EL CAJON — A tattoo artist testified Thursday that a homeless man appeared neither drunk nor dismayed when he had the word "BUMFIGHT" tattooed on his forehead at the behest of a group of underground filmmakers.
Donald Brennan did more than paint himself for the young men with the movie camera. He brawled with a good friend, a stunt that left him with a broken ankle. Nonetheless, Brennan seemed convinced that his film career was going places, tattoo artist Eric Blose testified Thursday.
"He told me he was going to be a movie star," Blose told Superior Court Judge Larrie Brainard. "He seemed sober to me, he was coherent.... He seemed like he was stoked. He was dancing around."
Blose's testimony came on the first day of a preliminary hearing for the four friends accused of multiple felonies for arranging for homeless people and others living in marginal circumstances to perform stunts and engage in fights for "Bumfights," a video sold over the Internet for $20.
Ryan McPherson, 19; Zachary Bubeck, 25; Daniel J. Tanner, 21; and Michael Slyman, 21, have pleaded not guilty to a variety of felony charges, including solicitation of a felony -- battery -- and conspiracy to promote an illegal fight.
But their lawyers argue that the four deserve the same protections as big-name Hollywood filmmakers who hire people to do risky stunts. Also, they argue that the stunts and fights were done voluntarily.
"I don't think a crime has been committed," defense attorney Michael Pancer said outside court.
"There's some behavior that a police officer finds repugnant but it doesn't rise to the level of a criminal statute."
The charges have not dampened the enthusiasm of the filmmakers, who called themselves the Bumfight Krew. On their Web site, they posted an announcement about the criminal case:
"Despite all this nonsense," it reads, "we at 'Bumfights' would like you to know that the video is still for sale, and as long as there is a 1st Amendment in this country, it's gonna take a lot more than that to shut us down."
The defendants hired men and, in one case, a woman known as Porkchop, to perform the stunts. Pay ranged from $5 to $100. Some quickly spent the money on alcohol.
"Sometimes we done the stunts three or four times to get the right angles for the video," testified Rufus Hannah, 47. Hannah and two other men who were part of the "Bumfights" video are suing the four filmmakers for damages.
Hannah testified that he was paid to run headfirst into packing crates behind a supermarket, throw doughnuts at his friend and break open a gumball machine. He said he was also paid to hit and choke his longtime friend, Brennan, 53, a Vietnam veteran who, like Hannah, was homeless and spent his days drinking.
The fight took place in the parking lot of an abandoned Taco Bell, while dozens of teenagers and young adults watched. Brennan suffered a broken ankle and was treated by paramedics who answered an emergency call.
Hannah and Brennan also volunteered to act as walking advertisements for the filmmakers' venture, according to testimony.
Hannah had "BUMFIGHT" tattooed on his knuckles. Brennan had the same phrase -- and a picture of a small whiskey bottle -- tattooed on his forehead.
Tattoo artist Blose bridled at the suggestion that he had done something improper. "I do have morals," he said. "I would not place a tattoo on the forehead of an individual who didn't want one."
Peter LaForte, 30, testified that he was attacked by Porkchop even though he had declined the filmmakers' offer of $20 to fight her. LaForte said Porkchop jumped on his back, chipping a tooth as his mouth was slammed into a beachfront fountain where he had been taking a drink.
As captured on the video, shot in the Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Diego, LaForte turned around and began hitting Porkchop.
"I feel bad about punching this girl," LaForte said. "I snapped out of my blackout rage. I am disappointed at this tape."
He said that when he refused to fight Porkchop, she was taunted into action by the filmmakers. "When I said it was stupid to fight, they said [to Porkchop], 'Oh, he's calling you stupid,' " he testified.
Hannah said he had been promised $50,000 by the filmmakers, money he never received. He added that when police began investigating the case, the four defendants helped him move to Las Vegas to make it more difficult for him to be interviewed. McPherson is from the San Diego suburb of La Mesa; the other three defendants are from Las Vegas.
Asked why he thought the four asked him to be part of their video, Hannah said, "Because I look stupid."
Although the video was denounced in the House of Representatives and around the nation as an exploitation of the homeless, it reportedly sold 300,000 copies, according to police. Sales zoomed when the effort came to the attention of radio shock jock Howard Stern, who mentioned it repeatedly on his nationally syndicated show.
The preliminary hearing resumes today before Brainard, who will decide whether the four should stand trial. If convicted on all charges, the men could face up to six years in prison.