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Parents bristle at 'fight club' charges

They call the Murrieta case an exaggeration. Police say there were assaults and robberies.

February 21, 2007|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

After a hearing for eight young men accused of participating in or associating with a Murrieta "fight club" that police say graduated from backyard brawls to armed burglaries, robberies and assaults, the parents of several defendants accused the police of grossly exaggerating their sons' activities.

"I don't know where they got this 'fight club' stuff," said Helen Valle, the mother of 21-year-old Martin Valle Jr., who was arrested on weapons charges. "These are kids that have gone to school together since they were little kids.... I think it's ridiculous. I think they should focus on the real criminals that are out on the street, like child molesters and rapists."

Anne Unmacht, the mother of 21-year-old William Unmacht IV -- one of the defendants charged with burglary, grand theft auto and receiving stolen property -- said her son was involved in anti-gang activities and was wearing an anti-gang T-shirt when police showed up to arrest him.

"I hope and pray there's a balance in here," she said tearfully in the courthouse hallway. "I know my son has a good heart.... They're not monsters," she said of his co-defendants.

One defense attorney cautioned that the reputations of those charged with lesser crimes were being tarnished because they were being linked with the defendants facing more serious charges.

"I think we need to slow down and maybe not lump all these kids together," said Jeffrey Van Wagenen Jr., attorney for Simon Johnson, 20.

Family and friends of the defendants, many of whom attended Murrieta Valley High School together, gathered outside a courtroom at the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta after the hearing. The defendants' attorneys asked for, and got, a delay in the arraignment until March 1 and did not enter pleas on behalf of their clients.

The eight defendants were arrested Thursday, along with a juvenile who is being prosecuted separately. Three additional defendants, who either turned themselves in or were arrested over the weekend, will be arraigned this morning.

The charges filed against the 11 adult defendants by the Riverside County district attorney's office Tuesday revolve around incidents since February 2006.

Charges against the two men investigators call ringleaders -- 20-year-old Michael Petty and 19-year-old Anthony Smith -- include armed burglary and grand theft auto at a home in September, and an October burglary of an LA Fitness gym in Temecula, where weights, computers and furniture were stolen.

Other defendants were charged with participating in some of those crimes. Two of the defendants, 18-year-old Travis Erickson and 20-year-old Travis Baker, are charged with arson for allegedly burning the equipment stolen from LA Fitness.

Though police said the "fight club" grew out of a football team club whose members injected themselves with anabolic steroids, only two defendants were charged with possession of drugs. Smith was charged with possession of steroids, Darvocet and Vicodin.

A district attorney's spokeswoman said the defendants would get sentences of two to 25 years if convicted.

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maeve.reston@latimes.com

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