The criminal case surrounding the death of pro surfer Emery Kauanui at the hands of five men in La Jolla, known as the Bird Rock Bandits, reaches a critical juncture this week.

Seth Cravens, 22; Eric House, 21; Orlando Osuna, 23; Matthew Yanke, 21; and Henri "Hank" Hendricks, 22, were arrested last year in connection with the death of Emery Kauanui Jr., 24, who cracked his skull when he fought with others outside his La Jolla home on May 24.

Kauanui died at a hospital four days later.

Judge John Einhorn, who is presiding over the preliminary hearing, will decide this week if there is enough evidence to go to trial. More importantly, has sufficient evidence been presented to order the defendants to stand trial on murder, assault, battery and gang allegations. A crime that involves a gang can ratchet up sentencing guidelines for the convicted.

To determine if the group was acting as a gang certain criteria need to be met. The California statute under which street gangs are defined, California Penal Code section 186.22, is very loosely worded.

The statute defines criminal street gangs as:

“Any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, having as one of its primary activities the commission of one or more of the criminal acts [contained in the statute] having a common name or common identifying sign or symbol, and whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity.”

This is a fairly broad designation and one open to various levels of interpretation. Using the above definition one could conclude that the convicted Enron officials were gang members.

Prosecutors have brought experts and evidence in the preliminary hearing in their attempt to prove the Bird Rock Bandits are in fact a gang. One expert witness, an investigator for the San Diego District
Attorney’s office, said the Bird Rock Bandits showed all the characteristics of a gang including claiming a territory, displaying hand signals, the use of gang defining colors, and most importantly, ongoing criminal activity as a group.

After Kauanui’s death, crime victims in the La Jolla area have come forward to make statements with the investigators claiming the Bird Rock Bandits assaulted them.

On the defense side, attorneys attempted to dissuade the judge by offering that the hand sign the men displayed are the same one President Bush displayed at a Texas Longhorns football game. The so-called colors that the Bird Rock Bandits wore on their clothing were in fact the colors of the local high school in La Jolla that the men attended.

The alleged gangs’ territory, La Jolla, is one of the wealthiest areas in California. A one-bedroom condominium sells for upwards of $1 million. The shock and dismay that a gang would fester in such a wealthy community has drawn significant attention to the case. Internet messages boards have heated up since the preliminary hearing began. On SignOnSanDiego, a blogger wrote, “the Bird Rock Bandits clearly held themselves as a group and apart from other “average” citizens, and, used that position to intimidate, assault, and/or cause harm to others who didn’t fit into their of-the-moment group mentality.”

While another voiced this opinion, exemplifying the polarizing effect this gang characterization is having on the people of San Diego community, “the first person to start throwing the word “gang” around is, you guessed it, the D.A., trying to sway the court of public opinion to her side, play on the public’s emotion, get all the defendants to stand for the murder charge…this case will wind its way through the trial courts and then the appellate courts and come right back into san Diego with the same results: more mud on the DA’s face, (and) a finding of no gang affiliation.”

What are your thoughts?
Are the Bird Rock Bandits a gang?

Stay tuned to as the case continues unfold.