SAN DIEGO — Four of five La Jolla men initially charged with murder in the beating death of a professional surfer pleaded guilty to lesser charges Friday.
The fifth defendant, accused of delivering the fatal blow, rejected a plea bargain and still faces murder charges.
What began that night in May 2007 as a barroom argument ended in a fatal confrontation -- with Emery Kauanui, 24, bleeding from his head outside his mother's La Jolla home. Kauanui died three days later, after being treated for bleeding in the brain, facial fractures and multiple contusions.
The defendants, all former La Jolla High School football players, had faced possible sentences of life in prison.
The reduced charges carry sentences from three to five years, but the judge is not bound by the plea agreement and could put them on probation at the September sentencing, officials said.
The case gained unusual notoriety because it involved the death of a surfer in La Jolla, and neither the sport nor the neighborhood usually is associated with such violence.
Prosecutors originally alleged that the men, who called themselves the Bird Rock Bandits, constituted a gang whose main purpose was criminality. But Superior Court Judge John Einhorn rejected that allegation last month after a lengthy preliminary hearing.
Eric House, 21; Orlando Osuna, 23; and Matthew Yanke, 21, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and misdemeanor battery. Henri Hendricks, 22, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of being an accessory.
"All the young men in this case are grief-stricken about what happened," said Yanke's attorney, Kerry Steigerwalt. "They finally got a chance to put an end to it in a fairly equitable resolution."
Yanke said that he is "intensely sorry for what happened. We all are."
Hendricks' attorney, Richard Gates, said his client "has always known it was the wrong thing to do" and realizes he should have gone to Kauanui's defense.
Mary Ellen Attridge, attorney for Seth Cravens, 22, told reporters after Friday's hearing that she feels confident about her client's case.
Cravens' trial is due to start in August.
But Attridge said he should be charged with involuntary manslaughter, not murder.
"I think the plea bargains help my case," she said.
Kauanui's death roiled La Jolla, where residents questioned whether too little had been done about previous violent incidents involving the Bird Rock Bandits. The group's name refers to Bird Rock, a small seaside enclave in La Jolla.
Cravens remains in jail in lieu of $1.5-million bail. The other four defendants have been free on bail.
The incident allegedly began with Kauanui spilling beer on House at a local bar after a surfing event.
It ended in a street brawl hours later.
The district attorney's office declined comment on the case and the plea bargains.
Kauanui, known in surfing circles as the Flying Hawaiian, was a regular at Windansea Beach, a surf "break" made famous by Tom Wolfe in his 1968 paean to surf culture, "The Pump House Gang."