Savage Night : 2 Valley Men Try to Rebuild Lives After Gang-Like Attack on Beach
One weekend last fall, two San Fernando Valley teen-agers and their girlfriends went camping at a beachfront state park.
At the adjacent campsite, it turned out, was a group bent on a serious party. Most were from a San Diego State University fraternity.
It got late. The Valley teens asked the frat guys to turn down the music, which was blaring from a boombox perched on a car. For that, they were attacked. And, badly outnumbered, they endured a beating that can only be described as savage.
One victim, a promising baseball player, suffered an injury so severe to the shoulder of his throwing arm that he may never play again. The other young man’s penis was grabbed and wrenched, and the extent of his extraordinary injuries remains unclear.
Only two of the group of attackers have been convicted--of mayhem, in a plea agreement. Sentencing is set for today. Prosecutors are asking for the maximum term, eight years in state prison. A probation officer, however, is recommending a year in County Jail and five years’ probation. And defense attorneys are asking for just a few weeks behind bars.
So far, none of the others involved in the gang-like attack have been charged. And the two men now convicted of a felony, Derek Ward Stewart, 21, and Nam Le Pham, 19, are themselves good students with otherwise solid reputations--Pham is an accomplished piano player.
“What you hear on the news--it happens,” said Brian Powers, the one-time baseball all-star whose shoulder was hurt in the attack. “Sometimes you hear it on the news, and you think it’s not real--it’s a wonder world out there. But it happens. And you can’t run away from it.”
The crime occurred Oct. 2 at San Onofre State Beach, about 40 miles north of San Diego. At the time, both Powers, who grew up in Northridge, and his friend, a West Hills youth, were 19; both graduated from Chaminade College Preparatory High School in West Hills and are now 20. The West Hills youth requested anonymity.
They took their girlfriends down to San Onofre, Powers said, to do the SoCal thing--sun, surf, swim. The park, near the Southern California Edison nuclear power plant, is known for a surf site called “Trestles,” one of California’s finest.
After a long day outside and dinner at a restaurant in nearby San Clemente, Powers testified in March at a preliminary hearing in Vista Municipal Court, he was ready for an early night.
At the next campsite over, however, the party was just starting to rage.
The party, according to court records, was not formally put on by a fraternity. But several of those there were from the Delta Chi fraternity at San Diego State, according to records.
Estimates of the number of revelers differ. Defense attorneys put the number at nine, six male and three female. Deputy Dist. Atty. James Valliant, the prosecutor in the case, said at least a dozen were on hand.
Undisputed is that copious amounts of alcohol were consumed--and the sequence of events that preceded the brawl. The Valley campers asked the others once, twice, three times to turn down the music.
The boombox, however, kept blaring.
Angry after the third request, the West Hills youth stood up and said, “Just shut the . . . music off.” He added in testimony in March, “And that’s when someone rushed at me.”
The West Hills youth testified that he was initially attacked by one male. Two or three others joined in, pushed him into his own pickup truck, parked nearby, and began slamming his head into the truck, he said.
He tried to break free but an attacker who he could not identify grabbed his penis through his sweat pants, squeezed and wrenched it “from side to side.” He said he “felt kind of a pop . . . and the pain was unbelievable.”
Powers testified that he went to help his friend and was attacked himself.
He said five or six people attacked his friend. A half-dozen more, he said, beat and kicked him.
The girlfriends, who had been a few yards away at a bathroom when the brawl began, ran for help. The melee ended when campers from other sites broke it up.
Powers, the West Hills youth and their girlfriends left the campground immediately.
According to medical records, Powers suffered a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder--his throwing arm.
His surgeon, Dr. Michael Dillingham, who also serves as a team doctor for pro football’s San Francisco 49ers, said in an interview that the shoulder looked as if All-Pro defensive back Ronnie Lott, legendary for his hard tackles, had delivered a ferocious hit.
“He got smashed, this kid,” Dillingham said.
At Chaminade, Powers was an exceptional football player and an even better baseball prospect, a regular on area all-star teams.
“I’m still not sure if I’m going to start playing again,” he said last week. He will enroll in the fall at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The West Hills youth--who was all-league in football--also underwent surgery, for damage to an artery. His parents said time will tell whether he heals completely. He will be attending classes this fall at UCLA, they said.
Park rangers tracked down Stewart and Pham, meanwhile, after checking the license plates of cars registered to the campsite that night.
In court on March 1, both Pham and Stewart “smirked in the course of the preliminary hearing,” Judge William B. Draper Jr. observed, giving “the impression this was much ado about nothing,” according to transcripts.
A few weeks later, however, both pleaded guilty to mayhem. Defense lawyers said the in-court smirks were misunderstood--contending that neither Pham nor Stewart could believe the testimony they were hearing from Powers and the West Hills youth, not that they were taking it lightly.
“I’m sorry for these two men,” Pham said in a telephone interview. “But I believe they got things mixed up.”
Stewart, a graduate of Redlands High and a member of Delta Chi, told prosecutors he had just had stitches taken out from skin cancer surgery on his leg--and was looking that night to celebrate.
It was another fraternity member, a white male, who initially charged the West Hills youth and inflicted the injuries, Stewart said.
When Powers made a move to help his friend, Stewart said, he walked over to block Powers and then put him in a headlock. Two others--Pham was one of the two--arrived and “proceeded to punch and kick the both of us,” delivering six to 20 blows, Stewart told prosecutors, according to a transcript.
Pham--a year behind Stewart at Redlands High and a student at Mesa College in San Diego--also denies grabbing the West Hills youth’s crotch. Neither he nor Stewart were badly hurt in the brawl.
Although Stewart has provided authorities the names of those at the party that night, the victims have been unable to positively identify others involved in the attack, prosecutor Valliant said. That’s understandable because it was late, dark and the action happened so quickly, Valliant said, but it also makes it tough to bring additional charges that would stick. But Valliant said another arrest may be coming.
The prosecutor also said authorities appreciate Stewart’s help. But when he and Pham agreed to plead guilty to mayhem, it was with the understanding that prosecutors were free to ask for the maximum sentence.
Calling it a “vicious and callous” crime, Valliant said he will urge Vista Superior Court Judge Runston G. [Tony] Maino today to impose the full eight-year term in state prison.
“I want them skinned and hung out in the dry wind,” said Powers’ father, Chatsworth attorney William F. Powers Jr.
Stewart’s mother, however, said a long prison term “won’t accomplish anything.” In a letter to Maino, she said that the fight has left her son under medical treatment for depression.
“Use him,” Darcia Stewart added in the letter to the judge, “to spread the word that it is really who you hang out with that can get you in trouble, and two minutes of being out of control and making one bad decision can affect the rest of your life.”