Five young men from the affluent beachfront town of La Jolla, Calif., could be facing life in prison for the murder of pro surfer Emery Kauanui Jr., if a judge decides they acted as a gang.
Prosecutors say the men, calling themselves the Bird Rock Bandits, have been terrorizing members of the community for years. Their defense lawyers argued last week in a preliminary hearing that Kauanui's death was an accident after a one-on-one confrontation.
That distinction will determine if the men will face much stiffer penalties under California's anti-gang laws or face lesser charges such as involuntary manslaughter.
Seth Cravens, 22, Eric House, 21, Orlando Osuna, 23, Matthew Yanke, 21, and Henri "Hank" Hendricks, 22, were charged with murder in connection with the beating death last May of Kauanai, 24. They have pleaded not guilty.
Authorities say a fight broke out between House and Kauanai in a local bar. Police say the men then followed Kauanai home and beat him so badly he died of head injuries four days later.
"He was the best kid on earth, no mother could have such a good kid," said the victim's mother, Cindy Kauanui.
Prosecutors contend that the five men, many of whom come from well-to-do families, took a dark turn and their alleged gang activity went too far.
Cravens, once a high school football star, was the leader of the Bird Rock Bandits, according to authorities.
Hendricks was a backup quarterback and honor student at the University of New Hampshire. House, Yanke and Osuna were all high school athletes.
Mary Ellen Attridge, Cravens' attorney, said that just because the men hang out together doesn't mean they're a gang.
"This is a group of young men, they do many, many things," Attridge said in court. "And of the things they do, is they go out and they drink and they get in fights, but this does not make them a gang."