Surfers seen as the heroes in Malibu paparazzi case

The showdown at a Malibu beach two years ago looked like a Frankie Avalon movie gone very wrong.

A dozen paparazzi were huddled on the sand -- angling for a shot of famously bare-chested celeb Matthew McConaughey -- when suddenly they were confronted by a pack of local surfers.

“Let’s go!” shouted one surfer. “We’ll draw a line in the beach, and we’ll fight for the beach. If you guys win, you can have the beach.”

A fight broke out, and L.A. prosecutors charged two of the surfers with misdemeanor battery.

Two years later, the trial against Skylar Peak and Philip Hildebrand is getting underway. But the popular sentiment in Malibu is that the surfers should be hailed as heroes, not hauled into court. The defendants get pats on the back and words of encouragement as they make their way around town, according to their lawyers.

Even the prosecutor on the case seemed a bit torn. “I’m ecstatic . . . really,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Penzin deadpanned. Like many in Malibu, Penzin believes the paparazzi are too aggressive in their pursuit of celebrities. “Think Princess Di in Paris in the tunnel,” he said.

Malibu has long been a colony for the rich and famous. And in today’s Hollywood tabloid world, that means photographers from around the globe descending on the coastal town in hopes of snapping that lucrative shot of Britney Spears, Julia Roberts or Charlie Sheen.

City officials have mulled cracking down with anti-paparazzi ordinances, and local merchants have made clear their displeasure with the swarms of photographers.

To some in Malibu, Peak, 25, and Hildebrand, 31, simply did what many others would like to do.

“You got to side with the surfers,” said Lauren Aldrich, 22, a barista at the rustic Malibu Kitchen cafe.

Celebrities, including Jerry Seinfeld and Pierce Brosnan, frequent the cafe, and business is often interrupted by paparazzi hustling for a shot of the notables on their way out.

Aldrich, who moved to Malibu from San Diego to attend Pepperdine University, recalls a frightening encounter with photographers during a baby-sitting gig as a college freshman.

The 4-year-old she was sitting asked for a bottle of her favorite punch, so the two stopped at a local grocery store.

On the way in, they were barricaded by photographers swarming actress Julia Roberts’ car. The child was so frightened she started to cry.

“It was so sad. She didn’t even want her soda anymore,” Aldrich said.

“It was one of my first experiences with paparazzi and I was just, like, ‘I hate paparazzi.’ ”

The kick heard around Malibu came on a Saturday in June 2008. A group of photographers vying for a shot of McConaughey as he surfed near Point Dume were approached by a group of beachgoers demanding that the photographers leave.

The paparazzi stood firm, and before long a tussle broke out, with one photographer dragged into the surf and kicked.

Videos of the incident were posted online, drawing wide media attention. Whether the footage shows the whole story is in dispute; nevertheless, Peak and Hildebrand, a professional photographer himself, were arrested and charged.

“If you don’t confront [paparazzi], they’re just going to take over the beach,” said attorney Harland Braun, who’s representing Peak.

“This case should never have been filed.”

Bryan Altman, the attorney representing Rachid Aitmbareck, the French paparazzo who was assaulted, said the incident should not be framed as a battle between privacy and 1st Amendment rights.

“They’re just guys who decided to beat someone up,” Altman said. “They’re trying to elevate this to camouflage their conduct. I see it simply as a group of men viciously physically attacking this one lone man, a small, diminutive Frenchman.”

Many in Malibu don’t see it that way -- and even Mayor Sharon Barovsky is conspicuously judicious on the issue.

“I’m going to let the jury decide whether it was inappropriate or not,” she said.

But when it comes to the paparazzi, she can rattle off inappropriate behavior.

Friends she hosted on a recent visit from Sacramento were shopping at a local boutique when the manager there had to temporarily close the store because Britney Spears was inside.

The family’s 9-year-old, the mayor said, was thrilled to be in such proximity to the pop star, but overall the experience was a pain.

“The mother was annoyed because she didn’t want to be locked up anywhere,” Barovsky said. “They’ve got to respect other people’s privacy. In my day, it was Cary Grant and Paul Newman in Malibu. Nobody bothered them. Nobody even asked for an autograph.”

Steve Broughton, a security guard at Malibu Colony Plaza, a small shopping strip near Pacific Coast Highway, said that beyond inconveniencing residents, paparazzi in Malibu can pose a real danger.

He’s seen them speeding through the parking lot at up to 40 mph. As for the surfers on trial, he’s fully behind them.

“These paparazzi need to get a job, real jobs, you know, working for a living,” he said.

But even for a staunchly anti-paparazzi local such as Broughton, the tabloids have their appeal.

Asked what magazine he was flipping through as he stood outside the plaza’s newsstand, the 54-year-old responded proudly.

“People,” he said, referring to the celebrity mag. “They had an article on Jennifer Love Hewitt. She’s my lust bunny -- and it looks like she just broke up with Jamie Kennedy.”