By City News Service
Article originally published Dec. 12, 4:41 a.m.
A 23-year-old man and his friend robbed a Laguna Beach resident before fracturing his skull and leaving him on his couch to die, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday, but the defendant's attorney said his client had nothing to do with the killing.
Matthew Thomas Dragna of Lake Forest is charged with murder, with a special circumstance allegation of killing during a robbery, in the Oct. 22, 2009, bludgeoning death of 40-year-old Damon Nicholson.
Co-defendant Jacob Anthony Quintanilla, 25, also of Lake Forest, will be tried separately. He faces a pre-trial hearing on Jan. 10.
Dragna met Nicholson the day before the killing when he went to the victim's Laguna Beach home with a friend and the three men had sex together, Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy said.
A DNA match from a condom wrapper left at Nicholson's home led investigators to The Timbers Apartments complex where Dragna and his friend lived separately.
They later found Dragna's
DNA on a trash can lid at the victim's apartment, Murphy said.
When police searched Dragna's room, they found computer software that
Nicholson's friend had given him shortly before his death, Murphy said.
Dragna was staying at a drug rehab home when police first questioned him, Murphy said. The defendant falsely claimed he had only been to Laguna Beach twice with his sister, but only to the beach and never to anyone's home, Murphy said.
When police revealed they had found his DNA on a trash can lid in Nicholson's apartment, Dragna acknowledged he had sex with the victim the day before and brought his friend Quintanilla over to Nicholson's home the next day, Murphy said.
Dragna told police he waited in the car and "smoked a bowl" of marijuana while his friend went up to Nicholson's apartment, Murphy said. At some point when Dragna got out of the car to go see what was happening between the two, he saw Quintanilla coming down the stairs covered in blood holding bags containing "a bunch of stuff," the prosecutor said.
Quintanilla told him "it didn't go so good," Murphy said.
Investigators, however, suspect that Dragna and Quintanilla intentionally went to Nicholson's apartment to rob him and left him for dead, Murphy said. Witnesses are expected to testify that Dragna and Quintanilla tried to sell the victim's laptop computer and other belongings after the killing, the prosecutor said.
"What the evidence will show is Dragna met Nicholson and made the decision to rob him," Murphy alleged. "He enlisted the help of Jacob Quintanilla. They took Jacob's bat and drove to Laguna Beach ... And one of them hit Damon on the head hard enough to fracture his skull."
Dragna's attorney, Frank Bittar of the Orange County Public Defender's Office, said he had no involvement.
"Matthew Dragna did not kill Damon Nicholson. It's absolutely untrue," he told the jury.
Showing jurors a photo of Quintanilla, Bittar said, "This person right here, that's the person who killed Damon Nicholson, plain and simple."
Dragna, a high school dropout, was living with his mother and two sisters in the Timbers Apartments and struggling with substance abuse issues, Bittar said.
The defense attorney said he wanted to try to avoid the details of the victim's "kinky" sex life, but said it may become relevant during the trial to provide an alibi for Dragna, whose description of the encounter with Nicholson matched what his friend from The Timbers told police.
Nicholson tended to leave his sliding glass door partially ajar, allowing his sex partners to gain entrance, Bittar said. Nicholson would often wear a ski mask and engage in sex without conversation, Bittar said.
"I'm not going to disrespect Mr. Nicholson. I wish he were here," Bittar said. "But I have to do my job."
Dragna was nervous when police began questioning him, but eventually told investigators the truth, Bittar said.
When Dragna told Quintanilla about his sexual encounter with Nicholson, it "piqued" Quintanilla's interest, Bittar said. Dragna thought Quintanilla knew Nicholson and that the two would have sex while Dragna waited, the attorney said.
When Dragna saw the bloodied Quintanilla, he went up into the victim's apartment and saw Nicholson on the couch "snoring," so the two left, Bittar said.
Dragna told police he thought the victim was still alive, he said.
"You'll learn there is absolutely no evidence Matthew laid a finger on" Nicholson, Bittar said.