THE FAVOR

On the eve of a murder trial, a deal is struck. But will it stick?

For Fred and Kathy Santos, a plea bargain for the killers of their 22-year-old son was a bitter pill. But it offered finality. Or so they thought.

Fabian Nuñez and his then-wife, Maria, appear with defense attorneys during a news conference after the arraignment of their son Esteban and three other men. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
(Los Angeles Times)

On the eve of a murder trial, a deal is struck. But will it stick?

For Fred and Kathy Santos, a plea bargain for the killers of their 22-year-old son was a bitter pill. But it offered finality. Or so they thought.

Second of two parts | Read part I

The fathers had been advised not to exchange words, or stand too close to one another. If Fred Santos walked left, Fabian Nuñez walked right. If they happened to pass in the hallway, they tried not to meet each other's eyes.

During their many trips to the Hall of Justice in downtown San Diego — for the preliminary hearing, the motions, the arguments over evidence — they became accustomed to this dance of avoidance.

Santos' 22-year-old son, Luis, had been stabbed in the heart in a brawl at San Diego State University. Nuñez's 21-year-old son, Esteban, faced life in prison for the killing. In the law's citadel, it was supposed to be irrelevant that one father was a tech troubleshooter for a car auctioneer, while the other had been California's most powerful lawmaker.

Luis Santos, 22, made friends easily and loved to recite punchlines from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” He was a student at Mesa College in San Diego at the time of his death on Oct. 4, 2008. (Santos family)

The murder trial was expected to be a long one, maybe lasting months. Santos and his wife, Kathy, had packed their suitcases, flown to San Diego and put down the first month's rent on a house. They were determined to attend every day of testimony, however excruciating.

The jury was being chosen and opening statements were just days away when San Diego's elected district attorney, Bonnie Dumanis, summoned the trial prosecutors to her office to discuss a plea bargain. The defense had been asking to deal.

Dumanis was willing to drop the murder charges against Esteban Nuñez and his codefendant, Ryan Jett, if they would plead guilty to manslaughter. If they agreed, they would serve 16 years each at most.

Rick Clabby, the second-chair prosecutor, thought it was a terrible deal, a view he would learn was widely shared in the office.

“Listen, the Santos family doesn't want this — they want us to go to trial,” he told Dumanis.

Clabby insisted they had the evidence to convict on murder. They had worked for nearly two years to bring the case to trial. Why settle now? Why settle for this?

The D.A.'s office did not need the approval of the victim's parents to make the deal. But it would be awkward if Fred and Kathy Santos opposed it publicly.

Called to a meeting with the district attorney, they listened as prosecutors explained the terms.

Since Nuñez was arrested in late 2008, the parents had been unable to shake the suspicion that politics might influence the course of the case. Nuñez's father, Fabian, a Democrat from Los Angeles, had served three terms in the California Assembly, two as speaker, and now worked at an influential lobbying and public relations firm. His relationships spanned the worlds of business, politics and labor, and in all three his advice — and, even more, his support — was prized.

So Fred Santos, long past the point where he thought such questions might be rude, asked Dumanis her party affiliation. She was a Republican. This was a relief to him.

Did she have plans to run for the state Assembly? No. Did she want to be governor? No.

He did not ask whether Dumanis had other ambitions. She did. She wanted to be mayor of San Diego, a bid she would make official 10 months later, running — unsuccessfully — on a claimed 94% conviction rate for the D.A.'s office.

The plea bargain had advantages for Dumanis, if cold political calculus was the measure: It guaranteed convictions in a high-profile case and sidestepped the risk of an embarrassing loss.

Bonnie Dumanis, the district attorney, was a Republican. That eased Fred Santos’ concerns that she might be influenced by Fabian Nuñez, a Democrat. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Santos had another question: Could the defendants make this deal, and later try to undo it on appeal? Highly unlikely.

The parents found a private room and called their daughter, Brigida, 25. After her brother's death, she had suffered from blackouts, violent stomach cramps and vomiting attacks. She had believed she was dying. She remained inconsolable, too distressed to attend the trial.

Now her parents explained the terms of the deal. They knew the toll the case had already taken on her. Even if jurors convicted, there would be endless appeals. A plea deal meant finality.

They agreed to accept it.

Dumanis gave her prosecutors the order: Make the offer.

Superior Court Judge Robert O'Neill was a Republican who jokingly described himself as “to the right of Attila the Hun.” He'd been a military policeman, a motorcycle cop, a prosecutor, a defense attorney.

Now in his 60s, he wore a bushy white mustache and liked to quote the Founding Fathers from the bench. He limped into his courtroom in an orthopedic shoe, a reminder of a drunk driver who had ended his police career.

When the defendants appeared before him on May 4, 2010, he took pains to make sure they understood the stakes. If they accepted the plea bargain, there was no certainty as to the sentence he would impose — he would have to study the facts, weighing aggravating and mitigating factors.

“You won't do more than 16 years and you may do less,” O'Neill told Nuñez and Jett, adding: “So if you want to ask me, ‘What am I going to get on sentencing date if I took that offer?' I can't tell you that. And the reason why is I don't have all of the information.”

Luis Santos had been killed in a clash between two groups of young men — one armed, one not — near San Diego State's Fraternity Row on Oct. 4, 2008. From the dim, blurry surveillance video, it was impossible to tell who had delivered the fatal blow. The prosecution's theory was that Jett had stabbed Santos; this was based largely on the account of a witness who saw him throw a roundhouse swing at a dark-complexioned young man.

Nuñez had also wielded a knife. As best as investigators could determine, he had stabbed two of Santos' friends, one in the stomach and back, the other in the shoulder.

Both defendants were charged with all three stabbings because they were deemed to have acted together.

If they went to trial, the judge explained, they were gambling. A first-degree-murder conviction meant 25 years to life; second-degree murder was 15 to life. Even if jurors decided it wasn't murder, there were other charges that together could bring more than 16 years.

“Add it up. I mean, you have a tremendous exposure there,” O'Neill said. “So the bottom-line question to it is, ‘How lucky do you feel today?'”

He stressed the ironclad finality of the plea. “With a plea bargain, there is certainty. That's the deal. It is a deal. It is a contract. You take the offer. That's an acceptance. That's a contract. That's enforceable.”

The defendants were back in court the next day. They had decided to take the deal. Jett went first, pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter in Santos' death, and to assault with a deadly weapon in the nonfatal stabbings of the victim's two friends.

Then came Nuñez's turn. The judge held a three-page change of plea form. It had been signed and initialed by Nuñez, and marked with his thumbprint, to formalize his plea of guilty to manslaughter and assault.

Judge Robert O’Neill, a Republican, had been a motorcycle policeman, a prosecutor and a defense attorney. A drunk driver ended his police career. (Superior Court staff)

“The maximum penalty could be 16 years in state prison, $20,000 fine, restitution. Do you understand that?” the judge asked.

“Yes, your honor,” Nuñez said.

The judge recited the elements of the crimes for which Nuñez was taking responsibility, and asked him to affirm his guilt. He used the victim's formal Portuguese surname.

“‘I intentionally committed an act that caused the death of Luis Dos Santos and/or aided and abetted in the unlawful killing of Luis Dos Santos.' Is that a true statement?”

“Yes, sir.”

“‘The natural consequences of the act were dangerous to human life.' Is that a true statement?”

“Yes, sir.”

“‘At the time I acted, I knew the act was dangerous to human life.' Is that a true statement?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“‘I deliberately acted with conscious disregard for human life.' Is that a true statement?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“‘I also admit to personally using a knife in the unlawful killing of Luis Dos Santos.' Is that a true statement?” “

“Yes, your honor.”

“You are convicted,” the judge said, and ordered the defendants — both of whom had been free on bail — back into custody.

"I killed without lawful excuse or justification"

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Read Esteban Nuñez’s guilty plea, entered on May 5, 2010.

As the sentencing date approached, Nuñez wrote a letter to the judge:

“I am not proud of what has happened. I live with remorse. What happened is terrible and I am in no way trying to justify my actions. I am merely attempting to expose the truth....

“I can't imagine the struggle the Dos Santos family goes through daily. I pray for them every night, for their son will never come back and it is terrible....

“I've made many mistakes in my past but I assure you I'm not a bad person. The people who know me know the loving and gentle heart that is in me. I have learned many things going through this case and I have grown tremendously. I have reevaluated the people I place around me for they had negative influences on me....

“Sadly, I can't change the past. I can only evaluate and learn from it so the same mistake won't be made twice, and I intend to continue doing so. But I don't believe sending me to prison would help me in any way surround myself with positive influences....

I want you to know I've always intended to take responsibility for my actions. Yet, the D.A. was never interested. I was willing to turn myself in as soon as an arrest was issued, yet they had different plans....

But, that is not my concern. My concern lies in a thorough observation of the facts and circumstances surrounding the case. It is my profound hope that you also take in consideration that I have no criminal history....”

“We have cried until our faces burned,” Kathy Santos said.

It was sentencing day, June 25, 2010. The victim's mother stood facing the judge and spoke of her son. Luis, a student at Mesa College in San Diego, had been exuberantly social, if unfocused about school, and devoted to his family.

Kathy Santos, Luis’ mother, gives a victim impact statement in June 2010.

The mother glared at the defendants. “Demons,” she called them, and added: “I pray that the universe will deliver to you a just punishment for your empty and satanic souls.”

She had contempt for them and their attorneys, she said, “for being evil, and for defending evil.” She pleaded with the judge. “Please don't allow their political connections and influence to cheat our family and Luis.”

It was time for Fred Santos to speak. He stepped to the lectern, and drew a breath.

“They got away with murder,” he said. “This is not closure. There will never be closure. This is just an end to the criminal proceeding, to the agony of sitting in court.”

He held up an enlarged photograph of his son's gravestone. “This is all we have left,” he said. “We go to his marker and pretend he can hear what we are saying.”

Brandon Scheerer, whose eye was injured in the October 2008 fight, gives a victim impact statement to the court at the June 2010 sentencing of Esteban Nuñez.

Ryan Jett would be sentenced first. He faced the Santos family and begged for forgiveness. The judge noted that Jett had prior felony convictions for weapons possession and had been on probation. He gave him 16 years.

It was Nuñez's chance to say he was sorry, if he wished. He did not. Instead, defense attorney Brad Patton tried to diminish his client's share of the blame.

He argued that Santos had sparked the fight with a drunken remark: “I got my thang on me,” an apparent reference to a gun, although Santos was not carrying one. Patton contended that after the confrontation subsided, Santos had reignited it by summoning his friends on his cellphone.

Jett had attacked Santos in an act of “terrible, horrible spontaneity,” and Nuñez had used his knife only after he saw Jett had been tackled and needed help, the defense lawyer said.

Prosecutor Jill DiCarlo responded: Santos was unarmed, a threat to no one. He had called for backup out of fear. “It is the people's position that Mr. Nuñez did not inflict the fatal stab wound … but it's as good as if he did,” she said. “He aided and abetted that fatal blow, and he is just as guilty.”

She invoked Nuñez's letter to the judge. Nuñez spoke of wanting to “expose the truth.” But he offered no apology, showed no remorse and took no responsibility, the prosecutor said.

“If now he wants to come before this court and say, ‘I really want the truth to come out,' then he should have taken this case to trial,” she said.

She cited Nuñez's remark to a probation officer — who was preparing a sentencing report — that he carried a knife “because there had been many threats made to his family, but he never intended to go out and hurt somebody.”

“So are we to believe, and Mr. Nuñez is to have this court believe, that college students at San Diego State University are a threat to his family?” DiCarlo asked.

"He gave no thought to anybody else"

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Read an excerpt from prosecutor Jill DiCarlo’s arguments at the sentencing of Esteban Nuñez in June 2010.

Now Judge O'Neill spoke. He said that each defendant “is treated separately and distinctly by the court,” so he would weigh Nuñez's aggravating factors and mitigating factors separately from Jett's.

The judge noted that Nuñez had no previous criminal record — a point in his favor. He considered Nuñez's claim that he pulled his knife to defend his friend. That gave the judge pause. Then why had he fled home to Sacramento and thrown his knife into a river?

Top: Esteban Nuñez, left, and Ryan Jett await sentencing on June 25, 2010, in San Diego County Superior Court. (K.C. Alfred / Associated Press)

Above: Nuñez reacts after being sentenced to 16 years in prison, the maximum. (K.C. Alfred / Associated Press)

He noted that Nuñez had already “benefited considerably by the plea agreement.” To impose the maximum term, the judge explained, he needed to find just one aggravating factor. He found several.

Did the crime reflect great violence, cruelty or callousness? Yes, the judge ruled. Nuñez had stabbed Santos' two friends “but did absolutely nothing to help.”

The judge said, “Defendant Nuñez did everything he could to destroy evidence and try and distance himself from these crimes. Actions after the fact, even knowing that Mr. Dos Santos was deceased, I believe, show callousness, a disregard for human life, and are evil.”

Did Nuñez occupy a position of leadership in the group? Yes, the judge ruled. Did the crime indicate planning? Yes. He had brought a knife to a college campus.

“Being stabbed by a knife is personal,” the judge said. “A knife in someone's hand being plunged into your body — that is in your face, and that is personal.”

For the manslaughter charge, the judge imposed 11 years, plus a year because it was done with a knife, plus four years for the two nonfatal stabbings.

Sixteen years.

The defendant began to cry.

Fred and Kathy Santos left the courtroom relieved that it had been settled — not perfectly, but finally. Fred tried to lose himself in his work, putting in 60- and 70-hour weeks. Sometimes he carried his guitar into his son's upstairs bedroom, which was still untouched, and sang for him among the Golden State Warriors pennants.

He couldn't watch football or basketball anymore. Seasons sailed by, championships were clinched, and Fred missed it completely. Among strangers, he learned to dodge the question about whether he had children.

Fear of that question, he knew, had made his wife — once ebulliently social — avoid dinner parties. What should she say? Two kids? That wasn't true anymore. One? That seemed to negate Luis' existence. She could say, “One was murdered,” and watch silence fall over the room.

The plea deal was supposed to mean certainty. Yet only five weeks after the sentencing — it was now August 2010 — defense attorney Brad Patton was standing before the judge, making an admittedly awkward request.

Kathy and Fred Santos found it awkward to socialize after their son’s killing. They didn’t know what to say when people asked how many children they had. (Dave Getzschman / For the Times)

Patton had told his client he could expect a lighter sentence. He said he had based this on O'Neill's remark in court — and on his unrecorded remarks in chambers with lawyers from both sides — that he would treat Nuñez differently from Jett.

In Patton's view, this meant less time for Nuñez, who had no previous record and had supposedly not inflicted the fatal wound. If Jett got the maximum term of 16 years, shouldn't Nuñez get the middle term of six?

“I can tell the court definitively that, had they known that this was going to be a 16-year case for Esteban, this plea would not have gone down,” Patton said.

“What you told the family, and the expectation of the family — I really have no control over that,” the judge replied. It was not entirely certain who had stabbed Santos, he added. “There is some argument to that particular contention.” Had the case gone to trial, Jett's lawyer was prepared to argue that it was Nuñez.

In his previous on-the-record remarks in court, the judge had vowed to weigh the two defendants' punishments “separately and distinctly” but had never promised a lighter term for Nuñez.

As the argument wore on through multiple hearings, DiCarlo reminded the judge that he had repeatedly warned Nuñez he could get as much as 16 years.

“The bottom line here is Mr. Nuñez does not like the sentence he got, so at first he blames the court, and now he is blaming his defense attorney, and unfortunately Mr. Patton is falling on his sword.”

At a September hearing, the judge reaffirmed his sentence. “An aider and abettor is punished under the same sentencing schemes as the principal,” he said. “I have given this a great deal of thought, and I see no basis either in law or in fact where the court could properly exercise its discretion and resentence Mr. Nuñez.”

“I can assure you —” the judge continued.

Esteban Nuñez, left, leaves San Diego County Superior Court with his father, Fabian, after a hearing on March 18, 2009. (Denis Poroy / Associated Press)

“But, sir,” a voice interrupted from the audience. It was Fabian Nuñez, on his feet.

“You said you would treat my son differently than Mr. Jett in this court. You said that you would treat them differently.”

“Mr. Nuñez, sir, that is correct, and I did,” the judge replied. “Just so the record is clear, if you review the transcripts, there is nowhere in the transcripts that I indicated that I would sentence Mr. Nuñez to a term of six years, and that's the contention. I did not say anywhere in any transcript —”

Nuñez cut him off again. “You did, sir. You said it in this courtroom.”

“If you can show me somewhere in the transcript I said that, I stand corrected,” O'Neill said.

It was dangerous to challenge a judge in his own courtroom. It is not clear how long O'Neill would have tolerated it. But within moments, the former Assembly speaker was heading briskly for the door.

Another Nuñez attorney, Charles Sevilla, told the judge he had checked the record and found that O'Neill had not, in fact, promised a specific sentence.

Fred Santos had watched Nuñez's outburst with dismay. It seemed to confirm his sense that Nuñez thought himself above the rules that applied to everyone else.

Now Santos addressed the judge: “Since the family of the defendant has a right to speak, I would like —”

Prosecutors motioned for the victim's father to be quiet. He obeyed.

Soon after Esteban Nuñez moved into his cell at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif., one of the warden's assistants arrived at work to find a package waiting on her desk.

The assistant was a liaison to inmates' families. After four years in the job, she'd gotten many thank you notes but never a gift.

The package was a Kindle, courtesy of Fabian Nuñez.

She promptly sent it back.

From early on, the Santos family had worried about the reach of Fabian Nuñez's power. He had been the state's most powerful Democrat, so they believed his pull would be strongest among Democrats. They had missed that his most powerful friend was the Republican governor.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nuñez had started out as adversaries. Schwarzenegger derided Democrats as “girlie men,” Nuñez as a “punk.” Nuñez accused the governor of wearing shoe lifts and makeup, and in 2005 helped crush his four special-election initiatives, including measures to curb union campaign spending and redraw election maps.

Improbably, around that time, a working amity blossomed. A battered and conciliatory Schwarzenegger perceived the value of the Assembly speaker's sway over fellow Democrats in a deep-blue state. The governor invited the speaker for cigars and schnapps in his outdoor smoking tent, gave him rides on his private jet and hosted him on the patio of his Brentwood home.

After a rough start, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, left, and Fabian Nuñez, a Democrat, became friends and political allies. (Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times)

Nuñez took Schwarzenegger out for Mexican food at La Serenata de Garibaldi in Boyle Heights. They greeted each other with hugs, and in photographs they seemed giddy in each other's company.

It was easy to dismiss this as a friendship of convenience, but their biographies hinted at the basis of a deeper bond. Both were flamboyant and ambitious men who dressed to the nines, born outsiders who had fought their way to the apex of power in the nation's most populous state.

Schwarzenegger was possibly the nation's most famous immigrant — the Austrian Oak, Mr. Olympia, Conan the Barbarian, the action hero, fitness czar, Kennedy in-law and now the Governator. Central to his story, as to Nuñez's, was his image as a beneficiary — and an exemplar — of the American dream.

“California is once again, my friends, on the move, thanks largely to this next man, the governor of our great state and a good friend of mine, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Nuñez said in introducing him on the occasion of the Mexican president's visit to Sacramento in May 2006.

The effusiveness of the praise was striking, considering that Nuñez was co-chairing the campaign of the Democrat trying to win Schwarzenegger's job in the upcoming election.

“Well, thank you very much, Fabian, for the wonderful introduction, and for the wonderful things you said,” the governor said. “This is really great stuff that I can use to get reelected.”

In that cause, Nuñez offered more than glowing blurbs. He and Schwarzenegger united in a push to raise the minimum wage, cap greenhouse-gas emissions and put a $42-billion public works bond package on the ballot, marginalizing Democratic challenger Phil Angelides. That November, Schwarzenegger won a second term handily.

Sunday, Jan. 2, 2011.

In the Capitol, it was gray and cold on the last day of Schwarzenegger's seven-year governorship. His offices had been emptied, the famous smoking tent dismantled. He had gathered his exhausted staff for a final goodbye, and left town to resume his Hollywood career.

There was talk of another “Terminator” sequel. There was talk of a cartoon series, “The Governator,” in which Schwarzenegger would play himself as a “devoted family man” and crime-fighting superhero.

There was no drama surrounding his announcement that afternoon, no news conference. There was just an emailed news release from his office at 4:13 p.m., and, two minutes later, a tweet.

Fred and Kathy Santos arrived at their home in Concord, a San Francisco suburb, to find a message on the answering machine.

A reporter wanted to know what they thought of the governor's “action.”

They looked at each other. What did the governor have to do with them?

Kathy pulled up the Sacramento Bee online. The image of Esteban Nuñez stared from the screen. Schwarzenegger had commuted his prison sentence from 16 years to seven.

Nuñez had faced the possibility of life in prison; now, just six months into his sentence, he could expect to be paroled by April 2016 with good behavior.

What had taken the criminal justice system two years to decide vanished with a signature. Schwarzenegger had exercised a singular and anachronistic power, a throwback to the age of monarchs sanctioned by Article V of the California Constitution.

Fred and Kathy Santos looked at each other, stunned, and sobbed. Their phone rang all night.

In his brief written rationale, which read like a summary of defense arguments, the governor said that Nuñez had no prior record and had played a “limited” role in the attack, and that it was “not in dispute” that Jett was the one who had stabbed Santos.

Schwarzenegger had denied similar clemency requests many times. In 2009, he rejected the state parole board's recommendation to free 29 inmates who had participated in homicides but had not personally delivered the killing blows.

The governor had been unsympathetic when defendants failed to take responsibility for their crimes, or had shown “callous disregard for human suffering” by fleeing the scene and leaving victims to die.

To Jill DiCarlo, that description fit Esteban Nuñez's crime exactly. The San Diego prosecutor described the commutation as “nauseating.”

DiCarlo had not been told in advance, nor had the Santos family. Had the governor sought her input, she would have said that Nuñez had bragged about the stabbing, that it had never been proved who thrust the knife into Santos and that Nuñez, in swiftly destroying evidence, had forever obscured the truth.

Exactly for this reason, she would have explained, the law punished both defendants equally. “They did it as a team,” DiCarlo said.

If the famously media-savvy governor had any public relations strategy beyond dropping the news at a time designed to minimize its notice, and then refusing to discuss it, none was in evidence.

Editorials and newspaper letter writers denounced the commutation. Read a column from The Times »

Editorials and newspaper letter writers denounced the commutation as an act of political cronyism. Democrats denounced it. Republicans denounced it. Schwarzenegger's successor, Jerry Brown, signed a law requiring that from then on, governors would have to notify prosecutors — and thereby victims' families — before granting clemency.

Soon after the news broke, the Santos family received a letter with Schwarzenegger's signature. “I understand why you may never comprehend or agree with my decision,” it read. “And I am profoundly sorry that my decision has added to your burden.”

Rick Clabby, who had been the case's second-chair prosecutor, was still vexed by the plea deal that had allowed Nuñez to avoid trial for murder. He saw the sentence reduction as yet another blow to a family in pain. “The Santos family was victimized when their son was murdered,” he said. “They were victimized when our office made this stupid-ass decision. And they were victims when the governor decided to buddy up with Nuñez.”

Bonnie Dumanis, the San Diego district attorney, wouldn't talk about why she pushed the plea deal. But when the news of the commutation broke, she joined the outrage, saying Schwarzenegger's act had “greatly diminished justice.”

She joined the Santos family in a lawsuit to enforce the original sentence, on the grounds that the governor had flouted the state Constitution by failing to give advance notice. A Sacramento judge dismissed the suit, saying the commutation was “repugnant” but legal.

The bare mechanics are easy enough to determine. Esteban Nuñez obtained a form from the governor's website. A lawyer helped him fill it out. The application for clemency went to the governor's legal team. Then Schwarzenegger signed.

This does not describe the decisive element: what happened between a father with a deeply personal need and a man with the power to fulfill it.

In a recent interview with The Times, Fabian Nuñez put it bluntly.

“I used my relationship with the governor to help my own son,” he said. “I'd do it again. There it is. I would do it again.”

He said Schwarzenegger had followed Esteban's criminal case closely, and the two of them had discussed it regularly. “I would brief the governor from time to time. He was a friend. He would ask, ‘How are you doing?' He had compassion. There was no deal making, just two human beings, two fathers.”

Nuñez wouldn't reveal precisely what he said to Schwarzenegger. But if his remarks to The Times are any indication, he spoke angrily of justice thwarted, of how his son was wronged by a deceptive, “ultraconservative” judge.

“He lied to get my son to accept a sentence which did not fit the crime,” he said. “When you're dealing with a judge like him, and an overzealous district attorney, with a deputy district attorney who is very ambitious and is looking at their high conviction rates, the last thing that's going to stand in their way is some Latino politician representing East Los Angeles.”

Nuñez said his ties to Schwarzenegger merely leveled a playing field that had been tilted against his son. “He corrected a wrong that a judge imposed on my son. I believe any father would do what I did.”

As Schwarzenegger settled into his post-politics life, the questions dogged him for a few months.

In April 2011, KCAL-TV Channel 9 reporter Dave Bryan caught Schwarzenegger slipping out the back door of a Hollywood conference where he had been celebrated for his record on climate change.

Schwarzenegger knew what was coming. He kept walking, and muttered: “Don't ask me the same question, OK? Because otherwise you're boring the hell out of me.”

Watch: Arnold Schwarzenegger reacts in April 2011 to questioning about his commutation of Esteban Nuñez’s sentence. See the entire KCAL Channel 9 segment »

“I think a lot of people want to know,” Bryan said. “Why did you reduce the sentence for Esteban Nuñez?”

Schwarzenegger made a loud snoring sound. He kept walking amid his entourage, his expression frozen somewhere between a smile and a grimace, as if willing the reporter out of existence. Bryan persisted.

“Governor, why won't you talk about it? Governor? Why did you wait until the last minute, sir, before you left office? Was it a favor for Fabian Nuñez, Governor? Governor, why did you commute the sentence, Governor?”

Schwarzenegger gave his fullest public explanation to a Newsweek reporter that month.

“I happen to know the kid really well. I don't apologize about it,” he said. “There's criticism out there. I think it's just because of our working relationship and all that. It maybe was kind of saying, ‘That's why he did it.' Well, hello! I mean, of course you help a friend.”

In his 2012 autobiography “Total Recall,” which is more than 600 pages long, Schwarzenegger makes no mention of the commutation. Nor are answers obtainable in the official file; he ordered it sealed for 25 years.

As a boy, Fabian Nuñez said, he watched an angry customer in La Jolla berate his father, an immigrant gardener, who told him afterward that he endured such humiliations so that his kids didn't have to.

It is one of Nuñez's favorite stories, one he uses to explain his need to fight his way out of the San Diego barrio, where so many others died young or went to prison.

Timeline of Nuñez case

Oct. 4, 2008

Luis Santos is stabbed and killed in San Diego.

Dec. 1, 2008

An arrest warrant is issued for Esteban Nuñez and three other men in connection with Santos’ killing.

May 5, 2010

Nuñez pleads guilty to manslaughter in Santos’ death.

June 25, 2010

Superior Court Judge Robert O’Neill sentences Nuñez to 16 years in state prison.

Jan. 2, 2011

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announces on his last day in office that he has reduced Nuñez’s sentence to seven years.

Oct. 3, 2011

Gov. Jerry Brown, in response to the Nuñez case, signs a law requiring governors to notify prosecutors — and thereby victims’ families — before granting clemency.

April 2016

Esteban Nuñez is expected to be paroled with time off for good behavior.

Nuñez succeeded spectacularly. He is now a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, a leading lobbying and public relations firm whose clients include the National Basketball Assn., Verizon Communications and Uber. He reported taxable income of $2.4 million in 2013, according to court records.

How did his son, who had so many advantages, end up behind bars?

“I have no idea how that happens,” he said. “It's very frustrating, because one generation is supposed to do better than the last. My parents came here with nothing.”

After months of reluctance, Esteban Nuñez agreed to be interviewed. He sounded wary and guarded during two brief phone calls from prison that his father arranged and listened in on.

The younger Nuñez denied killing Santos but acknowledged stabbing Santos' two friends, saying he did it to defend his own friend.

“I hurt my victims, but I didn't harm them in lethal ways,” he said.

“All I can do is take responsibility for what I did. I'm not going to point the finger at anybody, and I didn't have anything to do with Luis.”

Why did he throw his knife in the Sacramento River?

“I panicked. Obviously, I wasn't thinking.”

Why carry a knife in the first place?

“Hell of a question,” his father interjected.

The son said, “It was a time in my life I was really lost. I had a lot to deal with. I was a little insecure with myself and my ability to defend myself.”

Pressed for specifics, he said he was molested by a family member as a child — an incident he never mentioned in court, or in his letter to Judge O'Neill. He took to “numbing out” with alcohol, running from his problems.

He said he resented his workaholic father; as a boy, he rarely saw him.

“I felt like he chose work over his family,” he said.

They see each other frequently now.

“We're closer than we've ever been,” he said.

A recorded voice came on the line. Time was up.

Fred Santos struggles, nearly four years later, to make sense of what happened. He doesn't understand what Schwarzenegger had to gain, or what he might have owed Nuñez.

“They are definitely two Tai-Pans,” he said, using a Cantonese term for “Big Men.” The reference is from his childhood in Macau, a former Portuguese colony off the coast of China, where the powerful did not need to explain themselves.

He entwined his two fingers, held them aloft and smiled without joy. “I did not know they were like that.”

Last year, Kathy Santos walked into her son's second-floor room and started boxing up his things. She took down the sports pennants and posters. It seemed like time.

She fears that she is forgetting his laugh. She pleads with him to visit her in her dreams, which she records in a journal.

“Last night I finally had a dream with Luis in it. It's been several months and I have been feeling desperate for him.

“I was able to feel Luis's ghost, touch him, kiss him, and talk to him, and it was wonderful. He was in the living room playing on the floor near the fireplace. He said he wanted to go to the supermarket and see what has changed or what he has missed. He said he likes to stay home now.”

In her dreams, she tries, helplessly, to reach him through a pane of glass. Sometimes dangerous animals appear — tigers, freakish crocodiles, savage birds.

In one dream, wild turkeys attacked. She broke their necks to save her son and husband.

“They were safe,” she wrote.

For a while, she and Fred went to monthly meetings of Parents of Murdered Children. She found it too hard to tell the story over and over. Therapy didn't help.

She gets together with close friends, every week, to drink wine, light candles and share stories. They pluck from a box of inspirational cards. They have messages about love, hope and courage.

“There are some I always put back,” she said. “The ones that say, ‘Forgive.'”

Fabian Nuñez, right, regularly visits his son at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione. “I used my relationship with the governor to help my own son,” he says of the commutation. (Courtesy of Fabian Nuñez)

The hills measure the seasons as Fabian Nuñez steers his BMW from Sacramento to Mule Creek State Prison, watching the countryside change color. Green, brown, green, brown, green, brown. Nearly five years down; less than two left.

He stops for coffee, to make change for the vending machines, and pulls up to the prison to ready himself for the ritual. Hand stamp. Metal detector. Door. Chain-link cage. Door. Walkway. Door.

Once in a while, people at the prison talk to him about their cases. Some strike him as victims of injustice, and ask for his help. They know him as a man with pull. He does not discourage the impression. “From time to time, I've been known to make a call,” he said.

“I see how deeply ineffective our justice system is. I see how easily it can be manipulated.”

Contact the reporter | Follow @LATChrisGoffard on Twitter
Design and production by Lily Mihalik.

About the series

This series is based on police reports, transcripts of sworn testimony and other court documents, and on interviews with Luis Santos’ parents and sister; Esteban Nuñez and his father, Fabian; Santos’ companions on the night of the deadly fight at San Diego State University; prosecutors, detectives and defense lawyers; and Ryan Jett, who is serving a 16-year prison term for manslaughter in connection with Santos’ death. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and San Diego County District Atty. Bonnie Dumanis declined to be interviewed.

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