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Beloved Laguna Beach Party Planner Beaten To Death After Home Invasion By Two Thieves
DNA evidence, digital breadcrumbs and dogged detective work lead investigators to pair behind the fatal bludgeoning.
On Friday, October 23, 2009, the Laguna Beach Police Department made a welfare check at the residence of Damon Nicholson, who’d failed to come to work.
“We saw a male slouched over the couch,” investigators told The Real Murders of Orange County. “The back of his head was covered in blood.”
The Laguna Beach homicide unit was contacted immediately. The victim was identified as 41-year-old Nicholson, who was widely known in the coastal town where he handled special events for the Laguna Beach Hotel.
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“The crime scene unit was dusted for fingerprints,” said Larry Bammer, a retired detective with the Laguna Beach PD. “Damon had a lot of friends, so there was inevitably going to be a lot of fingerprints.”
Processing the Crime Scene
Rigor mortis signs indicated that the murder happened between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. It was evident that Nicholson had been bludgeoned to death, possibly with a crowbar or baseball bat.
The contents of a kitchen trash can had been emptied onto the floor but the liner was missing, which suggested that the killer had used it to carry away the murder weapon. The garbage can and the rest of the crime scene was swabbed for DNA.
Detectives noted that Nicholson’s phone was missing, along with his laptop and software CDs. They suspected this was a robbery gone wrong.
Investigators learned more about Nicholson, who grew up in Tucson with 10 siblings. “He liked to make everybody laugh, and he did,” said his sister DeVonne Blauser. “I knew Damon was gay from a very young [age]. It didn’t bother me, he’s my brother.”
Laguna Beach was known as a nonjudgmental community. It was Nicholson’s home for some 20 years.
A Pinging Phone Provides a Clue
Two days after the murder, Nicholson’s phone was pinging at an apartment complex in Lake Forest, just outside Laguna Beach.
“It was a big apartment complex. So it was like a needle in a haystack,” said Lt. Tim Kleiser, a detective with the Laguna Beach PD.
As officers searched through dumpsters on the sprawling complex, a custodian for the complex told them that he’d found a phone, later to confirmed as Nicholson's, two days earlier. The custodian said he’d found it while dumpster diving for “good stuff” that residents toss. He gave a DNA sample so that he could be ruled out as a suspect.
Police interviewed Nicholson’s friends for insights into his personal life and learned that he was not in a relationship but he used online dating sites.
A close friend also shared that he’d had concerns about one of Nicholson’s ex-boyfriend’s, Jesse, who married a woman after they split up. The lead was investigated and turned out to be a dead end.
The Key Discovery
Police focused on the dating site Nicholson was known to use, according to Jason Kravetz, a retired detective with the Laguna Beach PD. They interviewed the various individuals who had contacted Nicholson to see if they had an alibi for the night of the murder.
Three days after the slaying, detectives made a key discovery. “We obtained a search warrant for Damon’s cell phone records,” investigators said. “We found out that somebody had called Damon’s phone a few times the night of the murder.”
There were four calls from a man named Alex around the time that he was killed. “This could be the last person to speak to him before he was murdered,” detectives said.
Alex was so “cagey” during a phone interview with investigators that he raised red flags, according to Bammer. Police went to San Diego to speak with Alex in person.
“He told them that he had met up with Damon on the evening of October 22, just hours before Damon was killed,” said Claudia Koerner, formerly with the Orange County Register.
After he left Nicholson's apartment he went to In-N-Out. The credit card transaction gave him a strong alibi. He was put to the side as being a suspect.
DNA Matches to Matthew Dragna
Three weeks after the murder, as detectives worked the case, hundreds of Nicholson's friends and loved ones gathered to celebrate his life.
On November 17, the Crime Lab reported a match on their DNA from underneath the trash can lid. The DNA didn’t match any suspects on their list. Jesse, Alex, and the apartment custodian were cleared as suspects.
The lab ran the DNA profile from the crime scene through CODIS, the FBI nationwide database of convicted offenders. They got a hit on Matthew Dragna, who had been convicted at age 19 for a drug offense.
The ‘Mic Drop’ Moment
When investigators determined where Dragna lived it was “a mic drop moment,” said Kravetz. He was living with his mother at the apartments where Nicholson's phone was recovered.
She told detectives that her son had recently come into money and computer software but he refused to tell her how he had gotten it.
While investigators search for Dragna, forensic analysis confirmed that the software was from Nicholson’s apartment. Twenty-six days after the murder, Dragna, who was on probation, was traced to a rehabilitation center in Santa Ana, where police confronted him with the fact that his DNA was in the trash can in Nicholson’s apartment.
“Dragna said that he knew Damon through a friend and he had one hookup with him the night before the murder,” investigators said.
He claimed that Nicholson had asked him to take out the garbage. Dragna was arrested and taken back to Laguna Beach.
Matthew Dragna Implicates Jacob Anthony Quintanilla
At the police station in Laguna Beach, Dragna changed his story. He said he told his friend Jacob Anthony Quintanilla that Nicholson had a lot of camera equipment and that Quintanilla came up with the idea to rob Nicholson.
“He said that the friend brought along a baseball bat just in case,” Koerner said. Dragna claimed he was in the car when Quintanilla killed Nicholson. He said he got the garbage bin liner to carry Quintanilla’s bloody clothes.
Investigators reached out to Dragna’s mother for information about Quintanilla, who was in her home at that moment. He was a neighbor at the Timbers complex.
“We found out Jacob hung around Dragna because he wanted to date Dragna’s sister,” investigators said. Cell phone records showed that on the night of the murder, Quintanilla’s phone was pinging at Laguna Beach.
“It was significant to us because he told us that he had never been to Laguna Beach,” police said. Evidence mounted when Quintanilla’s fingerprint was found on a software CD at Nicholson’s home.
Investigators informed Quintanilla that Dragna implicated him as the killer. At that point, he confessed to what happened the night of the murder.
How Damon Nicholson Died
Quintanilla confirmed that he and Dragna had gone over to Nicholson’s home to rob the place. He said that Dragna was carrying the baseball bat and that he began beating Nicholson immediately after slipping into the apartment through an open door.
He said that Dragna ordered him to gather things to steal. After they left, Dragna ditched the phone in a dumpster and they went their separate ways. On December 4, 2009, Quintanilla was arrested for murder.
The suspects were prosecuted separately. Dragna was convicted in December 2013 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Dragna appealed the verdict, which was overturned “due to a technicality,” investigators said. Then, in October 2021, he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and burglary assault with a deadly weapon. He admitted he wielded the bat.
Dragna accepted a 30-year sentence with 12 years already served.
Quintanilla pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and burglary. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
To learn more about the case, watch The Real Murders of Orange County on Oxygen.