THE FAVOR

Knives, a death, a famous name

An early morning fight ends in the fatal stabbing of 22-year-old Luis Santos. Among the accused is the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez. As they mourn, the Santos family wonders if political influence will trump justice.

Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, left, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, seen in 2007, became unlikely friends during Schwarzenegger’s tenure as governor. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

Knives, a death, a famous name

An early morning fight ends in the fatal stabbing of 22-year-old Luis Santos. Among the accused is the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez. As they mourn, the Santos family wonders if political influence will trump justice.

A young man’s grave sits on a cemetery hill. To reach it, his parents drive through serene, graciously shaded neighborhoods where they see him still. As a toddler, throwing bread to the ducks. As a sixth-grader, on a razor scooter. As a lanky teenager with a cocky sideways smile.

Fred Santos, the father, steers his Toyota Prius into Oakmont Memorial Park in the Bay Area suburb of Lafayette and follows the road to the summit. He parks amid the pines and oaks. He carries sunflowers as he and his wife, Kathy, walk to the spot.

LUIS FELIPE WATSON DOS SANTOS
June 27, 1986 — October 4, 2008
Mr. Personality
Family first and lots of friends

At Oakmont Memorial Park in Lafayette, Calif., Kathy and Fred Santos visit their son's grave. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)


At 57, the father is a slightly built, unassuming man with thinning black hair and the hard-to-place accent of his native Macau, a former Portuguese colony off mainland China.

Pequenitates, people called him. “Little guy.” It was more than just a physical description. It seemed, in the world of his childhood, an apt description of his place.

Down at the bottom were families like his, scrabbling for a living on the tiny island. Up at the top were the deep-pocketed Tai-Pans, a Cantonese term for “Big Men.” Nobody was surprised when, in a collision between the two classes, power prevailed. It was the order of things, as inarguable as the grave, or a father’s need to die before his children.

In America, he learned, people were not resigned to this outcome. They built superstructures of law to prevent it. They railed against it. They told him things were different here. Mostly, they convinced him.

In a cage in Northern California lives another man’s son. To reach him, the father steers his gray BMW X5 through miles of rolling rye grass, past weather-beaten farmhouses and cattle ranches and goat farms, until he reaches the security kiosk at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione.

His face is familiar here, even to those who never saw it on the news. The cleft chin, the symmetrical features, the smile that seems to convey personal affection for everyone, however humble.

Fabian Nuñez, 47, a man once routinely referred to as California’s most powerful lawmaker, has been making the trip for five years. He knows to leave his cellphone and wallet in the car, to carry his ID and vending-machine dollars in a zip-lock bag.

Fabian Nuñez’s son Esteban is being held at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif. (Mule Creek State Prison)

After the short walk past an electrified fence to the check-in office, he knows to keep his toes behind a red line and to present his left hand for a stamp, which will identify him as a visitor — rather than an escaping prisoner — when he leaves.

He is divorced from his son’s mother, and he often comes here alone. He grew up in the gang-ridden barrios of Tijuana and San Diego, the ninth of 11 children, a gardener’s son. He learned to box to protect himself, and in the hope that his father, who loved the sport, might make time to attend his matches.

He blazed to power speaking the language of the underdog, in an accent that never lost its border-town echoes. He put his upbringing at the center of his political story. He rhapsodized about the great leveling power of America, where a kid who started life in mismatched hand-me-downs could go mano a mano with scions of privilege.

He became an immigrant rights activist, a Los Angeles labor leader, an assemblyman and finally the speaker of the California Assembly, the Democratic antagonist of the movie-star Republican governor and, later, something more improbable: his friend.

Metal detector. Door. Enclosure. Door. Walkway. Door. Guard. Hand scanner. And then the final door, opening into a communal visiting room filled with plastic chairs and the reek of microwaved popcorn. He carries a printout with his son’s name and ID number: NUNEZ, ESTEBAN ARMANDO AE1200.

The son will emerge from a side door in his prison scrubs and leather boots, at 25 already taller and broader than his father. Always, they greet with an embrace. They will play intense games of Scrabble, and discuss the family and the latest tech gadgets waiting in the world outside.

In a year and a half, the father will bring his son home.

“2:16 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 4, 2008

“We’re about to die! One of my friends might die right now! You need to send an ambulance as quick as possible.”

This is Evan Henderson, yelling into a cellphone. In the background of the 911 recording, someone can be heard screaming, “Please!”

“Please hurry,” Henderson says. “I’m stabbed in the back right now. My friend is stabbed in the chest right now. Please hurry.”

The 20-year-old San Diego State University student struggles to give the dispatcher the location: 55th Street near Fraternity Row, between the Aztec Recreation Center and Peterson Gym.

Three of his buddies are bleeding. Keith Robertson, 22, has been stabbed in the left shoulder. Brandon Scheerer, 24, has a fractured eye socket and a torn eyelid.

Luis Santos, 22, has collapsed in the bushes outside the rec center. He cannot speak. His friends huddle around him and press their hands against a knife wound in his chest.

A call for help

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Read an excerpt from Evan Henderson’s 911 call placed at 2:16 a.m. on Oct. 4, 2008. Warning: This document contains explicit language.

“The person that stabbed you, where is he at?” the dispatcher asks.

“I don’t know where he’s at,” Henderson says. In the background, someone says, “He’s f— dying!”

“Do you know the people that stabbed you?”

“No, I have no f— idea who they were. They’re random. Random people.”

Scheerer tries desperately to flag down a car. One drives past, then another. In the background, he can be heard yelling, “Stop! Stop!”

“Was anything taken from you, Evan?” the dispatcher asks.

“My boy’s dying, my boy’s dying!”

“Was anything taken from you?”

“Nothing,” Henderson says. “I’ve got blood all over me. I’m really worried about blood loss. And my homey’s about to die.”

In the background, one of Santos’ friends can be heard begging him to live.

“Stay awake, Luis! Stay awake!”

The maroon Chevrolet Cobalt raced north through the dark on Interstate 5, out of San Diego County and through Orange and Los Angeles counties. It climbed the Tejon Pass high into the Tehachapis, descended into the San Joaquin Valley and kept going.

The young men inside took turns driving. They pounded power drinks or slept off their hangovers, slumped against one another in the crowded compact. Lil Wayne blared from the stereo.

Esteban Nuñez, right, applauds before his father, Fabian Nuñez, is sworn in as Assembly speaker in February 2004. (Rich Pedrocelli / Associated Press )

There was Esteban Nuñez, 19, the product of Sacramento suburbs and private schools. Three years earlier, in a public television show that profiled his father’s rise, the Nuñezes had been portrayed as the epitome of Latin warmth: Spanish-language karaoke, dancing, big family meals. Esteban had looked as sweetly awkward as any teenager in the shadow of an important dad.

Lately, he had been affecting a ghetto-gangster mien. On his muscular right shoulder, he wore a tattoo of a hazardous-material sign — the emblem of the Hazard Crew, a posse of buddies whose violent glories, real or imagined, he extolled in rap lyrics.

He liked to post online photos of himself with alcohol and knives. In one image, he cheerfully aimed a knife at a cat; in another, he seemed about to impale a frog.

Now, in his pocket, he carried the knife he had used in the fight.

Crammed into the car with him for the 500-mile drive to Sacramento were friends he had assembled for a weekend trip to San Diego. There was 19-year-old Rafael Garcia, small and meek-looking, a judge’s son from Sacramento, another private-school kid who rapped and wore a Hazard Crew tattoo. “Little G,” people called him.

Ryan Jett had two felonies on his record when he accompanied Esteban Nuñez and other friends to San Diego in October 2008. (Ryan Jett)

There was Leshanor Thomas, 19, a former high school basketball standout and a classmate of Nuñez at Cal State Los Angeles. He drove much of the way — the car was his — steering with his one good hand. The other was swollen from the fight.

There was Ryan Jett, 24, who had been taking business classes at Sacramento State. He had a buzz cut, sharp-boned features and two felonies on his record. Seven months earlier, police had found him with a stolen sawed-off shotgun; four months after that, with bullets and brass knuckles.

He was worried about a third strike. Before getting into the car, he had stuffed his bloody clothes into a bag and washed his knife.

They rolled along the western edge of the Central Valley and headed north through the last of the night and into the morning.

When the phone rang that morning at their home in Concord, a San Francisco suburb, Fred and Kathy Santos were just awakening to their weekend. They had met as undergraduates at Oregon State University and been married for 28 years. He was a tech troubleshooter at an online car-auction company. She oversaw maintenance at a UC Berkeley math building.

They were empty nesters. Their 23-year-old daughter, Brigida, bookish and reserved, had just graduated from college and was working in Los Angeles. Luis was attending a junior college in San Diego.

Luis looked like his sister’s twin but was her opposite in most ways. He was flamboyantly social, a kid who “always came off a plane knowing the life story of the person he sat next to,” his mother would say.

Just a year apart and with similar features, Brigida and Luis Santos were opposites in most other ways. (Santos family)

He was a collector of friends, who would rather be anywhere than alone, except maybe in a classroom. He liked beer pong, Bob Marley and the HBO series “Entourage.” He did a Mr. Bean impression and had memorized the punchlines in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

He was the kind of student that teachers called smart but unfocused. After high school he applied to cooking school, dropped the idea, tried a two-year college in Woodland Hills, dropped out and finally decided to follow a childhood buddy to San Diego, where the party atmosphere suited him.

He was taking business classes at Mesa College and living on supermarket-deli sandwiches he bought with gift cards from his mother. He wore high-top sneakers everywhere and refused to show his legs, which were as skinny as the rest of him, though he lifted weights and guzzled whey-protein shakes.

He had olive skin, close-cropped hair and a struggling goatee. Girls told him they loved the long lashes curling over his hazel eyes. He didn’t have a girlfriend. “He’s like, ‘Girlfriends are expensive,’ ” his sister recalled. “I think he knew girls wouldn’t take him seriously if he didn’t have his life together. He didn’t seem in any hurry.”

His parents expected him home in Concord for Thanksgiving in a few weeks. He still had an upstairs bedroom covered with race-car pennants and football posters.

The phone rang. It was Luis’ childhood friend Navid Sabahi. He sounded scared. He’d heard there was a fight. Someone had been stabbed. He thought it might be Luis.

Fred Santos, is a reserved, cerebral man who prides himself on his unflappability, and now he went to work searching the Internet for the phone numbers of San Diego hospitals. He called the ERs. He called the San Diego police. They had arranged for Concord officers to drive to the Santos home and deliver the news in person.

Before they could, Fred reached a San Diego sergeant, who told him his son had been killed.

Are you sure it was Luis?

Yes.

How?

His wallet was on him.

Maybe he dropped his wallet.

It is a positive ID. His friends were with him, the sergeant said.

He added, “They were jumped.”

Luis Santos had been hanging out with Scheerer on the steps in front of Cox Arena, a basketball and concert venue near Fraternity Row at San Diego State.

Santos and Scheerer had been partying in the area; both had been drinking hard. By Scheerer’s account, the trouble began when a group of four young men appeared on 55th Street in front of the arena and began taunting them.

Top: Luis Santos and Brandon Scheerer had been hanging out on the steps of what was then the Cox Arena, along 55th Street near San Diego State’s Fraternity Row. The complex is now called the Viejas Arena. (Los Angeles Times)

Above: Surveillance video captures Luis Santos and Brandon Scheerer walking on 55th Street at 2:12 a.m. on Oct. 4, 2008, minutes before Evan Henderson called 911. (Los Angeles Times)

They looked like they were from out of town; they did not have the flip-flops-and-board-shorts look of San Diego college kids.

“They made a beeline for us,” Scheerer would recall. “They said, ‘What do you have? We have knives.’ They threw up their hands like they wanted to fight.”

Scheerer said the strangers pursued them, blocking their path. He heard someone say, “Why don’t you fight? This is how Sac-town does it.”

Scheerer, stouter and two years older than Santos, tried to shield his friend from the group as they walked away. He thought of him as a skinny kid brother who wouldn’t be much good in a fight.

After a while, the strangers seemed to grow bored and drifted down the street. On his cellphone, Santos tried to get through to his buddy Keith Robertson, who was with two other friends at the trolley station on campus.

Santos dialed Robertson at 2:10 a.m., 2:11 a.m. and 2:12 a.m., and got through on the third try. Santos sounded scared. We’re about to be attacked. Come quick!

The friends came running and met Santos running the opposite way. One of the last things he said was: “They’ve got knives.”

There were security cameras outside the arena, the gym and a police station on 55th Street, but the brawl unfolded in the cameras’ blind spots. The blurry video did not reveal when the knives came out or who stabbed whom.

What is certain is that one of the knives pierced the cartilage between Santos’ fifth and sixth ribs, sliced his left lung and cut the left ventricle of his heart. Within seconds, one group was heading toward a waiting car, while the other was in the street, cut and bleeding.

A

t 5:29 p.m. that day, a surveillance camera captured Nuñez, Jett and Garcia at a 7-Eleven near Nuñez’s Sacramento apartment. Jett left the store with an empty Big Gulp cup. He carried it back to the car with $1.30 worth of gasoline from the Union 76 station next door.

News of the stabbing had been online since that morning, and they were determined to sever their ties to the crime. They drove a little ways and parked near Interstate 5 along the Sacramento River. They got out and climbed down to the water. It is a broad river, the banks thick with foliage, its shores sometimes populated by transients.

Jett carried the clothes he and Nuñez had worn in the fight. He dumped them in a pile, doused them with gas and set them ablaze. He said he watched Nuñez throw the knives in the river.

The clothes burned; the knives sank; the friends would keep quiet. What could link them to a stabbing 500 miles away?

Detectives made the connection within hours.

A young woman had approached them at the crime scene, hoping to help. Her cellphone held text messages from a friend named John Murray. He’d had to leave town fast, he wrote to her, because his buddies had been in a stabbing.

Reluctantly, Murray, 19, told detectives what he knew. He admitted that he’d partied with the Nuñez group that night, then drank himself to sleep, missed the fight and joined the group for the hasty car ride north. He had been at the river during the destruction of the evidence, and said he’d overheard Nuñez and Jett agree not to speak of this again. It would be a secret among friends.

Another tip came from Brianna Perez, 19, a cousin of Nuñez’s friend Rafael Garcia. The Nuñez group had stopped by her apartment near Fraternity Row before the stabbing. They had backpacks full of beer and a large bottle of Captain Morgan rum.

They were angry that they had been rebuffed when they tried to get into a frat party earlier, she said. They were cursing the frat boys. Some of them used knives to open their beer cans. She remembered some of them talking about burning down the frat house, about finding a fight.

“They were going to show them how they did it in Sac-town,” she would say. When they left her apartment, she worried that they were looking for “drama.”

"They were going to look for a fight"

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Read an excerpt of the testimony of San Diego Police Det. Doug Miller at a preliminary hearing on April 2, 2009. Warning: This document contains explicit language.

On Oct. 8, 2008, four days after the killing, a team of plainclothes San Diego detectives strode up a broad stone walkway toward a house on American River Drive in one of Sacramento’s nicest neighborhoods.

The man who answered the door was one of the capital’s most recognizable faces. Fabian Nuñez was at the tag end of a storied legislative career. That year, he’d surrendered the role of Assembly speaker, a job he had secured as a 37-year-old freshman legislator and held for four years. With the confidence of a lifelong scrapper, he had become the most powerful speaker in California’s term-limits era.

He had married his college sweetheart, divorced her, then remarried her. Along the way, they had a daughter and two sons. Many expected him to run for state treasurer or mayor of Los Angeles.

Nine months earlier, as national co-chairman of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, he had introduced Clinton to a crowd of thousands at Cox Arena, yards from where Santos was killed.

Today, homicide detectives greeted him with a warrant. They wanted to search the house and take his son’s DNA.

The elder Nuñez said he had already spoken to a lawyer. “I was aware something had taken place down in San Diego, but I didn’t know you guys were coming here,” he said, according to a police report.

He led detectives to his son, who was at Sacramento City College, and waited outside the police station while evidence technicians did their work.

The younger Nuñez peeled off his shirt to be photographed. They looked for cuts or bruises from the fight, and found none. Tattooed across his muscular back, in spiky Spanish script, were words that translated as “Better to Die on Your Feet Than Live on Your Knees.” It was a phrase from Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary his father liked to tell him stories about.

A detective tried to get him to talk.

“I can give you the number of my lawyer,” he said.

Detectives had better luck with Leshanor Thomas, Nuñez’s former college roommate. He sat in a 10-by-10-foot interrogation room and acknowledged that he had participated in the deadly brawl, and that he and his friends had fled the scene.

“You don’t know what other people have told us,” a San Diego detective told him, “so it’s kind of like your best interest to tell the truth.”

The detectives thought he was holding back. One said, “This is huge.”

“I know that,” Thomas said.

“Huge.”

“I know it’s huge,” Thomas said. “I thought they was my friends but then I, like, just, somebody has to take the fall for it, and I’m not gonna be it.”

“This is murder,” the detective said. “Some kid lost his life.”

“Yeah. I know that,” Thomas said. “And some parents don’t have a son.”

In October 2007, then-L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, left, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger field questions during a news conference. Villaraigosa would write a letter to San Diego County Superior Court on behalf of Nuñez’s son. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The detectives asked if he was scared.

“To be honest, my safety, just me knowing what happened and me being pulled in is putting my safety at risk,” he said.

He said that Jett had initiated the fight, rushing across 55th Street to confront the other group, and Nuñez followed, then Garcia, then himself. He’d thought it was just a fistfight and had seen none of his friends with weapons, he said, though he wouldn’t be surprised if Nuñez had carried a knife that night.

“I do remember from when I stayed with Esteban, he always had some type of new knife,” he said. “Some type of new little handy-dandy knife, whatever.”

A detective asked whether any of his friends had bragged about the stabbing.

“It would have to be Esteban,” he replied. “Esteban said, ‘Yeah, I got one of them.’ ”

He recalled something else Nuñez had said.

“Hopefully, my dad could take care of this.”

Did Thomas know who the dad was? He said he did not.

“Big,” the first detective said.

“How big?” Thomas asked.

“Big.”

The other detective clarified: “Capitol big.”

Thomas said, “Dang.”

For Fred Santos, the days after his son’s death were a blur. He wouldn’t remember where his meals came from or how he got from one place to another. He couldn’t name the day of the week.

“That’s not something you prepare yourself for — your kid being murdered out of the blue,” he would say. “My body and brain couldn’t deal with it.” To cope, he gave himself projects: Find a funeral home. Buy a cemetery plot. Choose a casket. Pick passages of Scripture.

Brandon Scheerer, left, Keith Robertson, Jason Fiori and Evan Henderson attend a vigil for Luis Santos shortly after the attack. (Santos family)

Hundreds of people gathered for the service. Many wore high-top sneakers, because they all remembered Luis wearing his. Fred sang an Eric Clapton song, “Tears in Heaven,” about losing a child, and put his own high-tops in his son’s casket.

Luis’ sister, Brigida, remembered how he would appear in her bedroom as a little boy, afraid of the dark, begging to sleep on her floor. And the way he voiced action-movie explosions when he drove, pretending to blow up the traffic. And the time he tried to jump across the duck pond near their house, showing off for friends, and came up smeared with algae.

His parents learned something surprising about their son, something he had told his sister and friends but had never told them: He didn’t expect to live into his 30s.

It was possible that this anxiety stemmed from a protracted illness that forced him to miss fourth grade. He had an enlarged colon and was on a feeding tube for six months. Knowing that the smell of food tormented him, his parents ate their meals in the car.

His mother remembered it as a magical period of nearly unbroken time with her son. She read him library books about volcanoes and stars, and they took field trips. And then he got better and refused forever after to tell his parents when he had a stomachache. He seemed to dread nothing more than a return to the hospital. Maybe it helped explain his freewheeling approach to life.

He would call his parents all the time, just to chat. His mother looked at the phone bill and noticed that their last conversation had been 18 minutes long. She wondered how many families had that kind of luck.

Around the time of the funeral, San Diego police called to say they knew who had killed Luis. They were building a case. All of October passed, and all of November.

After her son left for college, Kathy Santos left Luis’ bedroom as he had kept it in high school, adorned with race-car pennants and football posters. (Santos family)

Fred and Kathy returned to work. “You don’t have to tiptoe around me,” he told co-workers. “I’m fragile, but I’m OK. If you see me crying, that’s OK.” Grief struck most vividly as he drove home from work. That had been when he and Luis would talk on the phone, about the Giants and the Raiders and the Golden State Warriors.

Fred couldn’t follow sports any more. He stopped watching his favorite TV dramas like “CSI” and other crime procedurals. So many involved parents burying children.

His wife gathered her co-workers at UC Berkeley and told them to let her grieve privately. “Please don’t show me any sympathy,” she said. “Please don’t ask me any questions.” She distanced herself from friends in the break room. It hurt when they talked about their families.

She kept returning to her son’s upstairs bedroom. She had kept it unchanged while he was away at college, and she did not intend to alter it now. She picked up his cologne, Acqua Di Gio, a birthday present from her, with which he had splashed himself liberally. She sprayed it into the empty room.

In the conference room of the district attorney’s office in downtown San Diego, the prosecutor listened as a team of detectives walked through the case, witness by witness.

Jill DiCarlo was a career prosecutor, a cop’s wife with a relentless work ethic. She would be able to navigate what everyone knew would be a media-saturated case. Now, she had to decide whether there was enough evidence to charge the suspects. After the presentation, she thanked the detectives and took the binders of evidence back to her office.

Studying the witness statements, she found one from a young man — a stranger to Santos — who had been hanging out on the steps of Cox Arena just before the attack. The witness said an inebriated Santos had claimed he was in a gang and carried a Glock 40 for protection, but it had just seemed like “drunk talk.”

Another young man on the steps said Santos spoke of having been beaten up in Tijuana, and boasted that since then he had carried a “thang.” He’d gestured toward his waistband.

Esteban Nuñez and Rafael Garcia, foreground, attend a court hearing in San Diego in March 2009 on charges stemming from the death of Luis Santos. (Denis Poroy / Associated Press)

No weapon had been found on Santos, and none of his friends recalled ever seeing him with a gun. There was no suggestion he’d been looking for a fight that night.

But Nuñez seemed to relish confrontation, the prosecutor thought.

On his seized laptop, in a trove of his rap lyrics, he touted the Hazard Crew, or THC, as family. He espoused the importance of loyalty, and promised violent death to those who disrespected his crew:

“we all family ya c if u f— wid my boys ill go on a killing spree.”

He wrote paeans to stealing and evading the law, painting himself as an outlaw who humiliated enemies, menaced them with a “shotty” — a shotgun — and killed them gruesomely with knives.

“never played or betrayed, always quick to grab the blade.”

Considering the circumstances of Santos’ death, some of the lyrics struck the prosecutor as eerily prescient.

“ill deliver that knife throu ur liver let u bleed to death while ya shiver.... My crew will swarm u like some locus.... I alredy explained how I stress ill make a mess when opening ur chest.”

DiCarlo would learn that the Sacramento Police Department did not regard THC as a gang worthy of the name. “A wannabe gang,” she thought. But it seemed to loom large in Nuñez’s identity.

“thc is a community of unity ... I cnt b touched call it immunity ... It ain’t nothing to me but a sport ... I aint scared of court ... but my lawyer is my last resort ... dnt get caught no police report.”

To her mind, the lyrics helped explain what had happened the night of the stabbing. Banned from the frat party, Nuñez’s crew had been disrespected and humiliated, and they wanted payback.

Studying Nuñez’s text messages, she got a glimpse of his mind as police were closing in. Four days after the stabbing, he had sent one to Garcia: “Gangster rap made us do it lol.”

Around the same time, Nuñez sent repeated messages to Leshanor Thomas, telling him not to talk: “just dnt say ne thing u have the right to an attorney to be present so that’s all u gotta tel cops.”

She studied the transcript of Thomas’ interrogation, and was struck by something he had recalled Nuñez saying: “Hopefully, my dad could take care of this.”

At least once before, facing trouble from the law, Nuñez had sought refuge under his father’s wing.

Late one night in March 2008, seven months before the stabbing, a patrolman at Cal State Los Angeles stopped Nuñez in his mother’s white BMW near campus. There had been reports of computers stolen from the dorms, and the officer had seen three men climb into the car carrying large bags. Looking into the back seat, he saw a bag containing what looked like electronic equipment.

“What’s inside the bag?” he asked Nuñez.

"Do you know who my dad is?"

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Read an excerpt from the Cal State Los Angeles police report from a March 18, 2008, incident involving Esteban Nuñez.

According to the police report, Nuñez said it was a stereo that a friend had given him to throw away. The officer asked more questions. Nuñez grew argumentative and invoked his family connections: “Do you know who my dad is? He is Fabian Nuñez. He’s an assemblyman in Sacramento. I am going to call my dad.”

Nuñez called his father and handed the cellphone to the officer.

The report does not record what the Assembly speaker said. Nuñez says he told the officer, “If my son did something wrong, he should pay for it.”

The case was classified as “suspended due to lack of solvability factors.”

Three months later, as they cleaned out Nuñez’s vacated dorm room during the summer break, a Cal State L.A. crew found an empty box for a Mossberg shotgun, according to a police report.

It was against the law to bring a shotgun to school, but police could not prove that he had.

Now, studying everything detectives had learned about the San Diego State stabbing, DiCarlo tried to understand the dynamics at play among the attackers. Nuñez seemed to be the glue, the one who brought them all together.

In the chaos of the fight, no one could positively identify who had stabbed whom, and the surveillance footage did not help. But DiCarlo was confident the law was on her side. She did not need to prove who did the stabbing. All four men in Nuñez’s group had acted together in encouraging the attack, as she saw it, and all would be considered principals under the aider-and-abettor law.

“In a group fight, it’s almost impossible to ascertain who did it,” she says. “That’s why the law treats them exactly the same.”

The charge would be murder.

On Dec. 2, 2008, police arrested Nuñez and Jett in Sacramento and put them in the back seat of a squad car hoping to secretly record an incriminating exchange. The tactic failed.

“Pretty sure this is wired,” Jett said.

The two men talked about the price of gas, the pretty girls at 24 Hour Fitness, a teriyaki restaurant and how much they dreaded the 500-mile drive to San Diego, where they would be arraigned.

“Tell me why I was watching ‘Law & Order’ before I left?” Nuñez said.

“I don’t watch shows like that,” Jett replied.

“I do, so I can beat the system,” Nuñez said, and laughed.

The weight of the elder Nuñez’s influence was felt almost immediately, as letters inundated San Diego County Superior Court pleading for a reduction in his son’s $2-million bail.

Among the authors was Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a longtime friend of Nuñez and past beneficiary of his political influence. In the Legislature, Nuñez had fought to give the mayor something he prized: greater control of city schools.

Now, the mayor wrote that he had known the son for more than 10 years.

“In my heart, I know Esteban Nuñez as a young man of good and upright character,” the mayor wrote on official letterhead, as though speaking for the nation’s second-largest city itself.

"A young man of good and upright character"

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In December 2008, two months after the deadly brawl in San Diego, then-L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wrote a letter of support for Esteban Nuñez.

State Assemblyman Kevin de León, who had known the Nuñez family for decades, used his legislative stationery to describe the accused as “considerate, gentle and well-mannered.”

Another letter came, on official stationery, from Assembly Republican Leader Michael Villines, describing the Nuñezes as a “loving and close” family.

Another came, on union stationery, from Maria Elena Durazo, head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, describing the younger Nuñez as “warm and gracious.”

A judge cut Nuñez’s bail to $1 million, and after eight days in lockup he was home with his parents. Garcia, the son of a judge, also posted bail. Like Nuñez, he was now represented by a top-notch private defense attorney. Thomas and Jett, who couldn’t raise bail, got public defenders and stayed behind bars.

As the months passed, prosecutors tightened their focus on winning convictions against the two defendants they believed had wielded knives: Nuñez and Jett. Thomas and Garcia struck deals that would ultimately get them probation; in exchange, they would have to take the stand against their friends.

Garcia’s story was damning: He said that Nuñez had taunted the unarmed Santos group, and had rushed into the fight with his knife drawn.

He said that after the stabbing, Nuñez had bragged, “I got one of ’em,” and that Nuñez, having stuffed his clothes into a bag, had said: “We’re just gonna go to the river right quick and burn it.”

“We don’t have to worry,” he recalled Nuñez saying. “How would they find us? There’s no way they could connect it to us.”

F

red and Kathy Santos were vaguely familiar with the Nuñez name; the assemblyman had been in the news for years. But they knew little else about him.

Top: Esteban Nuñez, left, Ryan Jett, Rafael Garcia and Leshanor Thomas are arraigned in San Diego County Superior Court in December 2008 on charges of killing Luis Santos. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Above: Brigida, Kathy, Luis and Fred Santos pose for an undated family photo. (Santos family)

Back in Macau, where Fred spent his first 18 years, it was easy to spot the Tai-Pans. They were the men in the back seats of the long, chauffeured cars that drove slowly over the island’s narrow cobblestone streets, heading to favorite restaurants.

They seemed mostly benign, these men. But few doubted what would happen if they were ever confronted with the law. The law, not the Big Men, would give.

Fred had learned the cadences of American English by watching “The Bob Newhart Show” on an aunt’s black-and-white TV. His father was a bank clerk. His family spent its savings — and relied on gifts from friends — to send him to the United States for college. He was the first in his family to attend.

He wondered how the case against his son’s attackers might unfold in Macau. He thought he knew. Someone connected to his extended family — probably a friend — would try to find and kill the culprits. Maybe he would be told the details; maybe not.

In America, you forswore vengeance and put your trust in the justice system.

The Nuñez family had money and vast connections. But on his family’s side was the work of experienced detectives, a tough-minded prosecutor and the rule of law. Surely no amount of money or influence could trump all of that.

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 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 in connection with Santos’ death.

The descriptions of Mule Creek State Prison are based on the reporter’s visit to the prison and his interviews with Fabian Nuñez. The description of the defendants’ ride on Interstate 5 after the fight is based on the interview with Jett and accounts given by two men who were in the car: John Murray in court testimony and Leshanor Thomas under police questioning.

Excerpts from the 911 call, Thomas’ interview with detectives and Jett’s conversation with Esteban Nuñez in a police car after the pair had been arrested are drawn from transcripts in the criminal case file in San Diego County Superior Court.

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