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
Lawyering up with top firepower worked well. A week later, on December 9, though it shocked Santos’ friends and family, Judge Szumowski reduced bail from $2 million to $1 million for all the men — after dozens of character letters seeking leniency arrived at the court.
While not uncommon in murder cases, these particular letters really stood out. They came from union honchos, California politicos and high-powered friends of Fabian Núñez, including Villaraigosa, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor leader Maria Elena Durazo, former and current California Assembly members Dario Frommer and Kevin De Leon, and many others.
“In my heart, I know Esteban Núñez as a young man of good and upright character,” wrote Villaraigosa. Assemblyman De Leon described Núñez as “considerate, gentle and well-mannered.” Labor honcho Durazo wrote that young Núñez “took responsibility by working” at a grocery store. “Going to college showed me that he was preparing for his future. He didn’t take anything for granted.”
Núñez “is a nonviolent, sweet young man” who “has stayed in school and perseveres on,” wrote Tracy Campbell of the California Hospital Association — a close associate of Esteban Núñez’ high-powered mom.
Even Corina Villaraigosa, the mayor’s publicity-shy ex-wife, weighed in. “I know that Esteban is in school and working toward a bachelor’s degree.”
Garcia’s large extended Catholic family also showered the judge with letters. “Where most kids stop going to see their grandparents, Rafael continues to visit his grandmother at least three or four times a week even if it’s only for a few minutes,” wrote Garcia’s aunt and uncle Augustine and Sylvia Cruz. Another aunt and uncle, Philip and Norma Minas, wrote: “Every Thanksgiving, as a family, they participate in the Run to Feed the Hungry in Sacramento, and donate time and money to other charities throughout the year.”
Thomas, lacking Núñez’ political connections or Garcia’s sparkling charity resumé, got support from coaches, family and friends, including an ex-girlfriend, Ashley Ram, who wrote: “It is unfortunate that he was at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong crowd.”
Jett, without the stellar family connections or school sports supporters, got zero letters. Hintz, a lawyer and family friend who represented Jett after he got caught with the sawed-off shotgun at the campground, is acting as family spokesman, although Jett has had to accept a free public defender. Hintz tells the Weekly, “They are far from gangbangers or even wannabe gangbangers. [Jett and the other defendants] were going down for the weekend for a good time.” But, reflecting on all that has happened, he says, “I would tell my boys, ‘A fistfight is a fistfight, and a knife fight is a tragedy.’”
Garcia and Núñez posted bail of $1 million and walked free in early December after only a week in jail, but Jett and Thomas have remained incarcerated, even though Superior Court Judge Cynthia Bashant ruled in April there was no evidence that Thomas wielded a knife, and dropped his bail to $250,000 — well below that of Núñez, Garcia and Jett.
With Thomas and Jett stuck for months behind bars, the potential inequities in the upcoming trial, which some believe could devolve into a political circus, begin to emerge. Thomas, whose father works for the big utility PG & E, is behind bars, yet two young men with top-notch Sacramento connections got out.
And yes, it matters. In early April, Núñez and Garcia showed up for their preliminary hearing in suits and ties, their hair trimmed and tidy. Yet, as the media looked on, Thomas was forced to enter and leave that preliminary hearing shackled in chains, as was Jett. Garcia and Núñez were seated in the jury box next to their attorneys (Garcia in Jury Seat No. 12, and Núñez in Jury Seat No. 4), while Thomas and Jett had to directly face the judge.
Thomas had to drop his private attorney, John Patrick Murphy, due to a lack of funds. And Murphy bemoaned the haves-versus-have-nots situation, telling the Weekly, “What I didn’t like about it was [Núñez and Garcia] sitting out in the jury box like they didn’t know” Jett and Thomas.
At one court hearing, Núñez’ family walked past a protest outside the San Diego Superior Court House, where Santos’ friends carried signs reading, “No Rotten Politics” and “Prison 4 Núñez, Garcia, Thomas and Jett.” In one dramatic moment, which made NBC San Diego news, a friend of Santos’ told the cameras: “How is this fair? My friend isn’t walking away; he’s not walking away! He didn’t get to spend Christmas with his family.”
At the six-day preliminary hearing, which ended on April 8, some hints of what may come at the October trial played out on the faces of the accused.