Emery Kauanui Jr. went from a golden life of surf, sun and success to a brutal beating death over a spilled beer. His death presents a thorny issue to the legal system — but to his mother, it means only heartbreak.
“When he walked into a room, he’d light it up,” Cindy Kauanui told TODAY’s Ann Curry on Thursday. “He was an amazing child.”
She said Emery will be remembered as a rising professional surfer with a swelling wave of support from within the affluent community he lived and beyond. But his violent death last year has left a wake of anguish for his family — and questions for the courts.
Five former football players from the beautiful seaside town of La Jolla, Calif., are facing charges of first-degree murder in connection with the death of the 24-year-old Kauanui in May 2007.
As prosecutors present evidence of previous violence by the so-called “Bird Rock Bandits” in continuing hearings at San Diego Superior Court, the defense is countering that the notorious group should not be tried as a gang and that the incident does not constitute gang violence.
But all Cindy Kauanui knows is that her son was the final victim of a group that, locals say, was accustomed to preying on others without punishment.
“I think it would have happened to somebody eventually, because they have a history,” she said. “I do think that it’s the condition of their hearts or something. There’s something seriously wrong with these kids.”
“It’s not the first time that it’s happened,” added Nigel Kauanui, Emery’s brother. “There have been stories of people who can’t have dreams of flying [on] airplanes because they’ve been hit the wrong way by these guys. There are a lot of things they’ve done to people.”
Night of the fight
The five men facing charges — Seth Cravens, 22; Eric House, 21; Orlando Osuna, 23; Matthew Yanke, 21; and Henri “Hank” Hendricks, 22 — all played for La Jolla High School's football team.
While Kauanui was not friends with the group, he did know of them.
“My brother was one of the types of dudes who had acquaintances across the nation,” Nigel Kauanui said. “He had friends everywhere. He was the most likable person I knew. So for him to be acquainted with these people in this situation was not a shock to me. He would shake anyone’s hand.”
What spurred the fight that ended Kauanui’s life was reportedly a beer spilled on Eric House as Kauanui danced at the La Jolla Brew House. An argument ensued between the two before a security man stepped in and both relented. But within 15 minutes, they were at it again.
Kauanui and House were both thrown out of the bar. Kauanui’s friend, Jenny Grosso, drove him home because he had been drinking. When she jogged back to get her own car, Grosso claims she saw Cravens in a nearby parking lot telling his friends, “I know where he lives” and promising violence as they got into a black Ford Explorer.
The car arrived just after 1:30 a.m., and neighbors reported a one-on-one fight between House and Kauanui. Grosso said she returned to find House straddling Kauanui on the ground. She kicked House, but was pulled away by Hendricks — who acknowledged the same account to police.
While there are discrepancies about how many of the five men on the scene beat Kauanui, all of the eyewitnesses say it was a hard and final left-hand punch from Cravens that felled Kauanui as the back of his head hit the pavement.
Four of the five men fled the scene, except for House, who was reportedly in search of a missing tooth when police arrived.
Kauanui was treated for bleeding in the brain, facial fractures and multiple contusions at UC San Diego Medical Center. While there were initially signs he would survive, his brain began to swell.
He died four days later.
Cindy Kauanui said any claims of remorse from the five involved ring hollow.
“All I know is what is true,” she told Curry. “All five boys got in a truck and went to our house and beat on my son and beat him to death. My son lived for four more days in the hospital, but none of those five boys came to visit him.”
Two weeks after Kauanui’s passing, 300 surfers took to the water at Windansea — Kauanui’s favorite surf spot, where he developed his own legend. Mike Powers, organizer of the at-sea memorial, would describe the death as “a small 9/11 for our community” with the realization that “murder can even reach here in paradise.”
Last December, the Los Angeles Times reported on Cravens’ violent past.
At a party in La Jolla in the summer of 2002, a 17-year-old Cravens was accused of punching Thomas Barrow in the head as many as 20 times, causing hearing loss and jaw damage. Barrow, also 17 at the time, was beaten after he came to the defense of a young woman Cravens allegedly had threatened to hit. Cravens’ friends reportedly made sure no one got in the way of the beating, containing a would-be rescuer inside a car.
Barrow’s family pressed charges. The San Diego County probation department recommended that Cravens be prosecuted in juvenile court. Cravens’ parents sent him to live with relatives in Hawaii. The Barrows claimed prosecutors didn’t follow up with the charges because Cravens no longer posed a threat to local residents.
Nigel Kauanui said the “Bird Rock Bandits’” ways were about “pride” and “power.” Cindy Kauanui used the terms “intimidation” and “terrorism.” “They’re a gang,” she said. “This is something that they did on a regular basis.”
After a year in Hawaii, Cravens returned to La Jolla — and apparently to his violent ways. In court documents, he was alleged to be involved in five more beatings — not including an incident last fall when he reportedly punched 16-year-old Libby Schneider, who asked the uninvited guest to leave a party she was throwing.
Schneider’s father, David Blende, had some words for Cravens’ father and told police he tried, unsuccessfully, to communicate with Cravens as well. Blende, however, did not press charges because he lives in San Francisco and felt he would not be able to protect his daughter and ex-wife.
There was another reported fight on New Year’s Eve 2006, as Cravens and his four friends under fire in the Kauanui case showed up uninvited at a late-night party.
In May of last year, Cravens reportedly beat a patron of a La Jolla bar, the Shack. Cravens wrote on a MySpace Web page of being banned from entry into the establishment: “Bird Rock Bandits: May 10, 2007 3:32 PM ... I can't go to the Shack for a while because I murdered someone hahahaha no biggie call me up and lets get krunk"
Are they a gang?
Much of the Kauanui hearing revolves on whether the “Bird Rock Bandits” fit the legal definition of a gang, and whether the incident would thus constitute gang violence — which could result in stiffer penalties if the accused are prosecuted.
Mary Ellen Attridge, attorney for Cravens, described the friends as young men who work, attend college and coach sports, as well as socialize. She has said that the group has no initiation rituals, nor do they wear like uniforms.
But prosecutors say otherwise, that at least four of the members had struck fear in the community with their violent ways.
After investigations by local homicide detectives last September, “gang-enhancement” charges like intimidation, assault and battery were added to the murder counts — meaning prosecutors could introduce the earlier cases of alleged violence.
On Tuesday, prosecutors showed a video showing three men — identified as Cravens, House and Yanke — shouting “BRB” and “bandits for life” at the La Jolla Brew House on May 23, approximately two hours before their fight with Kauanui.
Hendricks, however, said the group never considered itself a gang when he voluntarily talked to police the day after Kauanui’s death.
Hendricks has admitted to restraining Kauanui’s girlfriend and fleeing the scene on the night of the attack. Hendricks was an honor student and quarterback in high school, and has many public supporters — including former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie, who mentored him for three years.
Cindy Kauanui, however, said she hopes justice will be served.
“I believe in the American justice system,” she said. “And I believe the truth will surface.”