By PAUL ANDERSON
City News Service
A 23-year-old man was sentenced today to life in prison without the possibility of parole for robbing and killing a Laguna Beach resident in his home in 2009.
Matthew Thomas Dragna of Lake Forest was convicted in December of first- degree murder, and jurors found true a special circumstance allegation of killing during a robbery, in the Oct. 22, 2009, bludgeoning death of 40-year- old Damon Nicholson.
Co-defendant Jacob Anthony Quintanilla, 25, will be tried separately. Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy said after today's hearing that he was discussing a plea deal for Quintanilla that would let the defendant avoid a life sentence.
A longtime friend of Nicholson's told Orange County Superior Court Judge James Stotler how much she misses her companion.
"Gone is my dear friend of almost 20 years," Carla Bravo said. "Damon was a very special person whom I loved dearly. We will never again share long talks on the phone, our movie nights with popcorn and bon bons or play Trivial Pursuit after enjoying Thanksgiving dinner together."
Bravo recalled how the photography enthusiast would excitedly tell her that he had photos displayed at the Orange County Fair.
She also misses how he would "make me laugh with one of his silly jokes."
She added, "Losing Damon shattered my heart. I think about him every day and miss him more than words could ever express. I lost my best friend when his life was so abruptly ended. There have been many tears and I have felt so much sadness. It has almost broken me."
After Dragna's conviction Dec. 20, Nicholson's sister, Deanna Cosgrove, said her brother was much beloved in Laguna Beach and that hundreds attended his memorial.
"We knew what a great guy he was, but we were somewhat humbled by the turnout for his memorial," she said. "He had a way of making everyone feel special."
Dragna's attorney, Frank Bittar of the Orange County Public Defender's Office, argued the co-defendant is the lone killer.
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, Murphy said.
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 intentionally 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, Bittar said.
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.