Trial is scheduled to begin this morning for a 23-year-old Lake Forest man accused of beating Hotel Laguna's longtime catering manager to death with a baseball bat in 2009.
Matthew Thomas Dragna faces life in state prison without parole if he is convicted of special circumstances murder during the commission of a robbery.
Dragna, who has a history of drug use and burglary arrests, allegedly was not alone. His neighbor and co-defendant Jacob Anthony Quintanilla, 25, of Lake Forest, faces the same charges and maximum sentence. He's due in court for a pre-trial hearing on Jan. 10.
Damon L. Nicholson, 41, and Dragna established a relationship on the Internet before the younger man and Quintanilla are alleged to have entered the older man's Laguna Beach duplex residence in the early morning hours of Oct. 23, 2009.
When Nicholson did not show up for work at Hotel Laguna, a co-worker went to his home and, when no one answered the door, entered through a sliding glass door to find Nicholson's body sprawled across a couch. He had been hit several times in his torso and head with a baseball bat.
Dragna and Quintanilla are accused of having fled the scene with some of Nicholson's personal items, including a laptop computer and cell phone. Dragna, who was arrested on Nov. 18, 2009, allegedly had some of the stolen items with him. Quintanilla was arrested Dec. 4, 2009, in part because of forensic evidence collected from Nicholson's stolen property, according to the Orange County District Attorney's office, whose veteran (and highly successful) homicide prosecutor Matt Murphy drew this case.
Before Nicholson was beaten to death, Laguna Beach had not had a murder since 2002.