Locals charged in paparazzi-surfer brawl prepare for arraignment

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Detectives used video footage to ascertain that battery of a French photographer took place on Little Dume Beach in June, when paparazzi were trying to get photographs of Malibu resident Matthew McConaughey.

By Nora Fleming / Special to The Malibu Times

Two local residents, Skylar Peak, 24, and Philip “John” Hildebrand, 30, have been each charged with one misdemeanor count of battery involving the June paparazzi-surfer beach fights and will be arraigned on Oct. 14 in Malibu Superior Court.

Traded verbal insults turned to physical confrontation at Little Dume Beach on June 21 and 22 between local Malibu surfers and paparazzi who were there to photograph actor Matthew McConaughey. Several paparazzi photographers reported injuries and equipment destruction from the fight.

Detective Ken Baumgartner of the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station investigated the incidents from the weekend, using video footage that circulated on the Internet in the aftermath. The evidence was turned over to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office as grounds for criminal prosecution.

James Garrison, deputy district attorney of the Malibu District Attorney’s Office, presented the charges. Garrison said Monday that no specific district attorney has been assigned to prosecute the case.

Members of Peak and Hildebrand’s legal team declined to provide a name of the attorney who will defend both men, though Wolf Group L.A., a Los Angeles based law firm, is providing civil consult for both men, but will not be defending them regarding the criminal charges.

Michael Schwimer, an attorney with Wolf Group L.A., said, as he understood the facts, the paparazzi “became belligerent and antagonistic towards several of the beachgoers and threatened their health and safety.” He said beachgoers, including the two defendants, acted in self-defense, but would not go into particulars regarding the legal defense for the two men.

Rachid Aitmbareck, a French photographer involved in the June 21 incident and named as the victim in the battery charges, has retained Bryan Altman, of the Altman Law Group, as his civil attorney. No other photographers involved in the incidents have been known to retain legal counsel at this time. (The District Attorney’s Office misspelled his name as Richid Atlmbareckouhammou in a press release announcing the charges.)

Altman said, as of now, Aitmbareck has not pressed any civil charges, but he had a significant loss of equipment and medical bills as a result of the assault. It is Altman’s hope that a criminal conviction by the prosecuting district attorney, which could mean up to six months in a jail and a $2,000 fine for both Peak and Hildebrand, will have additional consequences and provide a form of restitution for Aitmbareck.

“We hope that the prosecution is not tainted and [is] pure, and will hopefully convict these two men,” Altman said. “They set on [Aitmbareck] like a pack of wolves, beat him and dragged him into the water.”

The District Attorney’s press release, dated Sept. 2, stated that victim “was thrown into the water by the defendants,” but did not mention any other type of assault.

“He suffered physical and psychological trauma and is still fearful of being in the Malibu area,” said Altman, who added that Aitmbareck, who he called “small and diminutive,” was far from a threatening presence on the beach on June 21, shooting with a long lens from a distance. Altman said his client was approached by the group of men, harassed and violated.

Those involved in aiding the defendants believe that the video footage that circulated in the aftermath of the event was edited and misrepresented what happened on that day.

“I’m here to present the truth, the American way. I’d really like to address that in a court of law,” said Howard Bragman of the media/public relations agency Fifteen Minutes who is serving as Peak’s publicist surrounding the court proceedings.

“It is very clear that Mr. Peak was defending himself. We believe a true and unedited version of video will vindicate our client,” Bragman said.

Schwimer agreed.

“The videos were edited, spaced and temporarily arranged to misportray the events, how they occurred, and create a sensationalized event out of it,” Schwimer said.

Hildebrand, a Malibu based photographer, and Peak, a local lifeguard, co-own and operate Sicky Dicky Productions, an event planning company they founded in 2006 that hosts company-sponsored and charity donation parties.

Hildebrand, who said he couldn’t comment on the paparazzi issue or the case, said in regard to his relationship to Malibu: “For me, Malibu has always been a warm, welcoming place where everyone has your back. I’ve always tried to give back and be a model citizen.”

In the aftermath of the events in June, City Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich has explored possibilities to create a paparazzi statute or a way to increase efforts by local law enforcement to prevent further physical confrontations from occurring through consultation with legal experts.

Currently, California Civil Code 1708.8, which deals with invasion of privacy and property damage and applies to “capturing any type of visual image or sound recording,” has been used to prosecute overly zealous paparazzi. Discussion of creating new legislation often dead-ends at the potential violation of First Amendment rights of paparazzi.

The paparazzi incident in June was a “wake up call for the City of Malibu,” Schwimer said. “Paparazzi are plaguing the city. This is a now problem and not a tomorrow problem.”

Schwimer said he believes that by taking away the economic incentive for paparazzi, their aggressive behavior could be curbed and they would be “less inclined to go to the lengths they go to get the images they get.”

Altman said he does not think the overall paparazzi issues should have impact on the results of the particular incident in June, and that Malibu should focus on enforcing existing laws and making sure law enforcement acts quickly if such an event occurs in the future.

“[Aitmbareck] is the victim. Whatever association he has or occupation, even with the crudest connotation, he was still beat on a public beach,” Altman said. “There’s no justification on the other side of the fence that gave these people [the right] to attack my client. Nothing that common decency would allow.”