"The Battle Over Bumfights"
Shock-video producers made millions filming the violent antics of crackheads and vagrants, but the controversial tape has prompted both civil and criminal litagation, and at least on congressmans' outrage.
by Dan Kapelovitz
Photo by Giddle Partridge
"A vagrant struggles to escape the punishing punches, kicks and body slams of his attacker. [There is] another scene with a man standing in a dark alley, hitting himself on the head as he realized that his hair is on fire. A purported crack addict [is] smoking the drug and defecating on the sidewalk, and then there are films of a homeless man extracting his own teeth with a pair of pliers. These sad, pathetic images are described as hilariously shocking. I call it criminal."
Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) uttered the above words on the floor of the House of Representatives, denouncing Bumfights: A Cause For Concern, a controversial and popular video. The grandstanding legislator, who decided to "take a pass" on being interviewed for this article, demanded that the FBI, Customs and the U.S. Postal Service look into prosecuting the video's creators.
Whether due to Blumenauer's words or not, the video's notoriety has prompted law-enforcement agencies and civil attorneys to take notice. Four of the cameramen who shot much of the Bumfights footage are being charged with felonies, while two of the video's homeless stars are suing the filmmakers for pain and suffering.
On Labor Day weekend 2002, HUSTLER is hanging out with the two 24-year-old producers of Bumfights--Ray Leticia, a clean-cut, soft-spoken blond and his extroverted friend, Ty Beeson, who has dyed-black hair that often hangs in front of his eyes. (Both names are pseudonyms that the pair have adopted.) We are on the corner of Las Vegas and Sahara boulevards, looking for bums, in the same convenience-store parking lot where the vagrant that so concerned Blumenauer yanked out his tooth for a Bumfights cameraman.
"That tooth needed to go," says Ray. "It was all infected. We paid him $20, and bought him a bottle of whiskey." Besides assisting bums with their dental hygiene, Ray and Ty feel that their controversial video actually helps the homeless by calling attention to their plight.
Friends since elementary school, Ray and Ty say they have spent the past three years compiling footage of bums acting up. The duo purchased much of the raw Bumfights material from San Diego resident Ryan McPherson, who "discovered" the video's undisputed star, Rufus Brennan, a/k/a Rufus the Stunt Bum. (Eventually, Rufus and the film crew moved the operation to Las Vegas.)
Beeson and Leticia claim to have become multimillionaires within months of their video's release. "From just word of mouth, we've sold over a quarter million [copies]," boasts Ty. At $19.95 a pop, the videos presumably have grossed nearly $5 million, not including the sales of T-shirts, sweatshirts and tank tops featuring a photo of Rufus. The scruffy 47-year-old with the word BUMFIGHT tattooed across his knuckles has become a cult celebrity, famous for running headfirst into walls, beating on a Taco Bell drive-thru-window menu and spray-painting the sleeping bags of dozing bums.
"We knew we achieved somewhat of a household-name status when we were watching the NBA finals," says Ray. "They had the camera on Brad Pitt in the audience. Brad Pitt had a big beard, and Bob Costas goes, ‘Hey, look; it's Rufus the Stunt Bum.' "
Leticia and Beeson's big break came when Howard Stern described the video on his radio program. "At that time, we only had one phone line, and it was running into my house," recalls Leticia. "I woke up at four in the morning, and it was some dude with a New York accent. He said, 'I'm calling about that video that Howard's talking about. I want to order it.' The phone didn't stop ringing, and it never has since that moment."
Tonight, Ray and Ty are having difficulty locating bums in this usual homeless hot spot. According to Ty, the Las Vegas police chase the derelict population off of the strip during tourist-filled holiday weekends.
Ray explains how difficult finding good Bumfights footage can be. "People think, Oh, they just pay bums to fight; how easy, but it's not the case. It's tough to get anyone to do anything that has any shock value. If we get two minutes of usable footage in a night, it's a great night. Crackheads are more entertaining than bums. They like to talk, whereas a lot of the homeless guys--it's tough to get them to do stuff that's entertaining. That's why Rufus is such a catch."
Ty disappears down a dark side street and returns 15 minutes later with two street people in tow: Junior, a Caucasian dressed in a muscle shirt, and Lucius, a skinny black dude. Neither of the transients, who are openly drinking malt liquor from a 7-Eleven Big Gulp cup, have heard of the Bumfights videos. When the concept is explained to them, they both want starring roles. Lucius even suggests filming him jumping onto a nearby casino's moving roller coaster. Everyone else agrees this is probably not a good idea. Ray gives the hoboes a couple of fivers for their troubles, and we take off in Ty's Chevy Avalanche North Face Edition truck.
Ray says Joe Francis, the mastermind behind Girls Gone Wild, offered them $10 million for the rights to Bumfights. "At the time, we had already made half that, and it had only been a few months; so it didn't make sense," says Ray.
With his newfound riches, Leticia purchased a Porsche, trips around the world and a house with a one-lane bowling alley. A fan of '80s movies such as The Breakfast Club and The Karate Kid, Ray is currently in preproduction on a self-financed feature film. Beeson spent some of his earnings on a house, a bulldozer and, he says, an $8,000 lynx cat that he bought on the black market.
Fame and fortune have brought problems to the young entrepreneurs. Las Vegas authorities investigated Ray and Ty, and, at one point, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said an investigation was underway to charge the fimmakers with filming without a permit. Ultimately, Las Vegas officials and Clark County District Attorney Stewart Bell decided not to prosecute, but the four friends of Ray and Ty who originally filmed Rufus's stunt footage weren't so lucky. In September, 2002, the San Diego County District Attorney's office charged Ryan McPherson, Zachary Bubeck, Michael Slyman and Daniel Tanner with the felony charge of solicitation to commit a crime. The following month, Greene, Broillet, Panish & Wheeler, LLP, the law firm representing Rufus and his best friend and fellow star, Donald Brennan a/k/a Donnie the Bum, filed a civil case for pain and suffering.
The defendants' lawyers say their clients have not broken the law. "[The prosecutors] are desperately searching for a crime to fit these facts, but there isn't one," says Michael Pancer, Bubeck's attorney. "I've been practicing a long time; this is probably my favorite case ever, because I just can't see losing it."
The DA is charging McPherson with the additional crime of obstruction of justice for allegedly offering to pay his homeless thespians not to cooperate with police. "When the word got out that there was a criminal investigation from our agency," says Lieutenant Raul Garcia of the La Mesa Police Department in San Diego County, "[The filmmakers] told these homeless guys, 'Don't talk to the police,' and they went a step further by taking them and moving them to Las Vegas. The problem in Las Vegas was, they were dangling the idea that ‘There's money for you, and we'll take care of you.' "
While the media reported that McPherson allegedly offered the bums $25,000 to keep mum, Donnie, who suffered a broken ankle during the making of Bumfights, explains that this claim resulted from a huge misunderstanding when he used the phrase "hush money." "[The police] kept asking me about the hush money. I said, 'It's not hush money.' When I grew up as a kid, my mom used to tell me to hush up, and we kept calling [Ryan] to get five, ten bucks to pay the rent or something; so I told the cops that was just to get us to quit complaining. [That] is what I should have said."
The civil case was filed against everyone who might be involved in the Bumfights video, including the tattoo parlor which turned Donnie into a walking Bumfights billboard by inking a picture of a beer bottle and the word bumfights onto his forehead.
Ty believes that the lawyers have brainwashed Rufus and claims he isn't concerned about the arrests and the lawsuits. In fact, he says all of the new publicity has only served to increase sales.
While Ty thinks that lawyers were probably wandering the back alleys looking to sign up Rufus and Donnie as clients, Browne Greene, attorney for Rufus and Donnie, says the homeless men found his law firm through Barry Soper, who hired the two derelicts to work odd jobs at his building.
Greene believes that the Bumfights suit is a "multiple seven-figure-type case," although he is unsure yet what percentage of the judgment, if collected, will go to Rufus and Donnie. (Greene says some of the money would go to homeless support groups.)
Ty, who claims that he and Ray already give some of their profits to homeless charities, doesn't think he or his colleagues have done anything wrong. "We've documented footage; that's all we've really done. Whether we've caught a guy smoking a crack pipe or caught someone spray-painting the side of a bus, that's something that we caught on film."
Greene doesn't buy Ty's explanation. "Yeah, right; that makes a lot of sense. Yeah, these guys would go in and have a tattoo that's two inches high put on their forehead. They do that on a regular basis. Give me a break."
While Greene says the tattoo parlor gave Donnie his inscription when he was clearly plastered, a violation of California state law, the tattoo artist maintains that Donnie was sober during the procedure.
"They're lying out their ass," retorts Donnie, who is holed up with Rufus in a hotel room, which Donnie says is "more or less" being paid for by their attorneys.
"It's a sad thing," says Rufus. "[The filmmakers] knew our problem. We do drink. They'd say, ‘Here, go get some alcohol; we'll be back a little later and go do some filming.' "
Even so, Rufus feels for the filmmakers. "I don't think they should go to jail. I was never forced physically to do anything. I was pretty much enticed by getting drunk."
If Donnie and Rufus win the lawsuit, Donnie is going to have his Bumfights tattoo removed, purchase a small condominium in Sacramento and travel. "I'd love to go to New Zealand for about five or six days, and then I'll come back and do a lot of fishing. We're not going to get extravagant here. If I had a bunch of money, I might invest in property, you know, smart decisions instead of stupid ones, but I'm not making no more videos--that's for sure.
"What we're trying to do with this lawsuit is make sure that people like us don't get taken advantage of anymore," Donnie adds. "We just don't want what happened to us to happen to the other homeless people. It is pretty rank."
(This article first appeared in the March 2003 issue of Hustler Magazine)
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