Esteban Nunez Case: Bad Little Suburban Boys
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.
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.
The murder cast an icy pall over the San Diego campus, where homicides are rare: The last one occurred in 1997, when engineering grad student Frederick Davidson shot three of his professors, allegedly for giving him a bad grade on his thesis. Unlike most youth killings on California’s streets, in which witnesses vanish down urban rat holes, startling evidence immediately began dropping into the laps of San Diego detectives.
Police say Santos’ attackers fled, got rid of the murder weapon and destroyed bloody clothing. As with so many unsolved California slayings, it might have ended there, another baffling mystery. But because Santos was so widely known by so many students on campus, all grabbing their cell phones to share information about that night, suspicion quickly fell upon Núñez and his three pals. “It was a very good thing that Lu knew a lot of people and he was so well-liked,” says his friend Dillard.
San Diego police must have been stunned when pretty student Kristin Margullis walked up to them just a few hours after the killing, as detectives surveyed the crime scene, near the university’s Cox Arena. Today, the place is marked with a silhouette outlining Santos’ body, painted in tribute by his friends. Margullis told the detectives she had reason to believe that a group of young men she had met the night before had committed the stabbing and then fled town.
In a bizarre triangulation, Margullis became a central figure after her good friend John Murray texted her to say his friends had just been in a knife fight — and were leaving San Diego fast. Within hours of that text message, a girlfriend of Margullis’, who was friends with Santos, told Margullis that Santos had been stabbed to death. Margullis realized that her two unconnected friends were talking about the same incident but from different angles.
Despite having the alleged perp names virtually dropped in their laps, police quietly investigated for two months, meticulously building a case before making a single arrest. And no wonder. When the San Diego cops finally made the arrests in early December, the names of the suspects made headlines across California, and key players in the state’s Democratic political machine sprang to action. “This case wouldn’t be newsworthy but for the fact it is Núñez’ son,” says attorney Eric Hintz, a friend of Jett’s family, who represented Jett on his gun-possession charge last year.
But the outpouring of support from California elected officials doesn’t sit well with Santos’ father. Unaccustomed to the insider world of California’s political elite, and their penchant for circling the wagons to protect one another, he was shaken to see big-name politicos all but kiss off the death of his son.
“I think it is inappropriate [behavior] for public officials like the mayor of Los Angeles,” Fred Santos says. “Someone that prominent should refrain from making public comment. Maybe that is bad judgment on [Villaraigosa’s] part. He should have said ‘no comment’ till the facts come out.”
The Santos family held a funeral on October 11, and some 700 of Santos’ friends and family attended — more than attend funerals for many of California’s well-known dignitaries. His father played a CD of Santos’ favorite song, “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley. “Different friends would read parts of prayers or scriptures, and then some of them were pallbearers and carried the coffin into the church,” Fred remembers. A lot of people, old and young, wore high-top sneakers and baseball hats — Santos’ trademark look.
“It didn’t make a difference who” killed his son, Fred says. “If they arrested Arnold Schwarzenegger, it didn’t matter. ... There is no other damage that can be done to us.” But for the accused, he says, “It is still the big unknown.”
Luis Santos grew up 31 miles east of San Francisco, with his father, Fred, and mother, Kathy, a respected college administrator. Their very slight son tried lifting weights but was no Arnold. Fred, now able to gently joke about his slain son, says, “Genetically, it was a lost cause. He had good tone even though he didn’t look like anyone who picked up a barbell.”
What the teenage Santos didn’t have in bulk, he made up for with his ferociously quick wit. He’d grab the phone — and pretend the president was on the line. “He liked to imitate Rowan Atkinson [Mr. Bean]. He would walk behind the counter and get shorter and shorter. It looked like he was walking down the stairs,” he adds.
The lovable nerd shared a secret language with his best friend, Navid Sabahi, something like pig Latin, so they could talk about girls, and the two spent hours riding their BMX bikes. Santos’ “fame” was his one-liners, and Sabahi remembers how he and Santos once boiled 30 pots of water in a misguided effort to heat up a hot tub more cheaply. “Before we got a pot boiling, the hot tub would cool down.”
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.”
Thomas’ close family friend Salima Koroma wrote in December to the San Diego Superior Court, in papers released to the public, that she wasn’t exactly taken with his new college roommate in L.A., Esteban Núñez. She wrote that Núñez “wasn’t like the kids that L.T. usually hung out with. ... It seemed as if Esteban was always getting into trouble, or doing things that would get him in trouble — if he got caught. But L.T. assured me that nothing would happen to him.”
Meanwhile, in 2007, soon after Núñez graduated from high school, Luis Santos made a permanent move to San Diego to attend Mesa College. He’d been working in real estate in Concord over the summer, but good pal Sabahi had convinced him to return to San Diego to finish college. “I kind of convinced him [to return],” Sabahi says, reflecting on the unfortunate role that chance ended up playing in Santos’ life. “I told him to come back out here.”
Like many students, Santos was broke but enduringly cheerful about it. “He never really had any money. He lived off of Von’s gift cards that his mom sent him,” says good friend Decaro, who at one point acted as his de facto chauffeur and mothered him about doing his homework.
Sabahi remembers how Santos showed up at the beach in San Diego “in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and shoes. He wasn’t the type of guy who would wear flip-flops and boy shorts. He never fully changed. He was always true to where he was from. He was a Bay Boy at heart.”
Later, after his killing, something about his lifelong pal struck Sabahi: “He was always about socializing and meeting new people. It was weird. It was almost like he knew he wasn’t going to be here for very long. He lived every day to the fullest, every day he was here. He never stressed about things. I was always the worrier, and he would bring me back to reality, and say it was okay.”
On that awful day of October 4, 2008, the phone at Sabahi’s apartment rang in the dark of the night, but he ignored it and tried to sleep. The phone wouldn’t let him. It rang at 4 a.m., 4:30 a.m., 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. He finally answered. “When I first found out about it, I was at a loss for words and started crying, you know? ... I never saw him get into a fight in my entire life. He was about bringing different groups together.”
Word of Lu Santos’ death had been spreading for hours on the campus via cell phone, fed by the apparently unarmed young men who’d been with Santos, some of whom had been stabbed. Decaro and her boyfriend drove straight to Cox Arena to see for themselves. “It is, sure enough, something out of the movies,” she told L.A. Weekly. “We see a coroner’s van and little markers for evidence. It was the worst thing you can see after hearing that. The cop — all he tells us is there is a fatality. We put two and two together.”
Before this, Decaro says, she could “walk from the library alone at 1 a.m.” But now, “This campus, that I knew for five years — I didn’t feel safe anymore. Those four who killed Lu had taken away my sense of security.”
The tragic events were set in motion three days earlier, when Garcia and his friend John Murray firmed up a plan to visit Garcia’s brother, an engineering student, and Murray’s friend Kristin Margullis, at San Diego State. Núñez and Jett became last-minute tagalongs. Núñez called his Cal State Los Angeles dorm buddy, Thomas, and asked if the former high school sports standout wanted to join them. He happily agreed.
Thomas’ friend Koroma later wrote to the court that the popular Thomas had fewer friends because he’d dropped out of Cal State L.A. and was working. “He was hanging out with us girls too much. So when Esteban called him randomly one night to go to a party, he jumped at the chance to hang with someone he thought was an old friend. ... He seemed happy to get away from all the estrogen around my apartment.”
Murray, the first witness to testify at the April preliminary hearing into Santos’ death, said that the guys all met at an apartment, smoked a bit of weed, enjoyed some steak with baked potatoes and cracked into two cases of beer and “the biggest bottle you can buy” of Captain Morgan rum. They played “beer-drinking games,” except for Thomas, who arrived later. When they left to hit some parties, Murray stayed behind, drinking and eventually falling asleep on the sofa.
Santos and his apartment-mate in San Diego, family friend Brandon Scheerer, were also out for a night of party-hopping near the San Diego State campus. Santos lightheartedly tried to coerce Sabahi into joining them. Sabahi turned him down — he had two tests on Monday. “That was the last time I talked to him,” Sabahi tells L.A. Weekly.
“Lu was the one who would push us out the door: Let’s go! Let’s go!” said friend Dillard, who had planned to catch up with Santos that night. “By the time we got there, he had already left for another party.”
Santos and Scheerer eventually met up with friends Keith Robertson, Jason Fiore and Evan Henderson — who were roommates. Cops say it was these five mostly drunken but almost certainly unarmed young men who soon got into a sidewalk fracas near Cox Arena with another group of drunken young men — Núñez, Garcia, Jett and Thomas — some of whom had knives.
Amid conflicting stories about what went down, the version from an independent eyewitness, student Connor Henderson (no relation to Evan), is expected to be key to the case. Henderson told authorities he believes that Núñez’ bunch overheard Santos telling Henderson — a stranger to both groups of men — that Santos once got beaten up in Tijuana and now carried “a piece.” For emphasis, Henderson says, Santos patted his waistband. Henderson says the Núñez group was hanging out not far away, and began throwing insults at Santos, threatening to beat him up. One of Núñez’ friends, described in a police search warrant as the “white male,” allegedly bragged, “Well, you got your piece, I’ve got mine.” Santos allegedly retorted that he “had his thang” with him. Then, Henderson says, one of Núñez’ group responded, “Use it then, pussy ... we all got weapons ... use it if you got it.”
Minutes later, San Diego Police Department and California State University Police officers responded to a 911 call at 2:16 a.m. Racing to the scene, officers found Santos dying. Paramedics were tending his injured friends Brandon Scheerer, 24, whose eye was damaged by a rough punch; Evan Henderson, 20, stabbed in the stomach and back; and Keith Robertson, 22, stabbed in the left shoulder.
The next day, October 5, student Briana Perez’ father in Sacramento contacted San Diego detectives to report that his daughter had been hanging out in San Diego with her cousin Rafael Garcia and his friends from Sacramento the previous night. Put on the line by her dad, Perez told police that the Núñez group had been at her place downing shots of Captain Morgan — and opening beer cans with sharp pocketknives, boasting that this was “how we do it in Sac Town.”
According to police documents, “The more they drank, the angrier they became,” she said of Núñez, Jett and her cousin — all of them brooding over having been refused entry to a fraternity party earlier that night because they weren’t “Greek.” She reported that one of them said, “Those faggots wouldn’t let us in. ... Let’s go burn down their house!” Thomas, she says, was the only one who sat quietly watching TV.
Testimony by Núñez’ friend Murray shows that, at about the same time San Diego police got the call from Perez’s father, the destruction of evidence and attempted cover-up had already begun hundreds of miles away in Sacramento. Murray had not been at the scene of the killing, but had been awakened from a deep sleep and told by Núñez that the group had been in a knife fight and had to leave for Sacramento right away.
On the tense ride home to Sacramento, Murray recalls saying, “It was the worst idea to go to San Diego.” He says Jett replied, “Damn right. I can’t deal with this. I already have two felonies. I don’t need to take the fall for this.”
The next morning, Murray heard from his friend Margullis, who informed him that her friend’s friend Lu Santos had been knifed to death in San Diego several hours earlier. Murray realized the worst. He went over to Núñez’ Sacramento apartment and dropped his bomb on the group.
“They were kind of shocked,” Murray testified. One of them had a particularly telling response, asking Murray “if there was any suspects or suspect drawings.”
The reaction is not, perhaps, what their parents would have hoped. Murray claims that Esteban Núñez, having just learned of Santos’ death, actually finished packing — for a planned move back to his parents’ $1.2 million home. Murray, to treat a bad headache, rolled a big “blunt.” Then they, Jett and Garcia drove to a gas station, pumped $1.30 in gasoline into a big paper cup, and drove to the Sacramento River. Standing close to the water, Núñez allegedly dumped either bloodied shorts or a T-shirt on the ground, Jett poured gas on it, and the clothing went up in flames.
According to Murray’s testimony, Murray and Garcia watched, uneasily, from the riverbank above. At no time in the testimony or evidence that has emerged thus far do these young men discuss regret about taking a life.
Later, Núñez swore to Murray that he’d killed nobody. But the code of silence between them was already cracking. The judge’s son, Garcia, told Murray he wasn’t going to take the blame for a death, or for the knifings of the others, when it was Núñez and Jett who had escalated the fight. Garcia told Murray he “didn’t feel he should be held responsible for something he didn’t do.”
Nobody knows for sure when these boys from private schools and pretty suburban streets warned their parents of the doom that was about to overtake their families. But on October 6, San Diego detectives searched their homes, and on October 7, Murray was interrogated by detectives at the Elk Grove Police Station near Sacramento. The 20-year-old Sacramento City College student, asked by police if Jett and Núñez had admitted to stabbing someone, replied: “Yes, at the house and on the ride home” from San Diego. According to Murray, Núñez specifically admitted, “I got one in the shoulder.”
Three days later, San Diego police served Thomas with a search warrant at the Elk Grove Police Station, making him believe he was facing arrest. Essentially tricked into talking, he nervously joked with officers that he had “ugly feet, so be prepared,” and chatted on about his childhood, school, dog — even how the cake at his dad’s military-retirement party “tasted nasty.”
According to court documents, when detectives asked him who would go down for the homicide, Thomas responded: “I know it’s huge and I know somebody has to — well, I thought they were my friends.” When asked how he’d react if any of the others tried to hang Thomas out to dry for the killing, he replied, “I wouldn’t be surprised. Knowing who the parents are, why would they want to go down for this?”
A search warrant released publicly paraphrases Thomas as saying that Núñez had arranged a meeting at Jett’s house, and Núñez had insisted, “Whatever happens, he would take the rap for it. [And] Jett said no matter what happens, if they get picked up, they have to stick together on this.”
But young Núñez also saw a way out, the search warrant suggests, telling Thomas, “Hopefully his dad would take care of it and could get them off on self-defense.”
A few weeks after Santos’ stabbing, investigators announced that the three Sacramento friends, Núñez, Jett and Garcia, had comprised a “close-knit group of friends who called themselves THC, or The Hazard Crew.” They styled themselves as suburban gang members, flashed hand signs and brandished tattoos of the crew — the international symbol for biohazards. Núñez’ MySpace page, long since taken down, showed staged photos of him poking a knife toward a tiny mouse, and pretending to stab a cat squirming in the grip of a long-haired brunette. Not surprisingly, the Sacramento Police Department has no knowledge of any gang called The Hazard Crew, possibly a fantasy played out by upper-middle-class teenage boys, now adults, bored with their lives.
On December 3, they and Thomas were charged with one count of murder, three counts of assault with a deadly weapon and a misdemeanor count of vandalism. San Diego Superior Court Judge David Szumowski set bail at $2 million, but denied bail to Jett, the one kid with a record, who was on probation for his weapons-possession conviction. San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Jill DiCarlo dropped the gang allegations raised by police, possibly because of her office’s failed 2008 attempt to dub the purported Bird Rock Bandits, a bunch of upper-crust La Jolla dropouts, as a gang after one of them punched a surfer so hard that he died.
By then, a Dream Team of sorts had already been assembled to fight prosecutor DiCarlo, a petite blonde who once appeared in the canceled TV show Crime and Punishment. Núñez’ father, Fabian, and mother, Maria, stood before a mob of news cameras at the San Diego Superior Court as C. Bradley Patton, a polished dresser and one of San Diego County’s top criminal defense attorneys, insists that details around the stabbing have been exaggerated and fabricated for dramatic effect so prosecutor DiCarlo can create “a bit of spectacle.”
Patton says Esteban Núñez acted in self-defense. Fabian Núñez went mum after issuing a statement expressing his confidence that his eldest son will be found innocent.
Garcia hired an equally stellar San Diego trial lawyer, Paul Pfingst, the county’s former D.A. — and a man who arguably knows virtually every move in the San Diego prosecutor’s playbook, having been D.A. for seven years before losing a reelection bid to current D.A. Bonnie Dumanis in 2003. Pfingst told reporters that his client is “not a murderer.”
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.
The boyishly attractive, blue-eyed Jett chewed his nails and listened intently, sometimes grinning at his public defender, who looks something like Cheers’ Shelley Long. Skinny and smallish Garcia, looking ill-at-ease in an oversized suit with dragging pant legs, kept his pale face down, peering up occasionally at Bashant or his lawyer, the former D.A. The 6-foot-1 Thomas, known for his bubbly personality, stared at the judge, sometimes peeking at his father, a few rows behind him.
Núñez, described by Thomas to police as the “problem-solver” of the group, seemed to perk up when he spoke to his protective father. The elder Núñez looked nervous and wore mismatched suits each day of the hearing, and his youthful-looking wife, who wore mostly black and smoked with her grown children outside the courthouse or across the street near the Sofia Hotel — where the Núñez family stayed. Once outside, Fabian Núñez was constantly on his cell phone, while his own extended family took up almost three rows inside the small courtroom.
Garcia, in some ways, seemed the most vulnerable, staying close to his frail-appearing mother, Olga, and his father, Daniel Sr., the administrative-law judge. Out in the hall, Esteban Núñez patted Garcia on the back before Núñez moved off with his parents. Thomas was represented by his parents, who occasionally chatted in the hall with other defendants’ family members and their attorneys.
Standing several yards away, in the hallway where guards lead shackled men and women as they waddle in chains to their courtrooms, Kathy and Fred Santos stood with their friends, and with prosecutor DiCarlo — a smaller contingent, there to represent the dead young man.
But inside the courtroom, all eyes were on shorthaired, goatee-sporting John Murray, who drove Núñez, Jett and Garcia to San Diego before the slaying, and who was granted immunity to testify. Murray told a captivated room that he stayed in for the night, and was awakened by his panicked friends, who spilled out bits and pieces of a horrendous story. Murray recalled that Jett washed a bloody shirt in the sink, and Núñez later admitted that they’d both been in a knife fight — and that both had stabbed people in self-defense.
Yet rather than alert police or paramedics, the boys fled San Diego, with Thomas driving. Murray described in detail how, once in Sacramento, they burned a bloody shirt or shorts and threw one or more knives into the Sacramento River. Murray says he ended the cover-up and cooperated with police, because he “wanted to do everything right by my moral, ethics and family.”
A parade of San Diego Police Department detectives detailed their two-month investigation, and a quirky deputy medical examiner straight out of Central Casting described his findings in eerie detail. The man, who resembled a young John Waters, often checked his notes, oddly remarking, “I will refresh me! Refreshing me!” as he described his autopsy findings for the slain Santos.
The details were too devastating for some. The Santos family walked out, unable to bear the gruesome details, as Núñez’ mother, who sat stiffly next to her husband, wiped tears from her eyes. At another point, Olga Garcia, Rafael Garcia’s mother, rushed out crying, barely able to open the heavy courtroom door with her thin frame, the same frame her son has inherited.
Defense lawyers are suggesting that Santos’ group may have carried weapons that night, and that their own clients acted in self-defense after hearing Santos drunkenly brag about having a “piece.” “That whole gun scenario is ridiculous,” Santos’ friend Decaro tells L.A. Weekly. The defense team “is pretty low down to me. He never carried weapons. He barely had the money. ... I don’t think you can buy a gun with a Von’s gift card.”
Now, Santos’ friends are left to question why this happened at all. Others wonder how it will affect the career of Fabian Núñez, who grew up in San Diego — the city where his son’s fate now lies — and has at times floated the idea of becoming mayor of that city.
Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University, an expert on Sacramento’s political elite, reflects, “I don’t know of a single person who heard the news and who [didn’t think] it is a tragedy. No one was saying, ‘Ah-hah! That’s the end of [Núñez’] political career.’ ... We aren’t very biblical, in the sense that the sins of the father won’t be bestowed or carried by the sons. We don’t hold public officials culpable for the sins of their children.”
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