SAN DIEGO – Four former high school friends were sentenced to between 90 and 349 days in jail Friday for their roles in the fatal beating of professional surfer Emery Kauanui, sentences far shorter than prosecutors had sought.
Superior Court Judge John S. Einhorn said he considered the defendants' past clean records and lack of evidence that any of them delivered the fatal blow, even as he chastised them for spreading fear in the upscale seaside community of La Jolla with alcohol-tinged fights.
"You don't have to be a criminal street gang to be a bunch of bullies that together think they're stronger, tougher, smarter, and can get away with murder," the judge said at the sentencing for all but one defendant in the case.
Seth Cravens, alleged to be the ringleader, has pleaded not guilty to murder and faces trial Oct. 14.
A bar argument in 2007 ended in a showdown that left Kauanui, 24, bleeding outside his mother's home. Hospitalized with severe head trauma, he died three days later after being taken off life support.
Kauanui's mother tearfully told the judge she lost the love of her life.
"All I can tell you is that I love him so much and it's just not the same," said Cindy Kauanui. "Our family is broken."
The single parent of three left the courtroom before the judge read the sentences.
Nigel Kauanui spoke of how his brother encouraged him to become a musician. The surfer's girlfriend of six years, Jennifer Grosso, said losing him was a "lifetime sentence."
"I lost the love of my life, a soulmate and someone I was planning to spend the rest of my life with," Grosso said.
Raised in Kauai, Hawaii, and nicknamed the "Flying Hawaiian," Kauanui was a fixture at San Diego's Windansea Beach, just a few blocks from his house, where his favorite surf break is now called "Emery's Left."
The five defendants, who had been buddies since attending La Jolla High School, were initially charged with murder but Eric House, 21, Orlando Osuna, 23, and Matthew Yanke, 22, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Osuna and Yanke also pleaded guilty in June to unrelated counts of misdemeanor battery.
Another defendant, Henri "Hank" Hendricks, 22, pleaded guilty to being an accessory to the death, a felony, and to an unrelated misdemeanor battery.
Osuna was sentenced to 349 days in San Diego County jail, House and Yanke each got 210 days and Hendricks got 90 days. Each got various amounts of credit for time already served and were given three years probation.
Prosecutor Sophia Roach had urged the judge to sentence Osuna to 4 1/2 years in state prison, House to four years, Yanke to 3 1/2 years and Hendricks to one year in county jail.
Roach told the judge that all four defendants benefited from supportive families and a wonderful public education, but had a penchant for picking fights.
The defendants hung their heads as Kauanui's family and friends spoke. All except House addressed the court to apologize for their roles in the beating and called the victim a friend.
"Emery will never have a second chance in this lifetime and that is why I go to church to pray for his soul every day," Hendricks said.
Yanke spoke haltingly as he apologized to the community and to his own family for the "wreckage" that he said may never be repaired.
"I'm not asking for mercy or for anything other than to be able to move on with my life," he said.
Prosecutors initially alleged that the "Bird Rock Bandits" — a name taken from a local area — was a gang, but Einhorn ruled that the defendants could not be prosecuted under anti-gang statutes because the group wasn't formed specifically to commit crimes.
On May 23, 2007, Kauanui went to a promotional surf-company event at the bar. Around 1 a.m., Kauanui and House got into an argument that ended with House doused in beer. Kauanui went home in his girlfriend's car after security ejected him from the bar, but the pair continued trading threats by phone.
Within minutes Cravens, 22, House, Osuna, Yanke and Hendricks, a backup quarterback at the University of New Hampshire who was on summer break, drove up to the home.
Witnesses told investigators that Kauanui charged out of his house, whipping his shirt off. House lost a tooth in the scuffle, but it was Kauanui who wound up lying in a pool of his own blood after a punch — allegedly from Cravens — sent him crashing to the pavement.