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Trial begins in bludgeoning death

Defendant is one of two men charged in 2009 killing of a Hotel Laguna catering manager in his apartment.

December 12, 2013|By Bryce Alderton
  • Matthew Thomas Dragna, 23, who is accused of murdering Laguna Beach resident Damon Nicholson in October 2009.
Matthew Thomas Dragna, 23, who is accused of murdering… (Orange County District…)

The defense attorney for a man accused of bludgeoning a Laguna Beach resident said his client was outside waiting in a car when another man allegedly killed the victim.

Opening statements began Wednesday in the trial of Matthew Thomas Dragna, 23, who is accused of killing a Hotel Laguna catering manager in his Laguna Beach apartment in October 2009.

Dragna, and co-defendant Jacob Anthony Quintanilla, 25, both of Lake Forest, are each accused of slaying and robbing Damon Nicholson, 40, according to the Orange County district attorney's office. The defendants are being tried separately.

Both men allegedly went to Nicholson's home on Dolphin Way on Oct. 23, 2009 and bludgeoned him repeatedly in the torso and the head with a baseball bat, according to prosecutors.

Dragna and Quintanilla allegedly left Nicholson's body slumped over on a couch in his living room and stole a laptop, cell phone and other items.

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A co-worker found Nicholson on Oct. 24, 2009 after he didn't arrive on time for work.

Laguna Beach police investigators found Nicholson's pant pockets pulled out and very little blood on the couch or the floor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Matt Murphy said during opening statements at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana.

Nicholson, who lived alone, was a "social person" with a lot of friends, Murphy said.

Police found evidence of recent sexual activity in Nicholson's apartment, including a condom and a condom wrapper, Murphy said.

The night before he died, Nicholson allegedly had sex with Dragna and another man, according to Murphy.

Dragna and Quintanilla, who were "inseparable" friends who lived in the same Lake Forest apartment complex, allegedly returned to Nicholson's the night of the murder, Murphy said.

"What the evidence will show is Mr. Dragna met Nicholson, enlisted Quintanilla and they took Jacob [Quintanilla's] bat and drove to Laguna," Murphy said. "Dragna showed [Quintanilla] where to park, went inside and one of them hit Damon [with] enough force on the skull [to cause trauma]. Dragna picked up a trash can lid, took the cell phone, camera and they left. Days after, both tried to sell [computer] software to make money."

Dragna never laid a finger on Nicholson, public defender Frank Bittar said during his opening remarks.

"Jacob Quintanilla — that is the person who killed Mr. Nicholson," Bittar said.

Dragna was scared when police questioned him, Bittar said.

Dragna told Quintanilla about the sexual encounter that took place the night before the crime and the two drove to Nicholson's apartment.

"Jacob goes into the apartment to have sex, and Matt remained in the car," Bittar said. "Dragna later sees Jacob and asks, 'What's going on?' 'It didn't go good,' Jacob said. Matt sees Damon slumped over and hears [Nicholson] snoring. Matthew did not perpetrate the crime, did not strike Nicholson, nor go to his residence other than being involved in sexual activities the night before."

Quintanilla faces the same charge as Dragna and has a pretrial hearing scheduled Jan. 10.. If convicted, Dragna faces a maximum life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole.

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