The first to flip was Rafael Garcia, son of a respected Sacramento judge, a slight young man said to have backed away in horror the night 22-year-old college student Luis Santos was stabbed in the heart during a drunken brawl near San Diego State University. The second to turn was Leshanor Thomas, not a product of private schools like the three friends he was with that night. He joined them on a lark, and probably never thought his pal Esteban Núñez was the type to use a knife.
The murder trial, set to begin on May 3, may well come down to the story told by these two young men who struck a deal with the San Diego County District Attorney's Office versus the story told by the two men prosecutors say are killers: 21-year-old Núñez, the privileged son of Fabian Núñez, former California Assembly speaker and candidate for state treasurer in 2014, and Esteban Núñez's Sacramento friend Ryan Jett, a 24-year-old felon.
Both are charged with plunging the knife into fun-loving and most likely unarmed college kid Santos, and during the chaos also slashing and injuring Santos' three friends. The two men's defense will almost certainly be that they do not remember who plunged a knife into Santos' chest, that they were lashing out in self-defense during a fistfight that is little more than a blur.
The case has riveted the state's political class, with top Democratic leaders like L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa having written support letters for the accused — and been slammed for doing so. The question remains whether Núñez's father, Fabian, the former Golden Boy of Latino and California Democratic politics, has a political future if his child is found to be a murderer.
"Self-defense is a very real issue in the case," says Garcia's attorney, Paul Pfingst, who negotiated the plea deal for Garcia."I suspect it will be a significant issue at the trial."
Days ago, at an evidentiary pretrial hearing in San Diego, the two accused killers faced the victim's father in a somber courtroom setting. Sitting with his public defender Terry Zimmerman, Jett openly gnawed at his fingers as Núñez silently sat with his expensive defense attorney C. Bradley Patton, his head down. Núñez's father, sitting in a rumpled and mismatched suit, showed no reaction.
Deputy District Attorney Jill DiCarlo argued that a rap song written by Núñez after the murder displayed anger toward Leshanor Thomas, who was involved in the bloody brawl, and who later talked to the cops. DiCarlo said some of Núñez's writings clearly showed that he was "telling [the eyewitness] to keep his mouth shut."
Judge Robert O'Neill ruled against letting the jury see the rap lyrics and some MySpace and text messages written by Núñez. However, the jury will be allowed to see a troubling text message Núñez sent to Rafael Garcia shortly after the killing, which read: "Gangsta rap made us do it. LOL." The response back from Garcia was: "That is a good song, man. Where you at?"
Lu Santos died on October 4, 2008, on the sidewalk in front of the university's Peterson Gym in the arms of his friend Jason Fiori. "Jason was the first one who found him and held him when the ambulance was on the way," says Santos' best friend, Navid Sabahi. "What he went through in some ways could be looked at as the worst."
The only visual reminder of that night, now, is a silhouette-like sketch of Santos painted by a friend on the sidewalk where he fell to the ground.
Santos, an incorrigible optimist, his friends say, was anything but a fighter, which makes his death all the more disquieting. Charles Dillard says his 147-pound friend had been in just one fight in his life, jumped outside a popular Tijuana club. Remembers Dillard, "They were kicking him while he was on the ground."
As hard as it is to consider, Santos may have sealed his doom in San Diego, when he was overheard drunkenly bragging that he was carrying a "piece" — the nervous swagger of a small, and nonaggressive, young man. And, a lie, authorities say. When a coroner's aide searched the clothing taken from Santos' stilled body, he found he had only a lighter, two memory cards, keys and his Samsung phone.
But prosecutors theorize that the four young guys from Sacramento, most of them products of private schools, overheard Santos bragging — and that two of them decided to answer with knives.
Now, Santos' parents are taking unpaid leaves from their jobs and moving to San Diego from the Bay Area to attend Jett's and Núñez's murder trial. Fred, a computer consultant, and Kathy, a college administrator, live nearly 500 miles away in Concord, where Lu is buried. They have attended almost every hearing. Santos' grandmother, who was especially close to Luis, won't join them for what is expected to be an eight-week trial. She is staying with family in Taipei because "she is too sad to stay around and wait for the results," Fred says.