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Men involved in 2009 killing of Laguna Beach hotel worker sentenced

Matthew Thomas Dragna, 31.
Matthew Thomas Dragna, pictured at the time of his arrest. Dragna was 19 in 2009 when he and co-defendant Jacob Quintanilla killed Laguna Beach resident Damon Nicholson.
(File Photo)

Two men charged in the murder 12 years ago of a Laguna Beach hotel worker were sentenced Monday at the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach after both pleaded guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter and first-degree burglary.

Their victim, Damon Nicholson, was found bludgeoned to death in his apartment on Dolphin Way on Oct. 24, 2009.

Matthew Thomas Dragna, now 31, was sentenced to 16 years and four months in state prison by Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett after Dragna pleaded guilty earlier this month to charges of voluntary manslaughter and three charges of assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm and first-degree burglary in the case.

Dragna served 12 years in prison while awaiting trial, but his attorney Monday waived his time served, so his new sentence will result in a cumulative total of about 28 years and four months in state prison.

He also admitted to a sentencing enhancement for personally using a deadly weapon. Prosecutors said Dragna killed the victim by bludgeoning him with a baseball bat.

Jacob Quintanilla also pleaded guilty Monday to charges of voluntary manslaughter and first-degree burglary in the case. Prickett sentenced Quintanilla to seven years and four months in state prison. Quintanilla, now 33, received credit for 3,912 days already served and was not taken into custody following sentencing.

Monday’s sentences came after years of legal drama.

Dragna had initially been convicted by an Orange County jury in 2013 and was sentenced in 2014 to life in prison with no possibility of parole. But a state appeals court overturned the ruling in 2016, saying Laguna Beach police erred in continuing to question Dragna after he said he wanted to speak with a lawyer.

Prosecutors said Dragna and co-defendant Quintanilla left Nicholson’s body slumped over on a couch in his living room and stole a laptop, cell phone and other items on Oct. 23, 2009.

Nicholson’s body was found the next day by a co-worker, who checked on his welfare when he didn’t show up for work.

The victim was found with a fractured skull and a red, oval bruise above his hip, according to prosecutors.

Dragna, then 19, was introduced to Nicholson by a third party on Oct. 22, 2009 and admitted he had gone to Nicholson’s apartment the day before the murder to have sex with Nicholson, 40.

Dragna returned a day later with Quintanilla, a friend whom Dragna believed “would be interested in similar [sexual] acts,” according to court records.

Prickett said he has probably seen Quintanilla “more than any other defendant [in court]” in his career.

Previous charges of murder with a special circumstances sentencing enhancement for robbery were dismissed for both.

None of Nicholson’s family was present for the hearing Monday, but prosecutors read impact statements from Nicholson’s sisters from 2014. DeVonne Nicholson Blauser wrote that she hated Dragna for killing her brother, describing Dragna as a “monster and a murderer.”

“I hate the fact that you will get out someday and could do this again to another person,” said Nicholson Blauser. “I can only hope you die alone and in pain like you left Damon.”

Deanne Cosgrove said that there was “no justice” in these kinds of criminal trials, adding that she felt Dragna robbed the Laguna Beach community and her of not only her brother, but her children of their uncle. She added that Nicholson was a wedding photographer and that at least one couple didn’t get their photos because of her brother’s murder.

“I am still haunted,” Cosgrove said in her statement.

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Updates

12:22 p.m. Oct. 28, 2021: This story was updated with clarification to Dragna’s sentencing.


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