In the late 1990s, when Ryen McPherson was a teenager living in the idyllic San Diego suburb of La Mesa, California, he met two middle-aged homeless men named Donnie Brennan and Rufus Hannah.
McPherson, an aspiring filmmaker, was always tooling around town with a video camera. Brennan and Hannah had each spent time in the U.S. Army, with Brennan serving in the Vietnam War. Both men, who’d struggled with alcoholism for years, were recognizable in the area, a quiet place the two sought out after briefly living on the streets of San Diego. People in La Mesa, namely the police, would let them be. But McPherson’s unlikely connection with Brennan and Hannah — for better and worse — would propel them all into the media limelight, and reshape their lives completely.
Back then, McPherson, now 35, frequently filmed his skateboarding peers attempting daring tricks across La Mesa, like in the then-popular CKY videos — the skater-centric series with stunts and pranks, co-produced by Bam Margera, who’d go on to star in MTV’s Jackass.
Brennan and Hannah sometimes coaxed each other into performing stunts of their own, “mostly because people liked us and we were kidding around,” Brennan, 70, tells Rolling Stone. “We had a lot of friends in La Mesa.”
Brennan says Hannah once dared him to jump off a hill near the entrance of La Mesita Park, and land on the concrete below. Brennan accepted, but concedes he was not able to leap very far before he began rolling down the hillside, encountering rocks along the way. When Brennan finally stopped, he says, he found himself in front of a La Mesa Police car. As he brushed himself off, an officer popped out, asking him what happened and if Brennan was hurt. “I slipped on a walk up there and lost my balance,” Brennan says he told the officer. The cop then instructed him to be more careful in the future. “There were all kinds of people and kids in the park” who witnessed the fall, Brennan says. “We thought it was funny.”
McPherson says he heard about the duo, particularly Hannah, and their hijinks from friends. “People were coming up to me, telling me there’s a homeless guy running his head into trees,” McPherson says, referring to Hannah.
McPherson felt he should chronicle such activity.
He hung out with Brennan and Hannah one day behind a supermarket, where the two would cash in recyclable cans they’d found. “We just hit it off,” McPherson says of their first encounter.
But here is where their respective stories begin to diverge. During a deposition for a civil suit Brennan, Hannah and another homeless man filed against McPherson years later, Hannah said that McPherson, shortly after meeting him, offered him $5 to head-butt a stack of milk crates on camera. Hannah agreed because he was drunk, he said, and wanted the money to buy more beer. McPherson denies offering that payment. Regardless, it was the first of many acts performed by homeless people that McPherson taped — most prolifically with Hannah, memorialized in his films as “Rufus the Stunt Bum.”
To this day, McPherson and Brennan say they were never the closest of friends, more like amiable acquaintances. But McPherson and Hannah, on the other hand, became tight. In that same civil-suit statement, Hannah said McPherson cared about him, and showed concern over his excessive drinking. One Thanksgiving night, McPherson brought Brennan and Hannah plates of leftovers from his family’s dinner, sitting with them outside a grocery store while they ate. McPherson admits to giving Brennan and Hannah money at various points, but not necessarily as compensation for their time in front of the camera. Instead, McPherson characterizes those funds as helpful dollars given to friends in need.
“I can see how easy it is to look at the situation and scream ‘exploitation,’ ” McPherson says of his time filming homeless people, namely Brennan and Hannah. However, McPherson asserts he “did more for those guys than anybody had, for years.”
McPherson’s early videos were passed around La Mesa and beyond, catching the attention of Zach Bubeck, a Las Vegas native and freelance graphic designer living in San Diego at the time. Then in his early twenties, Bubeck — who could not be reached for comment — had seen similar tapes of homeless men, high school melees, pranks and skaters produced in Las Vegas by another teen, Danny Tanner. Amateur filmmaker Mikey Slyman, another friend of Bubeck’s, was brought into the fold, and the foursome founded a production company called Indecline.
They decided to combine their risqué footage into an hourlong DVD compilation, inspired by Jackass but with added shock value. Viewers now saw homeless characters risking bodily harm by performing stunts, as well as brawling, abusing drugs and engaging in all sorts of extreme tomfoolery. To optimize visceral consumer reaction to the product, they called it Bumfights.
Released in the spring of 2002, the first film in the Bumfights series would prove quite a profitable commodity, punching its way into the cultural zeitgeist while branding the filmmakers as manipulative violence mongers. McPherson was eventually incarcerated for three months in connection to the DVD, and the civil suit filed against him by the three homeless men leveed a settlement upward of $300,000.
McPherson’s Bumfights subjects, meanwhile, would experience a dizzied mix of both redemption and tragedy.
Many believe the founding members of Indecline were the driving force behind the early media blitz around Bumfights, proud to have pulled the wool over the eyes of so many homeless people who got hurt for the price of a few beers. But that’s not exactly true.
According to Slyman, a mention of the video on The Howard Stern Show led to a crashing of the server the team used to sell the DVD online. News outlets across the country — and even overseas — splayed clips and photos in critical reports.
As the film’s popularity grew, advocacy groups lashed out against it.
“It was very obvious that the films glorified violence against people who were experiencing homelessness,” says National Coalition for the Homeless director Megan Hustings. In a few Bumfights scenes, the “Bum Hunter” — an actor impersonating the late Steve Irwin, “the Crocodile Hunter” — pounces on seemingly unsuspecting homeless men for examinations in their “natural habitat.” After approaching a man sleeping out in the open and binding his hands together with duct tape, the Bum Hunter offers observations on the man’s dandruff and his clean-looking blue jeans, which he presumes were recently stolen. “This is a person,” Hustings says of the target in the clip. “Can you imagine how scary that would be, especially for someone sleeping outdoors who knows that it is very dangerous to be sleeping outside? It could be someone who’s threatening your life.”
In June 2002, just a couple of months after the first DVD’s pressing, Wired reported that 250,000 copies of Bumfights had been sold for $22 each, and that “Internet users, some from as far away as Istanbul and as near as Andrews Air Force Base, are logging onto Bumfights.com to get one of their own [videos] — and picking up a T-shirt or hooded sweatshirt while they’re at it.”
But by then, Indecline had sold the rights to Bumfights for a reported $1.5 million to two Las Vegas producers, who began promoting the film under the pseudonyms Ray Leticia and Ty Beeson. The original Indecline members could not reveal the buyers’ true names due to a non-disclosure agreement, and multiple reports on the pair — who did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story — concluded they were utilizing aliases in the media.
“It was very obvious that the films glorified violence,” says the director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Leticia and Beeson publicly claimed they were the original masterminds behind the project. They told Wired they wished to use Bumfights proceeds to one day fund a “legitimate” film, and BBC News noted they were marketing the video as an opportunity to witness “drunk bums beating each other silly.” McPherson and Slyman believe it was an associate of Leticia and Beeson’s who infamously appeared on Dr. Phil, posing as the Bumfights creator. After a pre-taped segment where he boasted about exploiting homeless people, the alleged associate arrived onstage dressed as the host, and Dr. Phil promptly threw the stand-in off set.
McPherson, Slyman and Tanner say part of the message behind their film was to raise awareness of the homeless problem in America, indicated by the complete title of the first installment — the only production of the series’ four that Indecline controlled — Bumfights: A Cause for Concern. They contend that they were simple voyeurs on the streets, “a bunch of unsupervised kids with video cameras,” as Slyman calls the team, who wanted to pull the curtain back on the lunacy occurring in some dark corners of society.
“Everybody was offended [by] what we did,” Slyman says, “but what we did was show them what they walk past every day. Do I feel remorseful? No.”
It was Leticia and Beeson who released the three Bumfights sequels, stretching out the controversy, though the later films did feature footage acquired from Indecline in their deal for the rights. But the Bumfights legacy would continue to follow McPherson, Slyman, Tanner and Bubeck for years, with their names boldly appearing in both headlines and court documents.
In the late summer of 2002, McPherson relocated to Las Vegas, in part to continue projects with Indecline. Brennan and Hannah followed McPherson, who put them up in an apartment.
(Meanwhile, Slyman bowed out of Indecline after selling the rights to Bumfights to pursue other interests. Bubeck also became less involved with the group over time; Tanner did not wish to reveal details of his life since the initial Bumfights uproar, though he’d later find himself in the center of another controversy with McPherson.)
Brennan says any acts of kindness McPherson may have offered him and Hannah — the Las Vegas housing, the Thanksgiving dinner, monetary donations — were all part of a ploy to continue to profit off of their pain. He still insists McPherson supplied alcohol as payment for filming Brennan and Hannah’s potentially injurious stunts. (Hannah, in his deposition during that later civil suit, said McPherson never gave him alcohol, though he contradicted that statement in a memoir he published in 2010.)
Brennan also says that during this period McPherson ordered him and Hannah to dress up like a cat and Tweety Bird and walk through Las Vegas casinos while being filmed. (McPherson denies that ever happened.) Such incidents, according to Brennan, were what prompted Hannah to call Barry Soper, a San Diego businessman who had once hired the duo to perform maintenance work for a few weeks at a residential development he owned.
“I gave Rufus my business card and said, ‘If you ever get in trouble you call me,’” says Soper, now 73 and still living in San Diego. “And then one day I get a call from Rufus saying, ‘Barry, you have to get your ass out here, I think they’re going to kill us.’ ”
According to Soper, McPherson and his Indecline partners kidnapped Brennan and Hannah, holding them against their will in Las Vegas, with plans to film more vile Bumfights scenes.
“I flew out to Las Vegas and met my cousin and told him we have to rescue Rufus and Donnie,” Soper says.
Soper would later become Hannah’s co-author for his memoir, A Bum Deal. A chapter titled “Jewish James Bonds” recounts Soper’s tension-rife mission with his cousin, a San Diego attorney named Barry Plotkin, who happened to be in Las Vegas for a law convention. In the book, the cousins refer to each other by the nicknames “Sopy” and “BP.” They break Brennan and Hannah out of the quarters where they’re being held when an Indecline guard named “James” abandons his post to get some food. After fleeing the scene in a getaway car driven by Plotkin, Soper pays for a Greyhound bus that ships Brennan and Hannah back to La Mesa.
Plotkin tells Rolling Stone the story in the book was dramatized by Soper for effect, but is more or less accurate. He calls his cousin “a saint,” saying Soper was helping people who were “used and abused and paid to do horrible things.”
“Without him I don’t think anybody would’ve cared,” he says.
McPherson disagrees. He says that at the time of his relocation to Las Vegas he wasn’t certain he’d even film any additional scenes with Brennan and Hannah. “We had money, we put it in an account, we took them to Vegas to get them set up with a better life,” McPherson says. McPherson says he used a portion of the revenue he earned from Bumfights to pay for their housing, cigarettes and food, a move he thought more prudent than writing them a royalty check that he worried they’d blow on booze. (Brennan and Hannah had signed releases for Bumfights, stripping their rights to compensation for use of their likenesses. When presented with the paperwork in his civil-trial deposition, Hannah said he couldn’t remember signing it.)
When asked if he held Brennan and Hannah captive, McPherson says, “They had fuckin’ house keys.” When asked about Soper’s role in the story, McPherson says, “I won’t discredit the guy for helping [them].” But he also implies that Soper’s had financial-based motives, adding, “There’s also something about the amount of money involved in all this, and how quickly people go to help when there are, allegedly, millions of dollars [floating around the project].”
Soper denies helping Brennan and Hannah for monetary gain.
McPherson also says he moved to Las Vegas for a second reason: to get away from Officer Dan Willis of the La Mesa Police Department. McPherson, who still resides in Las Vegas, says Willis had caught wind of the content in Bumfights about the time it was released, and, he says, began harassing him. McPherson filed a complaint against the city’s police department in August 2002. In it, McPherson’s lawyer, Richard Barthel, wrote that Willis violated McPherson’s civil rights by restraining him while questioning Brennan and Hannah in an effort to garner evidence with which he could file charges against McPherson. Barthel says Willis “backed off” from McPherson for a time, but in an interview with Rolling Stone, Willis denied doing anything unlawful, adding that the department cleared him of wrongdoing. Later that year, however, Willis would arrest McPherson for his role in producing Bumfights.
“I went to turn around, because I didn’t want him to hit me again,” Brennan says. “That’s when my ankle snapped.”
Signs of real trouble for McPherson and his Bumfights venture started one afternoon in February 2002, a couple of months before the release of the first DVD. McPherson and Indecline partner Tanner drove to an abandoned Taco Bell in La Mesa to catch up with Brennan and Hannah and film them, as they’d been doing periodically for about two years.
“That was a really big day,” Tanner tells Rolling Stone. “At the time, though, we didn’t realize it.” According to both Tanner and McPherson, they observed Hannah chasing Brennan. “Rufus was just on a fucking rampage,” McPherson says. “We pulled up and we felt like Rufus was probably going to kill Donnie that day.” Hannah later said during a deposition that he routinely drank at least four 40-ounce bottles of beer a day at that time, and often blacked out.
McPherson and Tanner began filming the carnage, and say they also tried to calm Hannah down. But before long, Hannah — unkempt with sun-blasted brown hair, dressed in a black hoodie and jeans — approached the taller, camo-jacketed Brennan, mumbling, “Look, I gotta hit you, all right?” He then grabbed Brennan and punched him flush in the face, twice. Brennan went down hard, with an awkward twist, and soon began complaining about pain in his right leg.
After rolling up Brennan’s jeans, Tanner says he saw a “pretty fucked” bone break. Police, a fire truck and an ambulance arrived a few minutes later. McPherson says he told the cops what had happened, that he and Tanner were trying to get Hannah to stop his assault. But Brennan tells Rolling Stone it was McPherson who instructed Hannah to “slug him!”
“I went to turn around, because I didn’t want him to hit me again,” Brennan continues, “and that’s when my ankle snapped in half.”
That event, featured on the DVD, along with another in which Brennan got “BUMFIGHT” tattooed across his forehead, became centerpieces in a 2002 criminal lawsuit filed by the Superior Court of California against the Indecline crew. There were two felony counts each of “solicitation to commit a crime” and “conspiracy to commit a crime,” stemming from several instances in which Indecline allegedly bribed Brennan, Hannah and other homeless people with money, booze and even doughnuts to participate in destructive behavior. There was one count of felonious “battery with serious injury” connected to the Taco Bell incident, as well as a misdemeanor charge of “illegal fight promoting” for Indecline’s alleged offering of compensation to Brennan and Hannah for their “pugilistic contest” that day.
“I thought it was very cruel conduct,” says Curtis Ross, then a deputy district attorney in San Diego’s Eastern County. “I think they fell in the camp of just normal, good kids that made some bad decisions [and did] some pretty cruel things regarding getting the homeless guys drunk and having them hurt each other.”
But the prosecution’s side of the case, as it turned out, “was kind of hard to piece together,” Ross explains, noting that his witnesses had “built-in credibility” issues.
Tanner recently told Rolling Stone that, during the preliminary hearing, the Indecline defense had provided video footage that did not make the final cut of the DVD and countered the state’s claims. “You can clearly hear my voice, several times, telling Rufus not to hit Donnie,” Tanner says of a clip. According to Ross, the videos were a last-minute submission into evidence, allowed by the judge without the prosecution having the chance to examine them. He says he later noticed subtle continuity inconsistencies within the footage, and concluded the tapes had been edited by Indecline to better their case. (McPherson denies this claim.)
In early 2003, all the felony charges against McPherson, Tanner, Slyman and Bubeck were either dropped or reduced to misdemeanors. “I think [their conduct] should have been held accountable at the felony level,” Ross says, “but the judge at the preliminary hearing felt differently.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that a “confused” and “shaky” Hannah testified, “They didn’t make me do anything.” That May, the Bumfights producers pleaded guilty to the “illegal fight promoting” misdemeanor in a deal that saw them avoid a criminal trial, which they say would not have yielded an impartial judge or jury because of the negative press they’d been getting. McPherson, Tanner and Bubeck were each hit with three years’ probation and had to serve 280 hours of community service, while Slyman faced similar punishment in a separate sentencing.
Two years later, though, McPherson and Bubeck went to prison for violating their probation. Ross and Judge Charles Ervin concluded the pair had not completed the required hours of community service after McPherson and Bubeck filed paperwork claiming they had. McPherson’s explanation for the incongruity is that he and Bubeck were trying to make the most of their community service by organizing an off-site clothing drive instead of doing maintenance work at a San Diego homeless shelter. The evidence they submitted didn’t satisfy the judge, who sentenced them each to 180 days in prison. McPherson and Bubeck each wound up serving three months.
Then, proceedings for the civil lawsuit against McPherson, filed in 2002, finally began in 2006. After initial deliberations, it was settled without a trial. “The moral of the story is don’t take advantage of handicapped, disabled or homeless people,” attorney Mark Quigley, who represented the three plaintiffs, including Brennan and Hannah, said at the time. The plaintiffs claimed their civil rights had been violated in the making of Bumfights. They were awarded roughly $300,000 in the settlement, which was procured through the homeowner’s insurance policy of McPherson’s father, James McPherson. According to James, the plaintiffs’ attorneys targeted his homeowner’s insurance for the payout because Ryen was under the age of 18 at the time of some of the offenses, rendering James liable — and $300,000 happened to be the policy’s maximum payout.
The rage against McPherson and Indecline was tapped into again for an episode of 60 Minutes that aired in October 2006. During one segment about a rash of violence against homeless people in the United States, reporter Ed Bradley intimated that McPherson and the other filmmakers were at least tangentially responsible for the attacks, including one in Holly Hill, Florida, that left a man dead. McPherson defended himself on the show saying, “I can’t imagine what would make somebody do the things Rufus was doing to himself,” and added, “I think it’s interesting.” He also said the infamous Bum Hunter segments were prearranged sketches with the homeless subjects having agreed to participate ahead of time, something he recently reiterated to Rolling Stone.
In talking to Rolling Stone about the Bumfights saga, McPherson, as well as Tanner and Slyman, express frustration over the way all the events have been portrayed in the media through the years. They point out that they were still young when most of it occurred, and that they’d had personal relationships with the films’ stars prior to and throughout their filming.
They certainly did not expect Bumfights to have either the sales success it had or its quaked cultural impact. Cultishly-followed videos brimming with shock value were nothing new — see: the Faces of Death series, four mondo horror films from the 1970s and 1980s that depicted gruesome fatalities, and the early-1990s underground VHS tapes of hooded graffiti taggers “bombing” in New York City. Though the show Cops predates it as well, Bumfights was first released near the forefront of a reality-TV boom in 2002, which may have given the video an assist. After the debut of Survivor — the number-one rated show in 2001, itself teeming with unsettling imagery, like the infamous trapped-rat-eating episode — viewers were so starved for reality-based programming that by the end of 2003, American Idol, The Bachelor and Joe Millionaire would join Survivor near the top of the TV ratings charts. Jackass would skip to the big screen with its own feature film.
Bumfights was in the center of it all, turning the anarchism knobs to 11.
“There was just nothing like it at the time,” says Slyman, who links backyard wrestling videos, also heavily consumed back in the early 2000s, to the appeal of his Bumfights film. He believes that because Indecline “mashed” the terms “bum” and “fights” together in the video’s title, it “piqued peoples’ curiosity” and helped in its marketing — even though the film includes very little footage of homeless people actually duking it out. “To this day, it still sounds good,” he says of the title.
But few players in the Bumfights tale believe the film would have such reverberations through the zeitgeist of today.
Hustings of the National Coalition for the Homeless tells Rolling Stone that modern civil-rights movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter — and the observances of a Homeless Bill of Rights in some states — might “keep Bumfights from getting wide acceptance today.”
With so much access to so many violent videos across the Internet — on YouTube and World Star, for example — Bumfights might be an outrageous but forgettable one-day fad in 2018, netting scant cash for its creators, who’d see viral-status hit numbers and little else to show for their efforts.
Though web-content producers can enjoy click-based revenue from ads, McPherson says, “There’s not a platform that’s going to stand by anything like that and let you monetize it, so [in 2002] we would’ve been fucked in that respect.”
“The timing was right,” Slyman says. “There’s still a lot of people doing similar things [and] they’re not making any money.”
Bumfights might be an outrageous but forgettable one-day fad in 2018, netting scant cash for its creators.
Today, Slyman runs a bail-bonds business and performs stand-up comedy in Las Vegas. He has a wife and kids, and helps run a Facebook group with more than 50,000 members dedicated to providing information about area emergencies. During the mass shooting there in October 2017, Slyman says, members were live-streaming the chaos from their phones and posted scanner feeds. “The world was listening to what we provided,” he says. “We were debunking the rumors of multiple shooters, telling people what roads were blocked off — information the local news couldn’t give them. People were finding their family members.…It was pretty fucking crazy.” He also permitted public fundraising pages benefiting the victims’ families to be posted in the group, and adds that he has organized bottled-water drives on behalf of the homeless during Vegas’ hot summer months.
McPherson communicates that the sentiments around the Bumfights history looms over the artwork Indecline has done since, which has remained edgy, but has also become more socially conscious and politically progressive.
The group has become best known for targeting Donald Trump in a series of installations, including The Emperor Has No Balls, where five nude-Trump statues popped up in cities across the country two years ago, and, more recently, The People’s Prison, which featured a Trump impersonator in a jail cell set up in an undisclosed room inside a Manhattan Trump Tower hotel. In early 2017, McPherson and Indecline, in collaboration with a Bay Area-based street artist who goes by PEMEX, produced a project in which PEMEX cut down freeway billboards advertising the likes of Budweiser and other corporations, and reshaped the vinyl into standalone shelters for some in the local homeless population. After the mass shooting in Las Vegas, Indecline painted a mural memorializing the victims and protesting gun laws.
After Bumfights was released, Brennan remained on the streets, off and on, for years, and continued to drink. (He says the $90,000 he saw from the civil suit paid for necessities like rent, food and clothing for five years.) He says today he lives off disability payments from the Army and that he’s now sober, having recently been discharged from a rehab facility. He lives in a room at a sober-living home that supports people in recovery in San Diego.
After the civil suit, Hannah worked for Soper as a handyman, published his memoir in 2010, and gave inspirational speeches to other homeless people at events organized by the National Coalition for the Homeless. He’d given up alcohol for good in 2002 because, as he told The San Diego Union-Tribune, his daughter wrote him a letter after hearing about his activities in Bumfights. “I can’t believe you’re living like that,” she wrote to Hannah.
McPherson, who makes a living as a freelance creative director, will never get the chance to mend fences with his one-time homeless buddy Hannah, though. In early October 2017, Hannah was riding in his sister’s car close to Swainsboro, Georgia, where he was born. Soper says Hannah moved back there to be closer to family. According to a Georgia State Patrol investigator, an 18-wheeler ran a red light and crashed into the passenger side of the car, killing Hannah instantly.
Saddened by the loss of Hannah, Soper, followed by a local news camera, placed a bouquet of flowers at the dumpster where he says the two first met in the late 1990s. He called Hannah “a beautiful soul.”
Hustings, of the National Coalition for the Homeless, says she interacted with Hannah on a few occasions while he was engaged in outreach as a speaker on behalf of the organization. She remembers him as an inspirational figure and a “soft-spoken, very sweet person.”
Similar tidings for Hannah are still held out West, where his legend first exploded. “In my 30 years in law enforcement I have never seen somebody turn his life around the way he was able to,” Willis, the La Mesa police officer, now retired, says of Hannah. “To go from living that much of a desperate life to being someone who’s a national spokesperson, traveling around the country, talking to legislators and colleges about homelessness and alcoholism — to me, that shows great courage.”
Brennan tells Rolling Stone that, before Hannah’s death, the two were “tighter than the Lone Ranger and Tonto.”
“He was beyond a nice guy,” Brennan also said of Hannah. “It’s devastating. I’m at a loss as to how I’m exactly supposed to feel right now.”
Though McPherson says that Hannah misled investigators, the media and his readers about the nature of the relationship they shared, the thought of Hannah’s death tears him up.
“There was the time he spent with me, and the time he spent with his attorneys, and he wouldn’t look me in the eye,” McPherson says. “If it ever came down to me and Rufus sitting across a table from each other, having gone through all of this, I would find it really fucking hard to believe that he wouldn’t look me in the eye, shake my hand, or give me a hug.”
McPherson adds that through the years he’s been disappointed in Brennan because for so long he refused to turn his life around the way Hannah did.
However, “with Rufus, I was always proud of him,” McPherson says. “It would’ve been cool to talk to Rufus again. He was a legend.”