The five friends played football, partied – and occasionally brawled. Now they’re accused of killing a surfer. La Jolla mourns and asks: Why?
By Joel Sappell, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
They are sons of La Jolla, five friends who came of age on the edge of the Pacific.
They all played on La Jolla High School’s football team. One was the defensive player of the year. Another was a star quarterback mentored by former pro standout Doug Flutie, who said he’d be proud to have the boy as his own.
Off the field, they cruised around town and hung out in picturesque coves beneath bluffs lined with spectacular homes. As they grew from youngsters to young men, they also became known as partyers who sometimes threw a few punches.
One eventually left on an athletic scholarship but kept in touch. The others started calling themselves the Bird Rock Bandits, drawing on the name of La Jolla’s most affordable neighborhood, where a house can still be found for under $1 million.
Now, together, the five stand accused of first-degree murder, charged with beating to death one of La Jolla’s most accomplished and popular surfers in front of the home he shared with his mother.
Authorities say the killing of Emery Kauanui Jr. was the tragic culmination of a spree of under-the-radar assaults spanning several years by the Bird Rock Bandits, which allegedly had morphed from a party crew into a street gang that intimidated and beat young adults in La Jolla.
Kauanui’s death – and the violent encounters that came before – has generated a wave of soul-searching in this seaside haven of 50,000 north of downtown San Diego. Were parents too indulgent or preoccupied? Were police too slow to spot the pattern? Were those aware of the beatings too afraid to speak up? Could the laid-back culture of La Jolla itself have created a climate of permissiveness, especially when it came to alcohol and fighting?
The night that ended so horribly began with a petty beef in a crowded La Jolla restaurant and bar in late May. Kauanui spilled a beer on one of the five friends. Within an hour, the 24-year-old surfer was hospitalized, his skull fractured, his brain bleeding.
A surfer on the rise
Emery Kauanui practically owned Windansea Beach, home to one of the most famous breaks along La Jolla’s rocky coast. In the mid-1960s, a young Tom Wolfe immortalized the spot and its rowdy locals in his essay “The Pump House Gang.” Only the slang and board shorts seem to have changed much over the decades.
Kauanui started surfing there when he was barely a teen, after his mother, Cindy, moved her three sons from Hawaii in 1992 in the wake of a destructive hurricane and a divorce from Emery Sr., a Kauai native.
The lanky island kid was soon nicknamed “The Flying Hawaiian” because of his dazzling aerial maneuvers. A collection of tiny beginners, the grommets of La Jolla, wanted to be just like him. No one dominated Windansea’s left-breaking wave better than Kauanui.