

"When you never know where your next meal is coming from, you'll do anything to get one," said Brennan, who was dubbed "Braindead" in the videos. He spoke from his usual perch on a curb behind a gas station in La Mesa, a beer by his side and a cigarette in his hand.

Aside from the occasional odd job, Brennan said, his only other income is a monthly $306 check from Veterans Affairs.

The duo said their pay varied. Sometimes they'd get 50 bucks. Sometimes they were given a hotel room for the night and a pizza. Always, they were handed a 12-pack of beer. And they say they were each promised $50,000 that they never saw.

But the payments came at a price. Hannah split his head open and Brennan broke a leg and an ankle. They think the video producers went too far, exploiting their thirst for beer and a little cash and making increasingly demented requests.

"Things started getting weirder and weirder," Brennan said. "He wanted us to ram our heads into stuff and throw us off cliffs. He knew if he got us inebriated he could take advantage of that."

On one of their three trips to Las Vegas, Brennan and Hannah say, they were plied with alcohol by the video makers and taken to a tattoo parlor. Brennan emerged with "Bumfight" and a beer bottle tattooed across his forehead. Hannah bears the same message across his knuckles.

Not Guilty Pleas

Three of the defendants--McPherson, Bubeck, 24, and Tanner, 21--have pleaded not guilty. An attorney for Slyman, 21, filed a challenge Friday asking the court to dismiss the soliciting charge. Lawyers for all the defendants joined in arguing that the criminal complaint is too vague as to who was assaulted and when the injuries were caused.

McPherson's attorney, Jan Ronis, said the teenager gave Brennan and Hannah money out of sympathy, not to encourage them to perform or fight for the camera.

"They never encouraged, aided or abetted or solicited and clearly never paid these guys to do anything illegal," Ronis said. "This casts a chill on the underground movie industry or any documentary industry."

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