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Death in a seaside paradise

The five friends played football, partied -- and occasionally brawled. Now they're accused of killing a surfer. La Jolla mourns and asks: Why?

December 15, 2007|Joel Sappell | Times Staff Writer

They are sons of La Jolla, five friends who came of age on the edge of the Pacific.

They all played on La Jolla High School's football team. One was the defensive player of the year. Another was a star quarterback mentored by former pro standout Doug Flutie, who said he'd be proud to have the boy as his own.

Off the field, they cruised around town and hung out in picturesque coves beneath bluffs lined with spectacular homes. As they grew from youngsters to young men, they also became known as partyers who 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 under $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 a spree of under-the-radar assaults spanning several years by the Bird Rock Bandits, which allegedly had morphed from a party crew into a street gang that intimidated and beat young adults in La Jolla.

Kauanui's death -- and the violent encounters that came before -- has generated a wave of soul-searching in this seaside haven of 50,000 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? Could the laid-back culture of La Jolla itself have created a climate of permissiveness, especially when it came to alcohol and fighting?

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 of following Kauanui home, jumping him gang-style on the street and beating him unconscious with their fists and feet --intending to inflict serious harm.

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.

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 was well-acquainted with his alleged killers, instigated the fight and that several of the accused did not throw a single punch. The death, they say, was accidental.

"This wasn't a killing," says one of Cravens' attorneys, Alan Spears. "It was a fistfight."

Whatever happens in court, La Jolla's veneer of tranquillity has been stripped away. 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. She knows how the ocean breezes can seem to blow away the ills that settle on other places.

"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," she says. "But you can only do that for so long."

A pattern of violence

For years, Seth Cravens had cut a menacing presence. He had big, punishing fists, and he liked to use them. He always seemed to have an entourage that appreciated his loyalty and protection.

"He definitely liked to be intimidating," says buddy Matthew Schneider. He was such a confident puncher that most adversaries would back away to save themselves, Schneider says. "I've never seen him get dropped."

Schneider says Cravens was the "odd one out" in a family of 13 brothers and sisters. 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, according to Schneider and others.

Cravens' parents tried hard to control him, says one of his sisters, Sarah. They grounded him, took away his video games and lectured him on respect for authority.

"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."

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