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Patt Morrison Asks

Fred and Kathy Santos: Justice for Luis

Fred and Kathy Santos are disputing one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's last acts as governor -- his reduction of the prison sentence of Esteban Nunez, who was serving 16 years for his role in the murder of their son, Luis.

January 22, 2011|Patt Morrison
(Dave Getzschman / For the…)

As much as a violent crime could be a private matter, this one was, at the start: One young man stabbed to death, two more wounded, and four other young men charged with murder.

One of the four defendants was the son of a famous Democratic politician, former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nu�±ez. Big-name leaders wrote letters on the son's behalf. All four defendants plea bargained. Esteban Nu�±ez, who wounded victims in the attack, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, as did the defendant who fatally stabbed Luis Santos. Both were sentenced to 16 years.

Then, in early January, on his last evening in office, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had befriended and worked with Fabian Nu�±ez in Sacramento, commuted Esteban's prison sentence, cutting it nearly in half.

In Concord, Fred and Kathy Santos, the parents of the dead man, are outraged. They lost their son, Luis, and now they feel they've lost the justice he was entitled to. The private matter became the catalyst for a very public deal.

What can you tell me about Luis?

Fred: Luis was one of the happiest people you could ever meet. He had so many friends, buddies; everyone wanted to be around him, all ages in our family, the 14-year-old cousin, the 78-year-old grandparents. He could talk with anybody, relate to anybody. A great sense of humor.

Kathy: Great people skills, that's for sure.

What was he interested in doing?

Fred: He was taking some business classes at Mesa College. He wanted to get a real estate license because it's not something you do in an office. It's outdoors; you talk to a lot of people.

Kathy: When he was still in high school, he worked at UC Berkeley, in one of the dining rooms. That was sort of a precursor; originally he was considering going to culinary school. He was accepted at the Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. Then he changed his mind at the last minute.

Fred: He loved cooking; he and I would cook on weekends and holidays. Even when he went away to college, he would call and say, "I'm trying to make this, how do I do it?"

He was a big sports fan. We're big Raiders fans, and baseball -- he sort of defected and went to the Giants instead of the A's. Initially, he wanted to go to Duke just because of the basketball team. It had nothing to do with whatever degree they were offering; it was strictly, "Oh, man, I like their basketball team."

What happened that night? The four attackers had been turned away from a San Diego State frat party. They were angry, and then they encountered Luis.

Kathy: He and his friend were jumped. The papers said it was a fight, but I guess it was fight or flight. They were minding their own business. That's one thing that has annoyed me -- almost every report said it was a fight. It was not a fight. Our son's group was jumped.

One account said Luis was overheard bragging that he was "carrying."

Fred: Neither Luis nor his friends ever carried any weapons. Luis was joking around with his friends that he was "carrying" by grabbing his cellphone. His murderers overheard what was meant to be a private joke. [Police accounts agree that Luis Santos and his friends were unarmed.]

When the attackers were arrested a couple of months after the killing, did you know who Fabian Nu�±ez was?

Fred: Fabian Nu�±ez was one of the most powerful politicians in the state, and apparently he still is. As soon as they told us [Esteban Nu�±ez was involved], in the back of my mind all along the way, I had to make sure that there was no politics involved in the [legal] decisions. So I kept asking, was there any political pressure? [Law enforcement] put together a solid case.

What do you make of the suggestion that Esteban Nu�±ez's high profile as a politician's son might have made things go harder for him, not easier.

Fred: Until Fabian Nu�±ez had Arnold Schwarzenegger commute the sentence of his son, this case was never about the Nu�±ez family. Esteban Nu�±ez was sentenced for what he [did], regardless of who his father is. Fabian Nu�±ez made this case about who he is when he went to his political crony Arnold Schwarzenegger and fixed the sentence, just as Esteban bragged his dad would.

After the plea agreement, were you satisfied that justice was done?

Fred: Not satisfied, but legally we were finished. We could have gone to trial and we would have gotten a guilty [verdict] and they would have gotten life in prison.

Kathy: And they knew that too, which is why they were so happy to make a plea bargain.

Fred: The judge asked them point blank, "Do you know what you pled guilty for? Did you know that the maximum is 16 years?" And in front of the court, they did. And Fabian Nu�±ez was in the courtroom; he knew exactly what his son pled to.

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