Two men involved in the bludgeoning death of a Laguna Beach man more than a decade ago wrapped up plea deals Monday that will ensure another 18 years behind bars for one defendant and no more custody time for the other.
Matthew Thomas Dragna, 31, of Lake Forest, pleaded guilty Oct. 1 to voluntary manslaughter, burglary and three counts of assault with a deadly weapon, all felonies, and admitted a sentencing enhancement for the personal use of a deadly weapon. As part of the plea deal, a count of murder with a special circumstance allegation of robbery was dismissed, but he waived all of his custody credits.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett on Monday sentenced Dragna to 18 years and four months in prison.
Co-defendant Jacob Anthony Quintanilla, 33, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and burglary, while a murder charge and special circumstance allegation of robbery were dismissed. Prickett sentenced Quintanilla to seven years and four months in prison, but the defendant already had credit for 3,902 days behind bars, so he will not have to serve any more time in custody.
Dragna was originally convicted in December 2013 of first-degree murder, and jurors found true a special circumstance allegation of killing during a robbery, for the Oct. 22, 2009, bludgeoning death of 40-year-old Damon Nicholson.
Dragna was sentenced in February 2014 to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But that was overturned by appellate court justices in May 2016.
Nicholson’s sister, DeVonne Nicholson Blauser, told Prickett Monday that she remembers her sibling’s death “like it was yesterday.”
She added that Dragna “took my brother Damon from family, friend and myself. You are a murderer and a monster and I hate you for that. I can say I have not forgiven you nor can I say I ever will… Damon was/is a special person. Anyone who came in contact with him he could make smile and laugh. You stole his laughter from us and left many holes in hearts.”
“I hate the fact you will get out someday and could do this again to another person,” she said. “I can only hope you die alone and in plain like you left Damon. Damon Lee Nicholson will be missed and loved forever. I know in my heart he is my angel up above and you can’t take that from me.”
Senior Deputy District Attorney Eric Scarbrough also read a victim impact statement from another sister, Deanna Cosgrove, that was written for the 2014 sentencing.
She said a few hundred people attended her brother’s memorial.
“His death had a grave impact on the entire community,” she said. “Damon was a long-standing, active resident of Laguna Beach and had many times to that community. He helped out at a local shelter. He would hang Christmas lights along the main street every year. He participated in the annual Fourth of Julu parade, brining joy to many.”
The victim also “organized, planned and photographed weddings at Hotel Laguna (as well as worked there),” she said. “Often, couples would return there to have dinner and to visit with Damon to share in the memories of their special day… There has been report of at least one couple who never received their wedding pictures from Damon because he was taken from us before he could share their photos with them. Additionally, many couples cannot reorder photos of their special day.”
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, retired Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy said at the 2013 trial.
Dragna’s friend, Larry Bradshaw, lived in the same Lake Forest apartment complex as the defendant — known as the Timbers Apartments. Bradshaw was an occasional sex partner of Nicholson’s, Murphy said.
Police were led to Bradshaw when investigators got a DNA match on a condom wrapper left at Nicholson’s home, Murphy said. They later found Dragna’s DNA on a trash can lid at the victim’s apartment, he 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.
Investigators suspect that Dragna and Quintanilla went to Nicholson’s apartment to rob him and left him for dead, Murphy said. Dragna and Quintanilla tried to sell the victim’s laptop computer and other belongings after the killing, the prosecutor said.
Dragna decided to rob Nicholson after he met him, Murphy said.
“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,” Murphy told the jury.
Dragna, a high school dropout, was living with his mother and two sisters in the Timbers Apartments and struggling with substance abuse issues, Dragna’s attorney Frank Bittar said at the 2013 trial.
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.
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.
Dragna’s conviction was overturned because police continued questioning him despite the fact he invoked his right to have an attorney present.
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