In this corner, a mob of about 15 paparazzi, trespassing on the wrong side of the mean high tide line in the sand, up against the cliffs at Little Dume pointing their expensive cameras at Matthew McConaughey, or anything else that might make them a buck.
In that corner, a scrum of about a dozen young surfer/citizens, walking up the beach, toward the paparazzi. All are wearing trunks, some have beers in their hands. All lenses turn away from McConaughey and toward these surfers. A confrontation begins, and gets ugly fast – bad language in a variety of accents, threats, insults. There is a debate over what is private and public property, and what is legitimate work and what is not.
Words are exchanged, then slaps, then blows and then, in the words of Australian rugby announcers, “It’s on for young and old.” A true-blue beach brawl breaks out.
This all went down on the sand at Little Dume on June 21-22, 2008. It was all caught on video, and carefully edited clips of that video were almost immediately available online on the scandal sites www.tmz.com and x17online.com.
Almost two years to the day after the surfers and paparazzi squared off on the sand at Point Dume, Harland Braun and Stefan Sacks – two of LA’s top defense attorneys – squared off against Assistant District Attorney Bill Penzin and argued whether or not Skylar Peak and John Hildebrand were entitled thugs guilty of misdemeanor battery on a paparazzo named Rachid Aitambareck, or responsible citizen-surfers using reasonable force to remove trespassers from private property.
Harland Braun has defended many celebrities, including John Landis, Roseanne Barr, Lane Garrison and Gary Busey. He thought the case should have never gone to trial. “DA Bill Penzin knew from the beginning that the case had been poorly investigated and filed by his office under political pressure. Skylar had been stabbed with a knife and hit with a pipe yet there was no effort to prosecute the perpetrators. Because Penzin could not force Skylar and John to plead guilty to a lesser phony charge, he resorted to dirty tricks and social prejudice to attempt to wrongfully convict them. Penzin attempted to eliminate every resident of Malibu from the jury so he could smear the defendants with the stereotype of Malibu residents as bigoted rich people.”
Peak and Hildebrand were facing a maximum penalty of six months in jail and fines of $2,000.
After two weeks of testimony, in which the District Attorney called four witnesses – three paparazzi, and one sheriff – and the defense called eight, Will Penzin gave his closing arguments and reminded the jury that he was not there to defend paparazzi – he didn’t like paparazzi either. Penzin said that this case was about violence, and he was prosecuting two surfers whose sense of entitlement to a private stretch of beach extended to them engaging in vigilante behavior, and ganging up on a small, almost defenseless celebrity photographer.
Braun and Sacks each delivered a rebuttal to Penzin and explained that Peak and Hildebrand were within their rights to use reasonable force to remove trespassers from private property. Braun and Sacks both pointed to evidence that one of the trespassing paparazzo had drawn a knife as the situation escalated, that Peak had been injured by the knife and that Peak and Hildebrand acted to defuse a potentially deadly situation.
The jury were given instructions by LA County Superior Court Judge Lawrence Mira around 1:00 in the afternoon on Thursday, the 17th of June. The next day, Peak, Hildebrand and their supporter – which included pro surfer Anthony Petruso, Beastie Boy Mike D and several Malibu supermodels – waited around the courthouse until 4:30 in the afternoon until the jury foreman reported that the jury was hopelessly deadlocked 8-4 in favor of acquittal.
“The only reason there was not an acquittal was because of the DA’s dirty tricks,” Braun said. “Incredibly Penzin attempted to cover his dirty deeds by being overly and inappropriately friendly to Skylar and John even approaching them out of court while they were eating lunch.”
Aitmbareck’s attorney Bryan Altman was quoted in the LA Times as being disappointed in the outcome. “These men, at least in the interim, have gotten away with their offenses in the guise of protecting the community from paparazzi. You would hope people would want to do the right thing regardless of the area they live in.”
Judge Mira ordered everyone to return to court on July 2. Braun and Sacks don’t believe the District Attorney will try Peak and Hildebrand again, and it’s also unlikely Rachid Aitmbareck will file a civil suit, as the flaws in his accusations of physical injury and destroyed equipment were given full light during the trial.
When asked, in retrospect, what he would do differently if he could do it all over again, Peak said that, “I would have taken the tapes from the paparazzo’s cameras along with the knife – if we could have gotten them. I would have brought my own camera and filmed the entire incident.”