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The company introduced karate to Jonathan Antonucci when he was 12. Back then, Antonucci was living in Fort Collins, Colorado, the oldest of five siblings who were home-schooled by their devoutly Baptist parents.
Antonucci was a hardworking, entrepreneurial sort, his 18-year-old brother, Joshua, tells New Times. Starting when Jonathan was 9, he made money each summer mowing lawns and each snowy winter delivering newspapers. He discovered a Young Champions branch through the local Boys and Girls Club, and martial arts soon became a part of his persona. Joshua says his brother got an early start as a teacher, giving lessons to his siblings in their backyard and handing out homemade awards.
When he found out that his father, Dante Antonucci, planned to move the family to Phoenix, "he was excited because this was the base for Young Champions of America, and this was supposed to be where the best instructors were," Joshua says.
His first lessons in his new city were from Kraig Hollingworth, but he also spent time under the tutelage of Josh Robinson.
Robinson was almost like family to some of the company's staffers — especially his former teacher Hollingworth. A few years after Robinson's mother enrolled her son in karate classes, she met her future husband, Larry Moody, another single parent who took his daughter and son to the classes. Moody even proposed to Robinson's mom in front of a delighted crowd at a Young Champions karate tournament.
The boy became an accomplished black belt, instructor, and employee with the company. Still, his family members describe him as a bit naive and immature, the type of guy who often starts projects he doesn't finish. He was given a medical discharge from the Marine Corps and worked odd jobs to supplement his Young Champions income. He couldn't hold his first, brief marriage together — his wife took their two small children and moved to Utah. After his divorce, he fell in love with a Mexican immigrant who spoke little English. They didn't have much money, but they had a son together in 2008 and planned to get married.
Robinson's sister, Angie Guzman, says they made a "kooky little couple."
Robinson and Antonucci became good friends over the years, and the teen graduated from student to Robinson's assistant instructor. The pair were very popular with students. Sometimes they'd force each other to endure pain-threshold tests or joint locks, which entertained their classes.
But Jonathan Antonucci wasn't satisfied with the way Young Champions was run, Joshua says. Class attendance typically dropped off in the summer, and Antonucci couldn't make the kind of money he wanted, forcing him to take an occasional side job. His financial problems were partly based on lifestyle. Antonucci made more than $30,000 and Robinson more than $40,000 in the year preceding the fire, says Hollingworth. They were paid a commission for each student, and both worked an average of only 30 hours a week, he says.
When Antonucci moved out of his parents' house at age 18 and began renting a home, money got tight. So he did what many Americans would do in that situation: bought a nice automobile on credit. A 2004 GMC Sierra 1500 pickup, to be precise.
He also ramped up plans to launch his own dojo, Red Dragon Martial Arts, which had been his dream since the days of the pretend classes in his backyard in Colorado. He had asked Murillo, Otto, and Robinson to work for him. Joshua Antonucci says Robinson had a "hard time" with the concept of going from Jon's sensei (a Japanese term of respect for a person who has mastered a discipline) to Jon's employee — he wanted to work with Jonathan, not for him. But the entrepreneurial-minded teen, his brother says, wouldn't hear of it.
Despite the disagreement, Robinson apparently came around to intending to work for the younger man.
Joshua Antonucci has continued to help develop a Web site for the business his brother wants to open — and has tried to retain the support of his brother's former students. Jonathan Antonucci says that when he gets out of prison, even if it's not for two decades, he still intends to open the dojo.
The headquarters of Young Champions of America is now in a wasteland of half-empty office buildings in the Scottsdale Airpark area. The new place doesn't have as much room as the old building and property, which the company bought in 2004 during a period of growth. But it's enough space to manage the business and keep classes going.
Last month, Rory and Tawnya Hood, Hollingworth, and the company's business manager, Char Brandom, chatted with New Times about the fire and the events leading up to it. Hood chastises himself for being such a softie with the "kids." The company had been ripped off before, on a lesser scale, because so much money was collected in the field. In late 2008, Hood and Hollingworth found that Antonucci was taking greedy schemes further than anyone in the past, yet Hood still gave him a second chance.
Instructors at Young Champions receive awards for retaining the most students, and after a while, nobody could match Antonucci. Whether in karate classes or the occasional soccer class he taught, students seldom left the teen. Even Hollingworth, despite his years of experience, could not keep so many students.