After deliberating less than six hours, a jury last week found Matthew Thomas Dragna guilty of the 2009 bludgeoning-murder of Damon Nicholson in his Laguna Beach apartment.
The jury’s verdict, convicting Dragna of one felony count of special circumstances murder during a robbery, was announced in Santa Ana’s Central Justice Center late Friday, Dec. 20 following a nine-day trial. Dragna, 23, of Lake Forest, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole at his sentencing Feb. 28, says a statement from the district attorney’s office.
His co-defendant Jacob Anthony Quintanilla, 25, also of Lake Forest, faces the same charges and sentence. A pre-trial hearing is set for Jan. 10.
Dragna met 40-year-old Nicholson for the first time at his Dolphin Way apartment on Oct. 22, 2009, at the invitation of a third person, investigators learned. The three engaged in a sexual encounter that night, a witness testified. After meeting Nicholson, Dragna planned to rob him the following night by going to his home under the pretense of another sexual encounter, prosecutor Matt Murphy said.
The following night, Dragna and Quintanilla, behind the wheel of his
mother’s car, entered the apartment through an open glass door. Nicholson, nibbling cookies on a white couch, “before he can even stand up, he’s breathing his last breath,” Murphy said. Nicholson was attacked with a baseball bat, bashed five times, the prosecutor said. They left him slumped on the couch, his last gasps still audible, according to Dragna’s statement to police. They fled the scene after stealing a laptop computer, expensive software and a distinctive cell phone, according to court testimony.
Dragna’s DNA was found in Nicholson’s apartment on the lid of an empty kitchen trashcan. “Dragna decided he needed a bag,” and removed the liner to contain the stolen loot before the pair fled, Murphy said.
Nicholson’s body was discovered Oct. 24, 2009, when a concerned co-worker went to check on him after the Hotel Laguna catering manager failed to show up for work or return phone calls.
Laguna Beach police arrested Dragna on Nov. 18, 2009, in Santa Ana at a court-ordered rehab facility. In a search of his home in Lake Forest, where Dragna lived with his mother and sisters, police seized property stolen from Nicholson’s home. Additional investigation and forensic evidence led to Quintanilla’s arrest on Dec. 4, 2009, the prosecutor’s statement said.
Some of Nicholson’s 15 siblings attended each day of the court proceedings. The oldest sibling, David, recalled how his brother was greeted like a small-town celebrity in his hometown, where he seemed to know everybody.
At Nicholson’s memorial, sister Deanna Cosgrove, of Virginia, learned she wasn’t alone in receiving special kindnesses from her brother. “You felt it was just you, but at the memorial you realize he did that for everyone.”
“What happens in the courtroom won’t change that,” said the youngest of the clan, Derrick, of Texas.