A 23-year-old Lake Forest man was convicted Friday of robbing and killing Hotel Laguna's popular catering manager four years ago.
Matthew Thomas Dragna now faces life in state prison without parole at his scheduled Feb. 28 sentencing, while his 25-year-old pal Jacob Anthony Quintanilla faces a separate trial on the same charges.
Quintanilla has a Jan. 10 pre-trial hearing scheduled in his case that alleges he, like Dragna, is guilty of felony special circumstances murder during the commission of a robbery.
Dragna and his friend Larry Bradshaw, who lived in the same Timbers Apartments complex in Lake Forest, went to Damon Nicholson's Laguna Beach apartment for three-way sex on Oct. 22, 2009. The next day, it was Dragna and Quintanilla who entered Nicholson's residence, but they left him dead from a baseball-bat beating and took some of his belongings to sell (allegedly for Quintanilla, who has yet to be tried).
“They took Jacob's bat and drove to Laguna Beach,” Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy told the jury, “and one of them hit Damon on the head hard enough to fracture his skull.”
Dragna's defense spun it another way, of course. Frank Bittar of the Orange County Public Defender's Office said that when Dragna told Quintanilla about the sexual encounter with Nicholson from the night before, it “piqued” Quintanilla's interest.
Thinking he and Quintanilla were going to Nicholson's home so Quintanilla could have sex with the resident while Dragna waited in the car, Dragna later saw a bloodied Quintanilla emerge from Nicholson's place carrying a bag of stuff, according to Bittar.
Dragna then went into the apartment to find Nicholson “snoring” on the couch, so both left, said Bittar, who added his client later told police he thought the victim was still alive. The attorney had told the jury Dragna was a high school dropout who was living with his mother and two sisters in the Timbers Apartments and struggling with substance abuse issues.
Nicholson's sister Deanna Cosgrove told City News Service's Paul Anderson she felt relief when the verdict was announced Friday. “Honestly, it's surreal,” Cosgrove said. “I guess I felt just relief, not happiness or elation.”
Cosgrove noted her brother was much beloved in Laguna Beach. “We knew what a great guy he was, but we were somewhat humbled by the turnout for his memorial. He had a way of making everyone feel special.”
Carla Bravo told Anderson she still misses Nicholson, her friend of 20 years.
“I want Damon here,” she said. “I still want to be able to call him, but at least justice was done for him.”
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.