Justice Still Sought for Laguna Beach Gay Man Murdered in 2009
Damon Nicholson was a longtime resident and gay businessman in Laguna Beach, Calif. On October 23, 2009, two men, Jacob Anthony Quintanilla and Matthew Thomas Dragna, allegedly entered Nicholson’s home by an unlocked sliding glass door as he slept on the couch. Then, according to local police, the men beat him to death with a baseball bat and robbed him. The murder shocked residents of the glamorous, yet sleepy, coastal town. Now, three years later, questions are now being raised about the constant delays for the trial of the two accused killers. They have been in custody since 2009.
Nicholson's former roommate John Mandahl and his friend Jason Frisby, who now live in San Diego, are demanding justice. They and others are wondering if the Orange County district attorney's office is ignoring the case because Nicholson was gay.
"Damon was such a kind and caring person," Mandahl says. "He was the peacemaker in our group of friends who always managed to get everyone to kiss and make up after those inevitable petty arguments. He was quick to tell a joke or do some silly antic to get everyone to laugh, even if it was at his own expense."
Nicholson was renowned for his Fourth of July parties, Mandahl says. "He would spend weeks putting together the perfect costume to entertain us from the street while we watched and cheered from the balcony. He would do cartwheels in his platform heels, twirl flags, and do cheers to entertain us and those stuck in traffic on the street below."
Even the Laguna Beach Police Department would get in on the fun each year, posing for photos and watching Nicholson direct and entertain traffic after the fireworks.
In an interview last week, LBPD captain Jason Kravetz, who was one of the officers at the crime scene, said Quintanilla and Dragna struck Nicholson with a baseball bat in the head and torso, leading to his death. The suspects are also accused of stealing a laptop computer, cell phone, and other electronic items from Nicholson's home. Police were able to link the suspects by interviewing contacts from a gay dating and social website. Police conducted interviews that eventual led them to the arrest of Dragna — authorities found stolen property belonging to Nicholson in Dragna's home, while other stolen items were also found in a trash bin two blocks away from there. DNA evidence from one of the suspects was also found at the murder scene.
"I will never get the image of Nicholson out of my mind," Kravetz said. "What a horrible and senseless killing."
Nicholson was an event planner and manager at Hotel Laguna and often planned city functions, parties, and other events. Many in Laguna Beach knew him professionally and socially.
The Nicholson case is being prosecuted by Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy, according to Farrah Emami, spokeswoman for the Orange County District Attorney's Office. Emami says the long delay in the trial is due not to antigay animus, but numerous continuances requested by defense attorneys.
"My office has been ready for over a year to prosecute," Emami says. "We have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt in the case. A two-year delay is not that uncommon in a murder trial. The courts often give the defense as much time as they require pre-trial. This is a precaution to ensure the case is legally sound in the event the defense files an appeal saying they did not have time enough to prepare."
Emami said the Orange County District Attorney's office understands how painful long trial delays are for the family and friends of homicide victims.
"Did he suffer?" asks Nicholson's friend Lisa Marcus Cooper. "Was he feeling helpless and scared in the very last moments of his life? There is a penance is to be paid. So let's not look at a 'gay man's murder,' but more at a cold-blooded murder that needs action by our judicial system."
The next pre-trial hearing for Quintanilla and Dragna is set for August 31. They're being charged with special circumstances murder during the commission of a robbery. If they are convicted, the maximum penalty is life in prison without the possibility of parole.