Greg Nakatani had it made.
After graduating with honors from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1985, Nakatani landed a job with General Dynamics in San Diego. A mechanical engineer, the slight, diligent young man worked full time and spent off-hours pursuing a master's degree at UC San Diego.
Nakatani's life was blossoming outside the workplace as well. He owned a home a mile from the beach in Carlsbad, and a new pickup truck was tucked away in the garage. A San Jose native eager to explore all that San Diego's waterfront had to offer, Nakatani frequently went scuba diving. He and a buddy were learning to sail.
But it all ended just after 1 a.m. on Sept. 20, when Greg Toshio Nakatani got into an argument with the wrong guys.
It was the sort of thing that could happen to just about anyone. Nakatani was quarreling with two men over a ding their car door made in the side of his truck outside a Leucadia taco shop on Old Highway 101. He was gunned down and died almost instantly. He was 23.
Four days later, sheriff's deputies arrested a suspect. Ildefonso Perez Martinez, a 25-year-old Mexican national living under a tarp in the fields near La Costa, admitted he had argued with Nakatani at Alfonso's taco shop. But it was his companion, a man from Durango, Mexico, known only as Alfredo, who shot the young engineer, Martinez told detectives.
Investigators didn't buy the story. After two witnesses tentatively identified Martinez through photographs, detectives presented the case to the district attorney and recommended that murder charges be filed.
But it wasn't to be. Instead of standing trial, Martinez was set free at the border after 72 hours in the Vista County Jail.
According to Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller, detectives had provided prosecutors with "incomplete reports" and "grossly insufficient evidence," making a murder case against the man untenable.
For Nakatani's parents, the decision to release Martinez was an outrage, an action that has shaken their faith in the nation's system of justice. At the very least, they argue, Martinez should have been charged as an accessory to the crime.
"To lose our son is agony enough," Alexander Nakatani, a social worker for the Veterans Administration in San Jose, said last week. "But then to have them release the prime suspect--a man who admitted to being at the scene and has been identified, a man who is in our country illegally . . . it is a terrible injustice."
The Nakatanis believe their son's case was bungled. They contend the North County district attorney's office erred in releasing Martinez and attempted to conceal the mistake by pointing the finger at sheriff's detectives.
In the weeks after Greg Nakatani's death, the family hired an attorney, who maintains Martinez could have been prosecuted as an accessory to the murder. The attorney sought help from Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) and Rep. Norm Mineta (D-San Jose).
The Nakatanis' immediate goal is to bring their son's killer to justice. But Alexander Nakatani also hopes to expose "serious mismanagement problems that are jeopardizing the quality of law enforcement" in North County.
"We can't bring Greg back, but hopefully we can bring some dignity to his death and be more at peace when this is all over," Nakatani said. "And for the families of future victims, we feel we must have the district attorney explain what's going on here."
Apparently, the effort has paid off. Last week, Miller held an unusual meeting with the Nakatanis in San Diego, discussing their concerns for more than an hour. And, after receiving inquiries from the two legislators, prosecutors assigned their own criminal investigator to the case.
On Friday, the investigator, Augustin de la Rosa, again arrested Martinez, who will be charged with accessory to murder today.
A second man, Antonio Lopez Yescas of Oaxaca, Mexico, has been identified as Greg Nakatani's killer by witnesses contacted by the special investigator. Yescas, a local farmworker, is believed to be in North County and is being sought by De la Rosa under an arrest warrant.
"We want to solve this case, and we will," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Philip Walden, who supervises the North County office. "But because there were problems with the (sheriff's) investigation, we've had to start from ground zero."
Alfonso's is a locals-only kind of place, a dingy little roadside restaurant beneath a stand of scruffy eucalyptus trees, painted in bright red and yellow stripes and sandwiched between a thrift shop and an equipment rental business.
A ramp covered with soiled Astroturf leads up to the restaurant's screen-door entrance, a patio with two tables overlooking the parking lot provides the only dining space.
Near the railroad tracks at the north end of Leucadia, Alfonso's is just blocks from the beach and a quick trip from the sloping flower fields of Carlsbad. Surfers and field hands are its most loyal patrons.