Politican's son a murder suspect

December 3, 2008 1:31:39 PM PST
The 19-year-old son of former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez is among four men charged in the October stabbing death of a college student, prosecutors said Wednesday. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

Esteban Nunez and the others were arrested Tuesday in Sacramento, a day after formal charges were filed in San Diego. Each is charged with murder, assault with a deadly weapon and vandalism, said Paul Levikow, a spokesman for the San Diego County District Attorney's Office.

Levikow said the office would have no further comment until an arraignment set for Thursday. The suspects face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted of murder.

Fabian Nunez was among California's most powerful state politicians before he stepped down as Assembly speaker this year because of term limits.

On Wednesday morning, he emerged from his home in a neighborhood near Sacramento State University and got into a Ford Expedition with his wife and two younger children. He shook his head and refused to talk to a reporter before heading to Sacramento International Airport.

"I have no comment," the 41-year-old said when reached later inside an airport terminal.

He referred media inquiries to Carlsbad defense attorney C. Bradley Patton, who did not immediately return a telephone call Wednesday.

Esteban Nunez was arrested as he left his father's Sacramento home, while the others were arrested elsewhere in the Sacramento area. Police were taking the suspects to San Diego on Wednesday.

It was not publicly known that Esteban Nunez was a suspect until his arrest, though San Diego police detectives had searched the Northern California homes of all four suspects about a week after the Oct. 4 stabbing.

Ryan Jett, Leshanor Thomas and Rafael Garcia, all 19, face the same charges as Esteban Nunez, police said. Prosecutors said they did not know whether those three defendants had hired attorneys.

The felony complaint filed in San Diego County Superior Court said the defendants stabbed four men, killing one of them, 22-year-old Luis Santos.

San Diego Police Capt. Jim Collins said Santos and his friends had just left a fraternity party near San Diego State University about 2 a.m. Oct. 4 when they encountered Esteban Nunez and the other three on the street. He said Nunez and his friends had not been at the party and did not know the victims.

"They were walking down the street, there was a verbal exchange. It escalated into a physical altercation and eventually into the stabbing," Collins told reporters during a Wednesday news conference.

Santos, a student at San Diego Mesa College, died at the scene.

Collins said there may be a "gang nexus" but declined to elaborate on any possible gang connection or other circumstances of the stabbing. Collins also would not comment on the role each of the suspects is believed to have played in the attack.

"We're not going to go into the details of each one of them, but they all acted in concert," Collins said.

Police had not recovered any weapons, and it was unclear how many knives were used.

Witnesses came forward almost immediately after the stabbing, allowing police to trace the suspects to Sacramento, Collins said. He said Esteban Nunez and his friends knew people in San Diego and went there to party.

"I'm glad they arrested the people involved in my son's murder," Santos' father, Fred Santos, told the Union-Tribune from his home in the San Francisco Bay area city of Concord. "Who these people are, who their parents are, doesn't make the pain less or more. It changes nothing. Nothing can bring my son back."

A woman who answered the phone at the family home Wednesday and identified herself as Santos' grandmother said she did not want to comment.

Collins said the case had not been handled differently because of Fabian Nunez's political prominence.

An assemblyman for six years and speaker since 2004, Nunez was the longest-serving speaker in California's era of term limits.

Born in San Diego, the 10th of 12 children of an immigrant gardener and maid, he split his childhood between Tijuana and a San Diego neighborhood filled with junkyards and liquor stores. The former amateur boxer graduated from Pitzer College in Claremont and worked his way through the political ranks of the Los Angeles labor movement before being elected in 2002 to the Legislature.

The Los Angeles Democrat cultivated a close relationship with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that resulted in landmark changes in the state's global warming and labor laws.

Nunez was unsuccessful in a bid to extend his own tenure in office. In February, voters rejected a ballot initiative designed by Democrats to change the state's term-limits law.

Nunez has said he has no immediate plans to run for a future office. On Monday, he began a job at Mercury Public Affairs, a New York-based political consulting firm whose Sacramento office is headed by Steve Schmidt, who managed Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign in 2006 and was chief strategist for John McCain's failed presidential campaign.

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