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Expected fight is a no-show on beach in Malibu

Surfers and paparazzi back off as sheriff's deputies enforce calm at the scene of last weekend's brawls.

June 29, 2008|Harriet Ryan | Times Staff Writer

After hundreds of Internet threats and the mobilization of sheriff's deputies by air, land and sea, Saturday's much-anticipated revival of the paparazzi-surfer war in Malibu came down to this:

One woman with a handwritten sign and an unflinching desire to make a point.

Unable to enlist her paparazzi colleagues, freelance photographer Jennifer Buhl walked alone down Little Dume beach, site of last weekend's brawls, and planted the sign reading, "America's beaches should be free and accessible" in front of a group of jeering surfers.

She was greeted with obscene gestures, profane catcalls and the close attention of deputies. But not a single punch, bottle or handful of sand was thrown. No arrests, no citations.

The scene provided a sharp contrast to June 21, when a dozen photographers shooting actor Matthew McConaughey surfing squared off with a group of young men who ordered them off the beach at Little Dume. Last Sunday, a second fight broke out when paparazzi returned to shoot McConaughey.

Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives are investigating the incidents but say those involved have been slow to come forward.

So far, investigators have identified six people injured, including five photographers and a beachgoer.

Residents of Malibu have complained about aggressive tactics of celebrity photographers in the city.

After the beach fights, Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich and Sheriff Lee Baca said they were forming a task force to research ways to rein in what the mayor called "a new breed of paparazzi."

Based on Web chatter about a "grudge match," authorities had deployed extra personnel Saturday -- they declined to say how many -- on foot and in all-terrain vehicles, a helicopter and two boats.

About 20 paparazzi trekked to the secluded coastline from the public beach at Paradise Cove but then debated what they should do. When Buhl, 37, urged the group to continue walking toward the surfers about 30 yards away, paparazzo Rett Hilton asked warily, "How far are you going to take it?"

"It's all a public beach," Buhl answered.

"But you're just razzing people up," Hilton said.

Buhl eventually set out on her own to plant her sign, saying her colleagues, many of whom are foreign, did not understand the principle.

"It's not about Matthew McConaughey. It's about the assumption these people have about what is private," she said. "I did this as an American, not as a photographer."

The reaction to the sign was quick and negative.

"We don't come to your backyard! Get out," one young man said.

Deputies intervened, ordering all the paparazzi but Buhl to the edge of the beach. Eventually, they asked her to leave too.

McConaughey spent the day in the editing room working on his new movie, "Surfer Dude," according to his publicist. "He feels badly that anything is going on," said Alan Nierob. "He's going to continue surfing."

Tyler Slade, who lives nearby, called the entire situation "ridiculous." As a helicopter roared over his head, he said, "Cops going up and down the beach. People fighting. This is not why we live in Malibu."

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harriet.ryan@latimes.com

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