The defense attorney for a Lake Forest man accused in the bludgeoning-murder of Laguna Beach resident Damon Nicholson told a Superior Court jury that an accomplice was responsible for the deadly attack during his opening statement on Wednesday.
Matthew Thomas Dragna, 23, is charged with one felony count of special circumstances murder committed during the late-night robbery of Nicholson in his lower level duplex on Oct. 23, 2009. Dragna, looking considerably heavier since his arrest and wearing dark framed glasses and a gray striped shirt in the courtroom, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.
Among several witnesses who testified Thursday in Judge James A. Stotler’s courtroom were men who engaged in sexual relations with Nicholson on the night he was murdered as well as the previous evening. A Lake Forest man described bringing along a companion, the defendant, to the Dolphin Way apartment for a sexual tryst.
Laguna police Detective Larry Bammer also testified. He described evidence collected at the murder scene, which showed no signs of ransacking and valuable cameras left in the open. He also described a search of Dragna’s apartment and the discovery of a software DVD licensed to a woman who had lent the software to Nicholson. The detective also described recovering Nicholson’s cell phone from a maintenance worker at the apartment complex where Dragna lived.
Prosecutor Matt Murphy, who said he expects to conclude his case by Wednesday, Dec. 18, shrugged off the strategy outlined by public defender Frank Bittar, who contends that Dragna’s co-defendant, Jacob Anthony Quintanilla, wielded the blows that killed Nicholson. “It doesn’t matter who struck the fatal blow,” said Murphy, as both defendants aided and abetted a murder during a robbery.
Also present in the courtroom were three of Nicholson’s 15 siblings, who mostly live in Arizona. “We all miss him dearly,” said Derrick Nicholson, who along with his brother David, wore leather jackets that had belonged to Damon to the trial. The siblings described Nicholson – Hotel Laguna’s catering manager – as possessing a gift for nurturing relationships by making people feel special and anticipating their needs as well as a love for holiday merrymaking and tree decorating. “What happens in the courtroom won’t change that,” said Derrick, referring to his brother’s use of gay websites for dates and unusual sexual practices, both described by witnesses.
Asked if the siblings had cautioned Nicholson about his lifestyle, Derrick shook his head. “He was so smart and self-sufficient. Those aren’t all the reality.”
Dragna and his friend Quintanilla were arrested within a few weeks of Nicholson’s brutal slaying. A co-worker,
who was concerned when Nicholson failed to show up for work or return any phone calls, discovered his body slumped on a white couch and cushions drenched in blood. A pathologist testified he died from two blunt force blows that cracked his skull.
The pair, who have spent the last four years in jail, are accused of bludgeoning Nicholson with a baseball bat and stealing his laptop and cell phone, according to the prosecutor.
Up until the previous week, the defendants’ cases were proceeding together. Now, Quintanilla’s case is scheduled separately for pre-trial on Jan. 10 and Newport Beach criminal defense attorney Michael Molfetta represents him. Molfetta did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Murphy said he prefers to sever defendants because juries tend to want to apportion responsibility.
In a preliminary hearing for both defendants in November 2011, Judge Karen L. Robinson heard testimony from investigative police Sgt. Bob Rahaeuser about an interview he and Detective Larry Bammer conducted with Quintanilla in his home on the day of his arrest on Dec. 4, 2009.
Quintanilla described being lured to Laguna Beach, promised of a home with a stash of marijuana and was asked by Dragna to bring along his metal baseball bat and his mother’s car, Rahaeuser told the prosecutor.
After parking in a rear alley, Quintanilla told Rahaeuser he followed Dragna into Nicholson’s north Laguna duplex. Nicholson, 41, seemed pleased to see Dragna, who had visited the previous night, but looked surprised by the presence of a second person, according to Rahaeuser’s testimony. Before any words were exchanged, Dragna crossed the room and swung the bat at Nicholson’s head, “a sound,” Quintanilla told investigators, “he never wanted to hear again.”
After rendering Nicholson unconscious, the pair stole his cell phone, external hard drive and computer, Rahaeuser said. There was no marijuana and Nicholson was never a suspected trafficker, the investigator said.
When police arrested Dragna, he allegedly was in possession of items stolen from Nicholson’s home, says the prosecutor’s statement. Quintanilla was arrested as a result of investigation and forensic evidence collected from Nicholson’s stolen property, prosecutors said.
Quintanilla, 25, also of Lake Forest, faces the same charges and maximum sentence as Dragna.
Court records show Dragna has a previous record, having pled guilty to burglary and drug charges in incidents that both involved accomplices.