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COLUMN ONE

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 16, 2007|By Joel Sappell | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Grosso had known Cravens for years. He used to be close to Kauanui's younger brother, Nigel. Even though she was disgusted with the whole Bird Rock Bandits thing, Cravens had always been friendly. So she asked how he was doing. " 'I smoked seven blunts today,' " Grosso says he replied. "Glad you're doing so well," she responded sarcastically.

Then trouble came.

As Kauanui danced, he spilled a beer on House. Grosso says it was an accident. House contends that a jealous Kauanui intentionally doused him because he was talking to Grosso. Whatever the truth, the two started arguing loudly.

The Brew House's security man stepped in. House and Kauanui said everything was cool, that they'd known each other for years. "Friends shouldn't be acting that way," the bouncer said, according to police reports. Within 15 minutes, they were at it again.

The Brew House booted Kauanui. House left on his own after the bar's security man asked for ID and realized 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 says 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.' "

Panicked, Grosso burst into the Brew House. "Emery's going to get jumped!" she screamed, and then ran to her car and headed back to Draper Avenue. By then, Kauanui and House had already decided during a cellphone conversation to fight.

Inside the SUV, Cravens pumped up his friend, according to an account provided to police by one of the participants. "You can beat Emery," Cravens said. "You can win."

It was just after 1:30 a.m. when the Explorer rolled up to the home that Kauanui's mother envisioned as a refuge. Kauanui emerged through the front door and stripped off his shirt.

Exactly what unfolded next, during a three-minute swirl of violence, is in dispute. The street was dark, the action fast. Eyewitness accounts conflict in small and significant ways. There is, however, a measure of consensus on this much:

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 as they traded blows on the street. Neighbors, who called 911, yelledthat police were on the way.

When Grosso arrived, she says, House was straddling the surfer. Although small and slender, she started kicking House with all her power -- until Hendricks pulled her away. "It was the worst moment of my life," she says.

Neighbors, watching from a balcony across the street, say that as many as four young 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. Other witnesses told police that he sucker-punched Kauanui, reminiscent of what previous alleged victims had said of his style of combat.

As blood pooled around Kauanui's head where it struck the street, the young men fled, except for House, who was still searching for his tooth when police arrived. Splattered with blood, he was arrested on suspicion of battery. Officers interviewed Grosso and others at the scene.

Kauanui was transported to UC San Diego Medical Center, where he was treated for bleeding in the brain, facial fractures and multiple contusions. He was alert.

The next morning, as word of the fight spread, one of Grosso's closest friends says Yanke, in tears, called her.

" 'I'm so scared. This can't happen to me,' " Dana Hofflet, 21, recalledhim saying. "He kept begging me to let people know that it wasn't his fault."

Hendricks also got on the phone, she says. He insisted that no one wanted Kauanui to be hurt so badly. "I think they figured that maybe if I believed them that I could make other people believe them," says Hofflet, who refused to be their surrogate.

Three days later, despite encouraging early signs, Kauanui's condition suddenly worsened. His brain was swelling. As doctors wheeled him into surgery, his mom was overcome with a powerful need to call Cravens' mother. "I was hurting and I wanted her to know."

Sitting in the hospital cafeteria, Cindy got the number from information and dialed.

"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.

By now, Cravens, like the others, was worried, says longtime friend Schneider.

" 'What should I do? What should I do?' " Schneider recalls him saying.

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