Dragna guilty in murder of Laguna man

An Orange County Superior Court jury found a Lake Forest man guilty Friday of killing a Laguna Beach resident in his apartment more than four years ago.

Matthew Thomas Dragna, 23, was convicted of one felony count of special-circumstances murder during the commission of a robbery in the bludgeoning death Oct. 23, 2009, of Damon Nicholson, 40, a Hotel Laguna catering manager.

Nicholson was found with a fractured skull and a red, oval bruise above his left hip in his Dolphin Way apartment, according to prosecutors.

Dragna faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to the Orange County district attorney's office.

He is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 28.

Dragna remained stoic as the clerk read the verdict, while some of Nicholson's family members wept.

Jurors deliberated for more than six hours Friday, the seventh day of the trial at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana.

The past four years have been an emotional, trying time, said Nicholson's 32-year-old brother, Derric Nicholson.

"When we walked out of [the courtroom], it was such raw emotion, indescribable," said Nicholson, who lives in Tucson, Ariz. "It made me miss my brother. This is a process, and thankfully we got through the process together."

He described his brother as someone who was well liked, as indicated by the hundreds of mourners who attended his memorial.

"Our brother was such an amazing, kind, wonderful person to every single person he met," Nicholson said. "Everybody, family and friends, had a special connection to him. He was a brother anyone would love to have."

The prosecution alleges that Dragna and Jacob Quintanilla, 25, also of Lake Forest, drove together to Nicholson's apartment, bludgeoned him to death, then stole items from the victim's apartment, including a laptop and cell phone.

A pretrial hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 10 for Quintanilla, who faces the same charge and sentence as Dragna.

"The jury did the right thing," Deputy Dist. Atty. Matt Murphy said. "I'm pleased with how hard the Laguna Beach Police Department worked on the case and the professionalism they displayed throughout. They do care about people who live in their community."

Derric Nicholson echoed Murphy's praise of the Laguna Beach Police Department's handling of the case.

"They dedicated so much to Damon, and it's something that's humbling," Nicholson said.

Dragna's mother, Renee, approached Nicholson's family in tears outside the courtroom following the verdict.

"I'm so sorry," Renee Dragna said. "God bless you. I have been praying for you since day one."

Dragna's attorney, Frank Bittar, said he plans to appeal.

"The evidence we showed revealed that [Dragna] went [to Nicholson's apartment] for a sexual purpose, not a calculated robbery," Bittar said. "If they orchestrated the robbery, they failed in their plan to take some valuable stuff, such as a wallet."

The court allows Dragna to have an appointed appellate lawyer, who will analyze the case for errors and any insufficient evidence, Bittar said.

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