SAN DIEGO — Esteban Nunez, the 19-year-old son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, and three co-defendants pleaded not guilty Thursday to murder and assault charges stemming from an alleged knife attack during a night of heavy drinking in San Diego.
"Basically, Your Honor, they wanted to be gang members," Deputy Dist. Atty. Jill DiCarlo told Superior Court Judge David Szumowski.
But two of the defense attorneys objected to DiCarlo's description of their clients as wannabe gangsters.
"There are no gang issues," Nunez's attorney, Brad Patton, told the judge. "My client is not a gang member."
Nunez's father, mother, sister and a dozen relatives and friends attended the brief hearing. The family stood silently behind Patton during a news conference afterward.
Nunez, Ryan Jett, 22, Rafael Garcia, 19, and Leshanor Thomas, 19, were each charged with one count of murder and three of assault with a deadly weapon. All are being held in San Diego Jail after being arrested Tuesday at their homes in Sacramento County.
Prosecutors allege that the four were enraged at being unable to crash a fraternity party and went looking for a group to attack. "The defendants were looking for trouble and bragged they were all carrying knives," DiCarlo said.
Luis Dos Santos, 22, died of a stab wound to the heart. Two other victims suffered stab wounds, and a third had a fractured eye socket.
But defense attorneys, in court and afterward, disputed the prosecution's version of the events of Oct. 4. Patton said the defendants were acting in self-defense and that at least one of the five people whom they fought had a weapon.
Jett was stabbed during the street fight, defense attorneys said, suggesting a brawl where both sides were armed.
Jett is the only defendant with a criminal record. He was sentenced Oct. 27 to 120 days in custody after pleading no contest to a felony weapons charge involving possession of ammunition. Last year, he was sentenced to short jail terms after pleading no contest in two cases involving charges of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Szumowski set bail at $2 million each. A bail review hearing is set for next week.
Garcia, whose father is an administrative law judge, is represented by former San Diego Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst, who joined Patton in denouncing what they called exaggerations by the police and prosecutors.
Pfingst noted that police had targeted the four defendants within days of the fight, but it took two months to bring charges. The lag, Pfingst said, suggests that the case is weak.
At a news conference Wednesday announcing the arrests, Police Capt. Jim Collins declined to explain why it took two months to bring charges.
Pfingst told reporters to "withhold judgment until some of these hysterical allegations are shown to be unproven."
One of the allegations, contained in search warrants, is that the four defendants, who identify themselves as members of a group called The Hazard Crew, fit the definition of a criminal street gang. The four have similar tattoos and, according to friends quoted in search warrants, boasted of being veteran street fighters.
But the district attorney has not formally charged them with street gang affiliations, which could lead to enhanced penalties if any of the four is convicted.
DiCarlo said the four washed the knives and bloody clothing after the attack and, after returning to Sacramento, burned other evidence and tossed some in the Sacramento River.
Nunez, a business student at Sacramento City College, told his friends that, if they were charged, his father could get them off on a self-defense argument, according to court documents.
Nunez's father, who was a labor activist in Los Angeles, was elected as a Democrat to the state Assembly in 2002. He served as speaker for four years. His third term ended Sunday.
Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.