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Arrests made in Inland `Fight Club'

Ex-Murrieta Valley High football players `started out as bullies and graduated' to robberies, assaults, an officer says.

February 16, 2007|Sara Lin and Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writers

Eight former students of Murrieta Valley High School, including former football players accused of belonging to a "Fight Club" gang, were arrested Thursday on suspicion of waging a crime spree of robberies, burglaries and assaults over two years.

The gang was founded in 2004 by a group of football players who injected anabolic steroids to enhance their performance on the field -- and beat up students who "disrespected" their members, said Lt. Dennis Vrooman, spokesman for the Murrieta Police Department.

The suspects started calling themselves "Fight Club" and would challenge one another to fistfights outside the Murrieta school -- attracting groups of juvenile spectators, police said. The gang appears to have been modeled on the gang depicted in the 1999 film "Fight Club," starring Brad Pitt.

"They essentially started out as bullies in the school and graduated to crimes of violence," Vrooman said. They had dog tags and baseball caps with an "FC" logo, he said.

Members of the gang would case homes in Murrieta and neighboring Temecula while attending parties, and come back days later to burglarize the residences, investigators allege. They first stole guns, which were later used in robberies at liquor stores and gas stations, Vrooman said.

Members of the gang attempted a home-invasion robbery and committed a car theft, two cases of arson, multiple armed robberies, false imprisonment and several assaults, police said.

Four of the suspects were arrested on suspicion of participating in a criminal street gang, which when considered with the other allegations could lead to a life sentence if convicted, Vrooman said.

The arrests came after a six-month investigation by the Murrieta-Temecula Regional Gang Task Force.

Tim Hales, commander of the task force, said several of those taken into custody came from good neighborhoods.

"They're not poor kids," Hales said. "These are kids that came from good families, for the most part."

Hales added that not all of those arrested were active in the gang: "Not all are Fight Club members; some are active members and some are associates.''

Those arrested were Travis Brenn Baker, 20, of Winchester; Christopher David Owen Bredesen, 18, of Murrieta; Gilberto Cuevas, 18, of Murrieta; Simon Lyle Johnson, 20, of Murrieta; Nathan R. Martinez, 21, of La Habra; Michael Robert Petty, 20, of Murrieta; William J. Unmacht IV, 21, of Murrieta; and Martin Arturo Valle, 21, of Murrieta. A 17-year-old from Murrieta, a student at the school, also was arrested.

Three suspects remain at large, including Anthony Craig Smith, 19, of Murrieta, who is accused of stealing a motorcycle and setting it ablaze, police said.

The father of Simon Johnson said in a telephone interview Thursday that his son knew the other suspects but was not involved in the Fight Club.

He said police told him that Johnson, who was charged with possession of stolen property and possession of a concealable firearm, may have been present when a stolen firearm was sold. Detectives had questioned the father and others about a firearm that was said to have disappeared from a house after a party.

After that, Johnson's father said, his son disassociated himself from the others and has been working for a flooring company.

"When all this started ... Simon made the choice to say, 'These guys are bad news,' and he cut the cord with them," said Johnson's father, who declined to give his first name.

The father of the 17-year-old said the teen was on the football team. Police officials told him his son's arrest was related to a posting that was interpreted as a threat, he said.

Family members of Cuevas, Petty and Valle declined to comment. Family members of Baker, Bredesen, Martinez and Unmacht could not be reached for comment.

Murrieta Valley High School Principal Renate Jefferson declined to comment about the arrests.

As for the allegation by police that football team members used steroids, Jefferson said that coaches at the school regularly warn students about the dangers of using those performance-enhancing substances, as well as drugs and alcohol.

Lance Neal, hired as the school's football coach last year, described one suspect -- Nathan Martinez -- as a former star running back for the team.

"He was a great running back. I've seen him around, and he was an awesome, awesome player," Neal said. "Other than that, I didn't have any interaction with the kid."

Former Murrieta Valley Athletic Director Dave Zirkle said he knew of three of the former players -- Martinez, Petty and Unmacht -- adding that Unmacht's father was an assistant coach while his son played for the team.

"This is the first I've heard of it. The charges sound like a novel or that someone is writing a movie or something," said Zirkle, who retired in 2004. "They were never in trouble that I knew of. They were good students and good kids," Zirkle said.

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