By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
By Pete Kotz
By Monica Alonzo
By New Times
"That's what hurts the most," says Rory Hood, the company's president. "These were students of this organization."
The four friends had all worked as karate instructors, teaching children and teens in the evenings or on weekends at schools and churches. Robinson and Antonucci sometimes helped out at the main office (which didn't host classes).
Young Champions of America employs about 25 instructors at a time in the Valley, including some who teach multiple classes per night. Parents can pay a smaller fee per class rather than for a set number of weeks, which is one way the company meets its goal of providing youth classes to lower-income families.
Each instructor must find and retain students in their classes, and Robinson and Antonucci — both lively and engaging as teachers — were among the most successful.
Robinson had started taking karate lessons when he was 7 years old from Kraig Hollingworth, now the company's vice president. Except during a brief stint in the Marine Corps, Robinson had always been affiliated with Young Champions either as student or employee.
Antonucci had attended the company's karate classes as a youngster in Colorado and hooked up with the local chapter when his family moved to Phoenix. Both he and Robinson occasionally went to Hollingworth's house to play video games and socialize.
Moniza Murillo, 21, also had come of age with the firm, starting as karate student and advancing to rookie teacher. She lived in a mobile home with her parents and another family while attending Estrella Community College just before her arrest. She took her first Young Champions class at age 10.
The fourth person arrested in connection with the arson, Jeffrey Otto, 20, began taking classes in his mid-teens from Robinson and had assisted as an instructor during the year before the fire.
The three surviving suspects were charged with first-degree murder in addition to arson. Only Otto has maintained his not-guilty plea and held out for trial. Murillo copped a plea in August and has reportedly agreed to testify against Otto, if he doesn't change his mind and admit involvement in the arson.
Antonucci's plea deal, meanwhile, calls for between seven and 21 years in prison. He's scheduled to be sentenced in March. Murillo's sentence will depend on how much she helps prosecutors in Otto's trial, if there is one.
None of them had ever been in trouble with the law before, as far as New Times could tell through public records and interviews.
Ironically, the instruction given by Young Champions employees, whether in karate or other classes, typically includes character lessons, as well as the physical activities. Kids are taught to respect others, do their homework, and make other good choices in life. Many come to view their instructors as mentors.
The accusations and arrests that came in the fire's aftermath were a shock to the hundreds of teens and little kids they had taught, the students' parents, and their own friends and families.
Murillo's parents, Joseph and Isabell, wrote in a letter to the court that their daughter sings, draws, practices karate, and plays soccer. She played softball and football at La Joya Community High School. She went to church every Sunday, is liked by teachers, and won a college scholarship.
"Never in a million years would we ever think she would be locked up," they wrote.
The owner and staff members of Young Champions are still reeling from the group's actions and what led to them. The arson, though unexpected, was the culmination of months of drama and suspicion at the Phoenix office building. Antonucci had been accused of pilfering daily sales totals and of running moneymaking operations on the side. Before he was fired, the company hired an outside auditor to determine the extent of the thefts. The auditor not only discovered problems with records kept by Robinson and other instructors, but evidence of far more serious embezzlement by another less-tenured employee.
On the morning of the fire, Hood, his wife, Tawnya, and Hollingworth were at the site before the sun came up. They simply couldn't believe the blackened, unrecognizable corpse was that of sensei Josh Robinson.
The idea of treachery by a friend was too tough to fathom.
Before Young Champions of America, there was Bonnie Blue Bells.
Bonnie Hood started the company in 1958 in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area to teach an activity that was immensely popular at the time: baton-twirling. Hood's flash of inspiration was to bring baton-twirling to the masses by partnering with school districts, which would provide space for classes. The late Hood would later run a traveling variety show called the New Olympians, which hosted numerous cultural exchanges from Cuba to China.
Baton-twirling fell out of fashion, but not before Hood's son, Rory, who came to school in Arizona, caught the bug. He became an ace baton-twirler during his years at the University of Arizona. He also helped expand his mother's company, which had changed its name and begun to offer instruction in other activities.
Martial arts had gained popularity through the '70s, thanks to martial artist and actor Bruce Lee. Then, in 1984, the movie The Karate Kid changed everything. People lined up around the block to take karate classes from the Hoods' company. Martial arts, of course, continue to be a staple of popular culture. (A remake of The Karate Kid is scheduled to be released this year). Young Champions ultimately opened offices in 16 states, and teaches an estimated 75,000 youth nationwide.