Four days after the second anniversary of Damon Nicholson’s bludgeoning death, a judge ordered two Lake Forest men bound over for trial to face a special circumstances murder charge during a preliminary hearing last Thursday in Harbort Court.
“I do feel we made a step forward,” said Debbie Ambrose, of Tucson, Ariz., one of Nicholson’s nine siblings and present in the courtroom along with their parents.
Though difficult to hear the circumstances of her brother’s death recounted, Ambrose found it equally hard to be in the presence of her brother’s suspected killers. “They are young kids,” Ambrose said, confounded by the lack of emotion she observed in the accused during the proceeding.
Laguna Beach police arrested Matthew Thomas Dragna, now 21, and Jacob Anthony Quintanilla, 23, neighbors in a Lake Forest apartment complex, within weeks of the murder of the popular Hotel Laguna catering manager. Court records show Dragna has a previous record, having pled guilty to burglary and drug charges in incidents that both involved accomplices. His mother and sister were also in the courtroom.
If convicted of the charge, Dragna and Quintanilla face life in prison without possibility of parole.
During the hearing, Judge Karen L. Robinson heard testimony from investigative Sgt. Bob Rahaeuser about a Dec. 4, 2009, interview he and Detective Larry Bammer conducted with Quintanilla in his home.
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 prosecutor Matt Murphy.
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, he said.
The police investigation included interviews with 37 people and 12 search warrants, including obtaining phone records that showed Quintanilla’s cell phone was used at 11:26 p.m. on Oct. 23, 2009, in Laguna Beach. Nicholson’s phone was recovered within 24 hours from a dumpster in the block-long Lake Forest complex where Quintanilla and Dragna lived and DNA found at the crime scene matched Dragna’s, Rahaeuser said in an interview after the hearing.
Dragna’s defender, Deputy Public Defender Frank Bittar, questioned Rahaeuser about whether the interview with Quintanilla was voluntary, when during the conversation his parents arrived and where evidence was recovered. Bittar declined to discuss the case.
“It brought it all back like it was yesterday,” said Ambrose, who admits to feeling frustrated over the seemingly interminable delays in the judicial system, but expressed confidence in the police investigation and prosecutor.
“Listening to what little we heard makes me realize how hard it is going to be at trial,” she said.
A trial is not expected until next spring, Rahaeuser said.