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Are 'Bird Rock Bandits' unfairly charged?

Former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt discusses the gang allegations against a group of California boys known as the Bird Rock Bandits who allegedly beat a pro-surfer to death last year.

For fun in the sun, there may be no better place than the beaches of La Jolla, Calif.  Although it’s hard to find a local home for sale for under $1 million, it’s not hard to find great surfing and scenic views that match the multi-million dollar price tags of most residences.

The serenity of the area was forever changed when 23-year-old former professional surfer Hawaiian Emery Kauanui, Jr., died after being beaten by two to five “just as young” local residents who saw themselves as a rich boy street gang, calling their crew “the Bird Rock Bandits (BRB).” Five members of the BRB are accused of beating, kicking and punching Kauanui so brutally outside his home that he died four days later in the hospital.

Kauanui was at a local watering hole with his 20-year-old girlfriend when, as one witness suggests, Kauanui threw beer on a member of the BRB who allegedly spoke to Kauanui’s girlfriend. She, in her boyfriend’s defense, said that the beer was spilled by accident. An altercation soon began and Kauanui was ejected from the bar and driven home by his girlfriend, who then jogged back to the Brew House to pick up her own car. Returning to the bar, she learned that members of the BRB crew were going to Kauanui’s home with one man, 20-year-old Eric House, the designated person to fight Kauanui.

According to some witnesses, the group of five men drove the short distance to Kauanui’s home where the pro-surfer, angry and according to some intoxicated, met the group outside, tore off his shirt, and readied himself for the fight with House. Blows were quickly thrown and one of House’s front teeth was knocked out. Eventually the rest of the gang members jumped into the fight. Kauanui fell down. Witnesses said he was hit and kicked while laying on the ground. The fatal blow, however, was allegedly thrown by the BRB leader, 21-year-old Seth Cravens, in the form of a “sucker punch,” one he was known for when fighting. Kauanui fell violently to the pavement, striking his head so hard that neighbors heard the sickening “thud” as skull struck concrete. The BRB fled the fight scene, all except for Eric House who was found by police still looking for his lost tooth.

All but one of the suspects was able to make bail and now the state of California wants to charge these men under section 186.22 of the penal code, “the gangsta” section, since they have identified themselves as a gang. California has seen far too many violent acts committed by street gang members. The penal code allows gang members to be punished more severely than “ordinary” criminals, to have extended and additional prison terms if convicted, as well as lengthy minimum/mandatory terms in state prison.

Many more victims
But are the five men charged in Kauanui’s death really a true criminal gang? Many local citizens have come forward to say that they had also been victims of the BRB, some incidents which were reported to police and not acted upon and others were not reported due to the victim’s fear of retaliation by members of BRB.

These alleged crimes included assaults, threats, and other incidents that could meet part of the legal threshold needed to successfully prosecute these men as gang members. Some locals protest when the BRB are referred to as surfers, strongly suggesting that at best, “gang” members just hung out at surfer beaches to drink and pick up girls and spent little time on surf boards. 

Cravens is allegedly the person who struck the fatal blow against Kauanui, but did he throw that murderous punch out of envy, some twisted prejudice against Kauanui’s Hawaiian background or just because he was a dim-witted bully and budding sociopath?

The mother of Emery Kauanui had his ashes spread over the waters off of Windansea and five men stand accused of facilitating his death. Was this a terrible accident due to too little common sense and too much alcohol, or do we blame the parents? Should the local police, who stated they had never heard of the BRB before Kauanui’s death, have been more sensitive to what was going on? 

While defense attorneys suggest that the BRB is nothing more than a local fraternity, a young man is dead. Should the anger and frustration of the local community make these men into something they may not be? Perhaps charging them with murder, manslaughter or some other criminal offense will meet the needs of society without changing the definition of the crime to fit the situation, and the demands of a society that wants to send the right message in the wrong way.

Clint Van Zandt is a former FBI agent, behavioral profiler and hostage negotiator as well as an MSNBC analyst. His Web site, , provides readers with security-related information.