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Esteban Nunez Case: Bad Little Suburban Boys 

The son of Fabian Nunez, and his friends, face the music in Lu Santos’ killing

Wednesday, May 27 2009
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The murder of funny, charming Luis Santos, whose bloody knifing last October has implicated Esteban Núñez, the son of former California Speaker Fabian Núñez, and Esteban’s friends, can’t be dismissed with a tidy cliché about disadvantaged kids killing one another on the mean streets.

Flip the mirror, and its opposite but equally dark image appears. The murder involved educated suburban adults, some moving easily in or around the upper strata of California’s power elite, suggesting vague parallels to the Billionaire Boys Club. The case has elicited the involvement of California’s Democratic Party political stars, from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to County Federation of Labor chief Maria Elena Durazo — all rallying around the accused while doing nothing to support the family of the widely loved dead young man, who went, simply, by the name Lu.

Three of the four alleged killers are from Sacramento, and met in and around their private schools. Early evidence suggests that as teens they absurdly styled themselves as a nonexistent gang, “The Hazard Crew.” Their parents — former Speaker Núñez, respected administrative-law judge Daniel Garcia Sr. and a third Sacramento family — either indulged or were clueless about their sons’ pretensions as toughs whose turfs were the leafy, big-lawned suburbs around California’s state capital.

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On October 4, the night of the murder, evidence strongly suggests that Esteban Núñez and the others were moody over being denied entrance to a members-only San Diego State University fraternity party, and were drunk and looking for trouble on the streets of the San Diego campus.

Despite the ethnically stereotypical assumptions about their victim, made by some who heard sketchy early news reports of a street stabbing, Santos was not a Latino. He was a gentle Chinese-Portuguese-American jokester raised by his Macau-immigrant father and white mother in the suburban Bay Area. His good friend Charles Dillard remembers the sole “fight” in his life — outside a Tijuana club popular with American college kids, where he got kicked around after getting separated from his friends. The slim and peaceful Santos, says Dillard, just wasn’t equipped to “do much.” He was an incorrigible optimist and Oakland Raiders fan, a lover and not a fighter. He was fun and quirky and beloved. And he was dead at 22.

Lu Santos’ crime the night he died at San Diego State was his ridiculous drunken bragging that he was carrying “a piece” — a fatal and almost certainly untrue crack that he allegedly made to another guy but which was overheard by a brazen bunch of young drunks on the same block. Some in this bunch, down from Sacramento, allegedly carried sharp knives on one of the safest college campuses in the West. Santos argued with them, and was slain by a knife jammed into the left ventricle of his heart. He was left to die in a pool of blood.

Following an April preliminary hearing in which Núñez, Ryan Jett, Rafael Garcia and Leshanor Thomas were ordered to stand trial by Judge Cynthia Bashant, a tragic picture is emerging of a sweet guy who met up with four young men, each of whom played a distinct role in the killing or its cover-up and aftermath.

Facing trial in October are Núñez, 20, a handsome insider and “problem-solver” who knows famous people like the Maloof brothers, co-owners of the Sacramento Kings, and son of Fabian Núñez, one-time golden boy of the Latino power structure and a close friend of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; Jett, 23, his sometimes-wild good friend from private school, who got arrested for drunken driving and did probation for messing with illegal weapons; Garcia, 19, third-generation graduate of private Christian Brothers Catholic school, a purported do-gooder who has long been in Núñez’ and Jett’s orbit and is the son of a judge and a Caltrans accountant; and Thomas, 20, Núñez’ friend from Cal State Los Angeles, a high school homecoming king, son of a retired Air Force sergeant and likable follower who went along for the ride that night.

“Privileged people have the feeling of entitlement, that they are above the law and that they should be treated differently,” laments Santos’ computer-consultant father, Fred, from their shattered family home in Concord. “O.J. Simpson got away with murder because he had high-priced attorneys. We hope this isn’t another O.J. Simpson case.”

But as Thomas’ former basketball coach Jim Stephens says, “Not everybody participated that night — there are different levels of guilt.”

Preliminary testimony, although things may change, suggests that only two of the attackers wielded knives, Núñez and Jett, killing Santos and slashing his apparently unarmed friends. Núñez’ lawyer is floating a defense theory that a group of “six or seven” African-American kids were brawling on the same block that night, and could be to blame. Despite the fact that both Núñez and Garcia have hired pricey, Dream Team–style lawyers (Jett’s and Thomas’ families had to use free public defenders), legal experts believe the unified front showed by the four when they allegedly fled the crime and destroyed evidence will unravel like a sweater caught on a hook.

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