Attacks on the homeless and their connection to popular culture


'Bumfight' videos inspired joy-killing

October 1, 2006
CBS 60 Minutes
By Ed Bradley

Teenagers call it "bum-hunting" and it is a perverse national trend. Across the country, packs of teenage boys are stalking homeless people and attacking them, shooting them with paintball guns, beating them with baseball bats, even dousing them with gasoline and setting them on fire. Over the last five years, at least one homeless person has been murdered each month, for no apparent reason.

Homeless advocates say that if any other group was being targeted like this, there'd be a national outcry. But as correspondent Ed Bradley reports, the only thing that seems to spark any outrage is when one of these attacks is captured on video.

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Last January in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., two teenagers were caught on video surveillance tape as they beat a homeless man with baseball bats and ran away. The man survived. But that same night, the same kids beat another homeless man, 45-year-old Norris Gaynor, to death.

Seventeen-year-old Thomas Daugherty and 18-year-old Brian Hooks were identified by more than a dozen classmates as the boys on the tape. Still, they pled "not guilty" and are awaiting trial.

Since people living on the streets usually don't report crime, there are no reliable government statistics. But the National Coalition for the Homeless, using local news reports and other sources, says that since 1999 there have been more than 500 such attacks, resulting in 180 deaths.

One of those killed was 53-year-old Michael Roberts, who was attacked in Holly Hill, Fla. in May 2005. Four teens, aged 14 through 18 confessed to the crime, saying they stumbled across Roberts in the woods where they had gone to smoke pot. Off and on over three hours, they beat him to death.

Jeffrey Spurgeon was the oldest member of the group. "The main thing that I can't keep out of my head. That I keep thinking about 24/7 is Michael asking for help, and asking us stop, and screaming for help," Spurgeon says.

Bradley met Spurgeon at his new home, a state prison in Jasper, Fla., where he has been sentenced to spend the next 35 years. He told 60 Minutes his 14-year-old, 220-pound friend, Chris Scamahorn, started the attack.

"Chris woke the guy up and started hittin' him with a stick. So we all rushed in on him and then I hit him with the stick. And then we all left," Spurgeon recalls.

Spurgeon says they went back three times and says each time the beatings got worse.

"And the third time when we come back, that's when Chris had brought a two by four with a nail through it. And hit the guy on top of the head with it," Spurgeon says.

Why did they do all this?

"I guess for fun," Spurgeon says.

"These kids were obviously dangerous. And they had no idea why," says Circuit Court Judge Joseph Will.

He spent weeks looking at the evidence before sentencing Spurgeon and the others to spend most of their adult lives in prison, with no chance for parole.

"It's not just a mistake. It's a conscious act that took place over a long period of time that resulted in the brutal death of a helpless harmless man," Judge Will says.

Why does he think they did it?

"I think they did it because there was someone less powerful than they, to pick on," the judge says.

"Do you think that it happened because he was homeless?" Bradley asks.

"I think it happened because he was homeless and he was helpless and he was one step down on the violence pecking order from those kids," Judge Will replies.

"This is the new sport. In many parts of the country, it's a rite of passage," says Brian Levin, a criminologist at California State University in San Bernardino, and an expert on hate crimes.

Why would kids start beating up homeless people?

"Most hate offenses are not committed by hard core hate-mongers," Levin explains. "They're often associations of young males who looking for some thrill or excitement go out and attack a target that will help validate them. And a target that they think is vulnerable. One that they can get away with. And one that has some kind of negativity associated with it."

And Levin says no group has more negativity associated with it than the homeless, who are often stereotyped as lazy, stupid and responsible for their situation. He says in many ways, they're one group it is still "safe" to hate.

"It used to be gays, it used to be African-Americans. But now the vogue target in many ways are the homeless," says Levin.

"How did this become okay? I mean how did it get to a point where kids think we can just go out and beat somebody up, some cases kill them, and that's alright?" Bradley asks.

"Most recently there have been a series of films, horrible brutal films that dehumanize and degrade the homeless," says Levin, referring to the Bumfight videos.

Bumfights is a series of popular DVDs in which homeless people perform degrading stunts for which they are paid a few dollars and a lot of alcohol. They also include clips of teenagers fighting. The DVDs cost about $20 and have sold 300,000 copies over the last five years.

The videos star Rufus Hannah, a homeless man dubbed "Rufus the stunt bum," drinking to excess, falling down, performing dangerous stunts and fighting his best friend Donnie Brennan who is also homeless.

Brennan was even branded for the video.

These days, Hannah is sober, working full-time, and involved in a civil lawsuit to recover some of the money from Bumfights. Brennan, who's still on the streets, is also suing. Both men claim they were taken advantage of by the film-makers because they were homeless.

Brennan says he got hurt in the making of the videos. "I broke my ankle in half. I broke my leg in two places," he says.

He says the scenes were not acting but were "down to earth real."

Asked if they made money from the site, Hannah says, "We didn't make a damn thing."

"Five bucks for beer every once in a while," Brennan adds.

"Sometimes it was only two or three dollars. See, Ryan knew that when we got drunk, he could get us to do anything," Hannah explains.

"Ryan" is Ryan McPherson, the 23-year-old creator of Bumfights. He sold the rights to the series for $1.5 million shortly after it came out, splitting the money with three partners. But he's still defending Bumfights in court, and in the media.

"We're merely exposing something that I don't think a lot of people know exists. I think it's interesting. I can't imagine what would make somebody do the things that Rufus was doing to himself," McPherson says.

"Because he's an alcoholic and somebody gave him money. You gave him money, which he used to buy alcohol. Got drunk and he did it," Bradley remarks.

"It's not as simple as that," McPherson replies.

McPherson points out that felony charges for his role in Bumfights were dropped. But he did plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of staging an illegal fight. But Bumfights is worse than you think.

In some scenes, an actor calling himself "the Bumhunter," along with some of the film-makers, actually attack sleeping homeless people, tying them up and gagging them with duct tape. 60 Minutes showed the scenes to McPherson.

How does he defend that?

"It's a skit," McPherson says.

"Skit? You're sneaking up on them while they're asleep and assaulting them. It doesn't look like a skit. It doesn't say, 'Hey, this is staged. This is acting,'" Bradley remarks.

"Oh, no, no, no. I'm not saying it's staged. It's saying that just the way it's, the way it's set up," McPherson says, laughing. "I don't know. I mean, the bumhunter's not an easy thing to defend."

Yet he is defending it. "Well, I'm trying to. It's just, you know, it's just hard to make sense of things when they're just so absurd. I mean it's just so absurd. I mean this guy's rolling around in the dirt with homeless people and we're trying to defend the notion that we're responsible for the deaths of homeless people," McPherson tells Bradley.

But police investigations have directly linked Bumfights to some of the attacks against the homeless, which have been steadily increasing ever since the series came out. Professor Levin says the connection between the videos and the violence is hard to ignore.

"They've created a whole cultural symbol now. There are now people who are doing their own videos," Levin explains.

In Calgary, Canada for example, five teens - bored and high on drugs - made a home video of their attack.

When they found a homeless man sleeping in an alley, they took turns kicking him, beating him with a metal pipe and even breaking a bottle on his head. The victim survived, and two of the kids spent a year in jail.

60 Minutes showed the video to Ryan McPherson.

"What do you think of that? You start out with them yelling Bumfights," Bradley asks.

"It starts off with them on drugs. But, yes, they yell Bumfights. Ya know, there's nothing in Bumfights that can support that," McPherson replies.

"As you see it. But they're the ones who did it. They saw it. In their minds that was the next step for them, the logical thing to do. They saw a connection. Do you see the connection they saw?" Bradley asks.

"Okay. Yes," McPherson acknowledges.

"You made Bumfights," Bradley remarks.

"Great. But you, I mean, I'm not, I'm not hopped up on drugs. I'm a kid with a video camera just shootin' stuff," McPherson says.

He also doesn't think he bears any responsibility at all when he sees stories about kids going out and beating up homeless people.

Back in Florida, Jeffrey Spurgeon told 60 Minutes that he and his friends watched Bumfights "hundreds of times."

"That was their favorite thing to do. Was watch those videos and mock whatever was on it," he says.

By mock, Spurgeon means copy. And he said they were doing just that the night they killed Michael Roberts.

"We were just trying to mock a show," he says.

He also tells Bradley they thought it was funny.

How is that fun?

"I don't know just exciting I guess.entertainment?" Spurgeon says.

"What in the world do you do with kids who are sitting in the bushes smoking a little pot one minute, and the next minute beating a man to death? What do you do with kids like that?" Judge Will wonders.

The judge says Bumfights never came up in this case, and he was left searching for other reasons why four kids would beat a homeless man to death.

"The one trend that saw in those kids was that they felt as though they had been bullied and pushed around by everybody in their lives up until that particular moment. And the opportunity just arose," he says.

"What would you say to kids who might be doing this? Bum-bashing. Bum fighting," Bradley asks Spurgeon.

"I would ask 'em what they're gettin' out of it. What, what's so fun about it," he replies.

"And they would say, 'But what did you get out of it? You did it,'" Bradley says.

"Yep," Spurgeon says. "And now I could tell 'em, 'Look at me now though. You still have a chance. Look at me."


'Bumfight' videos prompted fatal attack on homeless man, says teen

September 29, 2006
WKMG local6.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- One of several teenagers who beat a homeless man to death was influenced by videos featuring homeless people brawling and performing dangerous stunts, according to a television interview transcript.

Jeffery Spurgeon, 19, expressed his first public remorse for the May 2005 killing in the interview that will air Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes." It was conducted from a Jasper penitentiary where Spurgeon is serving an up to 35-year sentence.

Spurgeon said he and the others beat Michael Roberts, a frail 53-year-old homeless man who lived in the woods, "for fun." He said they were emulating scenes from "bum-rushing videos," according to the transcript. He mentioned "Bumfights," a video series available online, as a favorite.

Roberts died after three separate attacks with sticks, fists and logs. Justin Stearns, 19, Christopher Scamahorn, 16, and Warren Messner, 17, also were convicted and are serving prison terms from 22 to 35 years. Phi Huynh, 16, the fifth member of the group charged in connection with the attacks on Roberts, is awaiting trial.

Neither Spurgeon nor the others explained why they attacked Roberts during a weeklong sentencing proceeding in April, and Spurgeon's attorney Mitch Wrenn said the "60 Minutes" interview surprised him.

"I don't remember anything about bum fighting coming up," he said.

The videos depict homeless men and women engaged in humiliating, self-destructive acts, including ripping out teeth and ramming themselves into doors.

According to the Bumfights Web site, the videos are satire meant to call attention to the problems of poverty and violence.

Watch Local 6 News for more on this story.


'Bumfights' may encourage violence against homeless

September 21, 2006
City TV News

The videos are disturbing and exploitative. And to those that dole out hard earned money to witness the equivalent of human cockfights between society's most vulnerable members, they are apparently entertaining enough to keep the website Bumfights.com in business and thriving.

The online portal sells tapes of homeless people engaged in violent and degrading behaviour, and poverty activists believe they could be contributing to attacks on street people.

In Los Angeles, a 20-year-old man was convicted of beating two homeless men with a baseball bat after watching an earlier version of a Bumfights video.

The producers of the tapes, who pay participants to batter each other senseless, have just released their fourth installment of the reprehensible videos. But the tapes have done more than appall and disgust --- they've also opened up political debate about a plethora of issues concerning homelessness, including a controversial suggestion by mayoral candidate Jane Pitfield that panhandling should become a criminal offence.

Local activists say such a move would reinforce a hostile attitude toward those of 'no fixed address.'

"It creates an attitude, and that attitude, that they are doing something wrong, that they are lesser than real people allows some others to do things that are pretty rough," said activist Beric German.

Violence on marginalized members of society is nothing new in Toronto. A year ago Paul Croutch (pictured), a homeless man, was beaten to death as he slept on a city bench.

Three young Canadian army reservists from the Moss Park Armoury are facing second-degree murder charges for the savage attack.

"He wouldn't have been on that bench, had there been better social services, affordable housing and some support for people like Mr. Croutch," German adds.

The trial of the soldiers is expected to open next month. In the meantime, Bumfights.com continues to thrive, selling thousands of tapes.


 Fort Lauderdale police hunt young men in murder, beatings of homeless

January 13, 2006
Sun Sentinel
By Brian Haas and Jamie Malernee Staff Writers

The beatings started at 1:20 a.m.

At least two young men, armed with bats and chilling smiles, attacked a homeless man outside a downtown Fort Lauderdale college building as a security camera watched.

A second attack was reported at 2:38 a.m., at a park across the street from the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, only a half-mile away.

If this crime was by the same attackers, they were more vicious. A man called to say his friend was hurt, lying on a park bench. When paramedics arrived, they found the victim barely alive, his head bashed in, defense wounds on his arms.

Not long after the second victim died, police had a third report. Just after 4 a.m., a homeless man crawled from the Church by the Sea garden where he was jumped, and flagged down a crew of firefighters.

Within three hours and four miles, police think a group of two to four young men, either teens or in their early 20s, had put two homeless men in the hospital and one in the morgue.

While there is no direct evidence proving that the three beatings are by the same group, authorities are investigating them as such because of the similar times, locations and method of attack. Police said the attackers will face murder charges.

"It's senseless. If you look at these kids, it was almost like it was fun and games for them," said Scott Russell, a Fort Lauderdale police officer who heads the department's crisis intervention team. "It looked like they were laughing and finding great joy in what they were doing, which made it more horrific."

Drifter Norris Gaynor, 45, did not survive severe blows to his head. Police did not release the identity of the two other men, whose conditions were unknown late Thursday.

"This is a heinous crime that will not go unpunished," said Fort Lauderdale police spokeswoman Katherine Collins.

Security cameras captured scenes of the first attack, in front of the Florida Atlantic University and Broward Community College higher education building on Las Olas Boulevard. The tape shows two young men chasing and beating a 58-year-old homeless man at the front door with bats. One of the teens stumbles as the man tries to defend himself. As the two teens run off, headlights from a dark-colored car or truck can be seen shining west on Las Olas Boulevard. Collins said she had no information about that vehicle, although authorities said Thursday they are looking for a white van with no markings.

Paramedics took the first victim to Broward General Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale for head trauma and defense fractures.

The beating spree next moved a few blocks southwest, to Riverwalk Linear Park, also called Esplanade Park, in the shadow of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. In a secluded, western portion of the park near the water, the attackers beat Gaynor, who died at Broward General.

Collins said Gaynor may have been attacked as he slept on a park bench there. Detectives later tore the bench out of the ground to scour it for evidence. Bloodstains are all that remain.

The final attack came about 90 minutes later and three miles away. The attackers found a man sleeping on a bench in the Church by the Sea's memorial gardens and beat him severely, Collins said. The man crawled to Mayan Drive with a towel wrapped around his head, and he flagged down a passing fire crew who took him to the hospital.

"He claims that while sleeping he was attacked," said Assistant Chief Stephen McInerny with Fort Lauderdale Fire-Rescue.

Advocates say random violence against the homeless has always existed and is on the rise.

South Florida has had at least five cases of homeless-related killings by teens or young adults in the past two decades.

In 1986, in West Palm Beach, four teens decided, as a police report put it: to "roust some bums" for fun and beat a homeless man to death. In 1996, a 40-year-old homeless man was punched, kicked and stomped to death by a gang of teens in Pompano Beach.

"It's one of the shameful secrets we have, the beating of homeless for sport," said Marti Forman, CEO of the Cooperative Feeding Program in Fort Lauderdale. "It's a recreation thing, it's an initiation for gangs and fraternities. I see it in the kitchen in the mornings, people coming in with their black eyes and broken teeth."

Seldom, she said, is it caught on camera, as in this case.

"Thank God for that video," she said. "There has to be outrage in the community before someone says, `Well, how prevalent is this?'"

The National Coalition for the Homeless, which tracks random violence against the homeless using news and police reports, notes that in 2004, 25 homeless people were killed and 80 non-lethal attacks reported. That's a jump of 67 percent since 2002. Most of those accused were in their teens or early 20s.

"People think that homeless people are not human beings and that it's OK to hurt them and, most importantly, they think they can get away with it," said acting executive director Michael Stoops.

Stoops also points to the popularity of a series of videos and Internet clips known as "Bum Fights" that show homeless people being beaten up as a form of entertainment.

"When young people see that, they say, `I do can do that!'" Stoops said. "It's a copy-cat kind of thing."

On Thursday, Officers Jaime Costas and Russell, went to a homeless dinner offered by St. Andrews United Methodist Church and handed out fliers asking for help. As Costas described what happened to the three men that morning, one man gasped:

"Oh my God!"

Gaynor, the homeless man who died, had stayed at least briefly at the Broward Outreach Center in Pompano Beach. Several people there recognized Gaynor's photograph, but few knew him.

"I've seen him around here, there around Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.," said Marty Whitaker, a homeless man.

"He was pretty much to himself. He was kind of a wiry person, always on the move."

Gaynor has a short criminal history in Florida, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records, including charges of lewd and lascivious behavior in Miami-Dade County in 1990 and a one-year probation sentence in 1992 for aggravated battery there. On Dec. 29, he was arrested on a charge of indecent exposure by Hollywood police, according to Broward County court records. Further details were not available Thursday.

Sean Cononie, who runs a homeless shelter in downtown Hollywood, was worried. "If they don't catch these guys, it's probably going to happen again," he said. "The sad part is they reason they do it, `For kicks, for fun.' How does society address that?"

Ron Slaby, a developmental psychologist at the Center for Media and Child Heath at Children's Hospital Boston, said violence in the media, home and community are likely contributing factors.

He said the attackers are likely to have developed a superiority-inferiority complex that led them to believe the homeless are less than human. He said they are likely to have been exposed to media that reinforced this, as well as video games that "trained" them to kill without emotion. And, while in a group, Slaby said they likely experienced heightened excitement and diminished responsibility and inhibitions.

"There could be a certain level of gang mentality," he said, "a certain type of superiority ... where others who are `inferior' deserve to be done away with."

Anyone who has information is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 954-493-8477.

Staff Writer Alva James-Johnson and Staff Researchers William Lucey and Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.


Viciousness confounds all reasoning

How can we make sense of senseless acts?

January 15, 2006
South Florida Sun Sentinel
By Jamie Malernee

Advocates say the only thing more disturbing than young men running around Fort Lauderdale and beating three homeless men for sport Thursday is the fact that such a crime is not unusual.

December 2005: Four teens from Holly Hill pleaded guilty to beating to death a 53-year-old homeless man who weighed little more than 100 pounds. They used their fists, sticks and logs, and told police they did it "for fun."

The crimes are most commonly committed by young men -- in their teens or early 20s -- who see the homeless as easy targets. They span all social and racial demographics, from inner-city gang members to upper-class suburbanites.

September 2005: A homeless man is set on fire in Indianapolis, Ind. Police said they were looking for a young man named "Lil' Willie," who poured lighter fluid on him and set him on fire after a gathering crowd demanded, "Light him up!"

"For the longest time, I used to follow all these [beating] stories. But I couldn't do it any more," said Marti Forman, CEO of the Cooperative Feeding Program in Fort Lauderdale. "When people die, they die. There is no family to notify, and it gets swept under the rug."

Perhaps not this time.

This time, there was a security camera that recorded one of the Fort Lauderdale attacks.

The video shows young men smiling and laughing, as the homeless man tries to defend himself.

Not on camera: two more beatings, one that killed a homeless man at a park. Police said they think all three attacks are related.

August 2005: Police arrest two 19-year-old California men accused of roaming downtown Los Angeles and hitting sleeping homeless people with aluminum baseball bats, leaving an elderly man in critical condition. They told police they had just finished watching a "Bum Fights" video, a popular series on the Internet that shows homeless people being beaten as entertainment.

In South Florida, people are trying to make sense of a senseless crime. Short on details, many blame movies, "Bum Fights" and video games.

"I don't think video games turn angels into demons, but we often see where video games are a component [of an attack],'" said Coral Gables-based lawyer Jack Thompson, who often has represented clients he says were influenced by violent media. "There is this underbelly of lost young boys who are connected to nothing -- they don't have a home life, they are connected to no activities, they hate school -- but they are drawn to their form of entertainment like a moth to a flame, to entertainment that makes this violence appear fun and also consequence-free."

October 2004: Three Milwaukee teens are charged with beating to death a homeless man, Rex Baum, with rocks, a flashlight, a grill, a pipe, a bat and their feet. They also smeared him with feces. According to a report, the teens "hit the victim one last time to see if he would make a sound like in [the video game] Grand Theft Auto. He didn't."

Roger Dunham, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Miami, warned Thursday's violence could prove even more troubling than that seen in school shootings.

The 1999 shooters at Columbine High School in Colorado, he said, made targets of people they thought had hurt them, while these young men don't appear to have any connection to the victims.

"It's always a little scary to us when there is no rhyme or reason … or when the only reason to do it is to get pleasure out of someone else's pain," he said.

October 2004: Five New Jersey teens are arrested and accused of attacking three homeless people because they were "bored." The teens had reportedly bragged about their "bum-hunting" at school.

Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, and other advocates say attacks on homeless people should qualify as a hate crime, a category reserved for attacks on people because of factors such as race, ethnicity or religion.

They argue this would create stiffer penalties and force the government to pay attention to the problem.

So far, only Maine compiles statistics on crimes against the homeless, said Stoops.

"That's the fundamental problem. It's not tracked," said Paul Tepper, director of the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center in Los Angeles.

Progress through politics moves slow, and many think hate crime legislation is problematic. In June 2004, a group of legislators including U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, called for a study on the issue of violence against the homeless. Wexler is still waiting for an answer.

"It's a frightening trend," said Lale Mamaux, Wexler's spokeswoman.

June 2004: Two teens are accused of bashing in the head of a homeless man outside a New York church, using bricks and garbage cans to kill the man. One is reported to have bragged, "I got my body."

Thursday's violence has some crying for retribution.

"It makes me want to bring out the worst in me," said David Grano-De-Oro, 20, who attends classes at Broward Community College near where the first beating happened. "Find these kids and beat them to the ground."

Others say they are sick of young people being stereotyped as violent because of cases like this.

"Teens are constantly portrayed in a negative light. There's never anything good saying, `Look what this teen did,'" said Samantha Cutler, 15, of Parkland. "[That crime is] disgusting, and whether you're a teenager or a regular person, they obviously have something wrong with their minds."

Crime summaries used in this article were provided by the National Coalition for the Homeless.