By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In the fall of 2004, Santos left home to attend Pierce College in Woodland Hills near his sister, who was attending Cal State Northridge. He studied business and real estate, and some weekends he drove to San Diego State University to visit his buddy Sabahi at his dorm. Another friend, San Diego State student Dina Decaro, recalls Santos as “a curious little guy, a very personable fellow.”
Fate is a fickle thing. It was Sabahi’s innocent choice of San Diego for college that, a few years later, would lead Santos to his fatal meeting with four handsome college-age kids near Cox Arena last October, some of them carrying knives.
In 2002, while Santos was still speaking his secret language with Sabahi, Fabian Núñez was elected to the Assembly. He soon became Speaker, and was regarded by many as the second most powerful public official in California, after Schwarzenegger. Life was good — very good. In 2005, at the height of his power, Fabian Núñez remarried Maria Robles, a nurse and nonprofit executive, after an 11-year split. They and their three children moved into a beautiful $1.2 million home in an exclusive East Sacramento neighborhood along the lush American River.
Esteban, raised in Southern California, was soon attending Sacramento’s Christian Brothers High School, for which father Fabian forked over $11,000 a year, on top of the family’s fat new home mortgage. Esteban was introduced on the floor of the Assembly, got to meet the fabulously wealthy Maloof brothers, Sacramento’s celebrity billionaires, and the pampered teen even got access to fantastic netside seats for Kings basketball.
One of the more poignant photos on the Internet of Esteban Núñez shows him sitting in an office chair inside the Capitol, surrounded by the trappings of power and looking right at home.
But Esteban bounced around when it came to school. He left Christian Brothers, graduating instead from Rio Americano High School in Sacramento in 2007, then attended California State University in Los Angeles for five months before abruptly returning home to attend Sacramento City College.
Núñez, it appears, made friends with Ryan Jett and Rafael Garcia in Sacramento’s private schools. Jett and Garcia were already fast friends, having attended a private elementary school in Sacramento’s posh Hollywood Park. Jett spent part of his freshman year at Christian Brothers before moving to Montana to live with family friends.
An initial hint of trouble emerged after Jett moved back from Montana to attend Sacramento State University, and found himself sitting in jail in 2008 for monkeying around with a sawed-off shotgun and a handgun at a campground. His family lawyer Hintz says Jett is in fact a “nice, polite young man. If he walked into your office, he would charm you.”
His close buddy Garcia never got into serious trouble, seeming to be a wholesome kid with a deep Catholic background. Garcia lived with his parents, Daniel Garcia Sr., an administrative-law judge at the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, and Olga, an accountant with Caltrans, in a nice four-bedroom home. At the time of the stabbing, he was attending a Sacramento college, working both as a co-manager for his school soccer team and as a student assistant.
But on his MySpace page, cops found a reference to The Hazard Crew: “And my boyzzz of course ... aint nobody do it like us maaayn we the tightest crew ... Me, ditto, zach, Elliott, Daniel, joe, esteban, sam, will, john, tyler, chris, jett, jesus, Justin, Robert. ...” Núñez’ attorney, C. Bradley Patton, insists The Hazard Crew was merely boys who liked to rap and sometimes record music. Speaking to L.A. Weekly about the former students at her school, Kristen McCarthy, director of communications for Christian Brothers, says, “I don’t know the motivation for someone to pull out a knife. ... This is a wonderful community, and it is not something we typically expect of graduates.”
A chance dorm-room assignment drew in the fourth member of this ill-fated group. Núñez, while attending college in Los Angeles, met and shared a dorm room with Leshanor Thomas, who had attended Laguna Creek High School in Elk Grove, a pleasant suburb near Sacramento. Thomas was raised by his father, a Pacific Gas & Electric employee and retired United States Air Force Reserve sergeant. While he didn’t have the private schooling of the others, or the extensive adult connections Núñez — and possibly Garcia — enjoyed, Thomas had already left his mark.
Jim Stephens, who coached basketball at Laguna Creek High School, says “L.T.” was a top member of the junior varsity basketball team in 2004-2005 — a straight shooter and hard worker popular with teammates. Says Stephens, “I would say he was the kid with the biggest smile on the team.”
He was, in fact, the most popular kid at his school, voted homecoming king by students and teachers, appointed “rally commissioner” and voted Athlete of the Year by coaches. But the odd thing was, Thomas did not like to hold a leadership position. “He played on two unbelievable, outstanding teams, where he fell into that role” as a follower, Stephens recalls. “The next year, he was asked to be a leader and it didn’t work. It wasn’t his fault — it’s just not him.”