By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
He adds: "We will be there representing our son, and try to seek justice for him. We will be there for our son for as long as it takes. We are ready for anything. And if they are found guilty, they will probably appeal. And we will be there, also."
Meanwhile, Fabian Núñez's friends, including Villaraigosa and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor chief Maria Elena Durazo, have rallied around the accused, drawing sharp rebukes from the victim's family — and the public.
"In my heart, I know Esteban Núñez as a young man of good and upright character," wrote Villaraigosa, in a successful campaign to convince the judge to reduce Núñez's bail from $2 million to $1 million. California state Assemblyman Kevin de León, in his letter, described Esteban as "considerate, gentle and well-mannered."
With help from their economically comfortable families, Núñez and Garcia got out of jail after just eight days, unlike their friend Thomas, whose father, a retired Army sergeant, lacked similar resources on which to draw. Thomas, an affable young black man, homecoming king and football star, is an illustration of the inequities in this case of suburban boys gone bad. He spent five months in jail solely because his dad could not raise the $2 million bail or even the reduced $1 million — yet Thomas did not carry a knife the night of the killing.
"I talked to him after he was released on bail," says Thomas' childhood friend Mikeesa Pace. "When things like this happen, people abandon you. They forget that they know you and your character." But Thomas is so admired, that "all of his friends are still standing by him."
The four friends, Núñez, Jett, Garcia and Thomas, were thrust into an uneasy alliance after the knifing, destroying evidence and cooking up a story, prosecutors say. They made no attempt to find out if the people they had attacked had been seriously injured. And mere hours later, back in Sacramento, Núñez calmly packed up boxes in his apartment, part of a planned move to his father's house.
When they got word that Santos had died, prosecutors say, Núñez, Jett, Garcia and another Sacramento friend, John Murray, skulked to the Sacramento River. Núñez and Jett then allegedly tossed the murder knife into its depths and huddled on a bank, burning bloodied clothing.
Then the friendship cracked, like any brittle thing that comes under too much pressure.
It started with Garcia, who attended private schools with Jett and Núñez and who lives in a prestigious Sacramento neighborhood with his parents, Daniel Garcia Sr., an administrative law judge at the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, and Olga, an accountant with Caltrans.
All four defense attorneys sought to have their clients tried separately. From the start, Garcia's attorney, Paul Pfingst, argued that Garcia didn't belong with the others. "If his case was looked at independently, he would be acquitted," Pfingst says.
Shortly before the first anniversary of Santos' death, marked by a prayer vigil on the school campus, Garcia pleaded guilty on September 17, 2009, to felony conspiracy to destroy evidence.
Pfingst, a former San Diego County district attorney, says of his client, "He weighs 120 pounds. Getting into a fight with a group of people is not something he is likely to do — and he didn't."
In exchange for Garcia's testimony against Jett and Núñez, who together with Garcia styled themselves as a nonexistent gang they called "The Hazard Crew," the San Diego District Attorney's Office dropped Garcia's murder charge.
In February, Thomas, who goes by the nickname LT, pleaded guilty to two felony counts of assault for punching Santos' roommate Brandon Scheerer so hard that Scheerer required eye surgery. And Thomas also agreed to testify for the prosecution.
"LT under my watch was, and is, a great kid," says Jim Stephens, his basketball coach at Laguna Creek High School near Sacramento. "When you hear that Leshanor Thomas was arrested — my jaw dropped and my daughter's jaw dropped. We felt there was a disconnect somewhere."
At an April 2009 preliminary hearing before Judge Cynthia Bashant, testimony quickly suggested that only Núñez and Jett had knives that night, although Garcia was carrying one. Thomas' bail was quickly reduced to $250,000 and his family sprang him from jail, while Jett spent 14 months in jail before being released on $350,000 bail last January 28.
Watching the four suspects turn against one another, Navid Sabahi says he has learned something valuable from the loss of his best friend: "Luis saw his future go down the drain right then and there. Your future is never a promise for you."
What really happened the night of October 4, 2008? In a few weeks, a jury will decide. But police and prosecutors say one fact underlies all the rest: The victims were unarmed. The attackers weren't.
On that day, Luis Santos, taking real estate courses at Mesa College in San Diego, watched TV with Navid Sabahi at his friend's dorm, got into a spirited discussion on the phone with his father over the firing of Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin, then headed to San Diego State University student Dina Decaro's apartment with his roommate Brandon Scheerer to watch basketball.
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