San Diego’s courts saw a busy year


City News Service

As 2009 began, a young man from La Jolla was convicted of second-degree murder for sucker-punching a professional surfer during a fight in front of the victim’s mother’s home nearly two years earlier.

Seth Cravens, now 23, was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison for delivering the blow that killed 24-year-old Emery Kauanui.

Months earlier, four other young men from La Jolla - Eric House, Matthew Yanke, Orlando Osuna and Hank Hendricks - pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in Kauanui’s death and were given jail terms ranging from 90 to 349 days.

As 2009 came to a close, House, Yanke and Osuna were arrested for violating terms of their probation, including an order not to associate with one another. They each could be sent to prison when they are sentenced next month.

In April 2009, the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and three other young men from the Sacramento area were arrested and charged with murder in the stabbing death of a 22-year-old Mesa College student during a fight near San Diego State University.

Esteban Nunez, Rafael Garcia, Ryan Jett and Leshanor Thomas were charged in the death of Luis Santos.

Garcia - the son of an administrative law judge - pleaded guilty in September to a charge of conspiracy to destroy evidence and agreed to cooperate with authorities in the case against his co-defendants. Nunez, Jett and Thomas are scheduled to go on trial in April.

On Dec. 15, a drifter with a history of DUI convictions was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison for driving his friend’s truck while drunk in Pacific Beach and killing a 24-year-old woman walking in a crosswalk.

Alan Lester Mabrey, 46, was convicted of second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and hit-and-run in the death of Emily Dowdy.

In Juvenile Court, a 17-year-old boy was sentenced to probation and up to 547 days in a juvenile camp after pleading guilty to driving drunk and causing an accident in Rancho Santa Fe that killed a classmate at Torrey Pines High School.

Also in December, alleged juror misconduct caused a mistrial in the case against a former fifth-grade teacher accused of having sex with two boys who were once in her class. Adrienne Feistel, 36, faces 17 charges in the molestation case. A decision on a possible retrial is expected in January.

In one of the strangest court cases of the year, a man was bound over for trial in the death of an 80-year-old Hemet resident he befriended and allegedly killed and encased in a cement orb he build in the backyard of a home in North Park. Thomas Jeffrey Brooks, 41, is charged with killing Edward Clayton Andrews and draining his bank accounts.

According to court testimony, Andrews liked to correspond with men in prison and met Brooks when the defendant was released from custody. Brooks is scheduled to go to trial sometime next year.

In October, a Rancho Bernardo man was charged with murder for allegedly attacking and stabbing a 28-year-old neighbor while she was on the phone with her mother. Richard Saldivar, 40, is accused in the death of Jennifer Lee Jones.

Also in 2009, a Navy man told investigators he was most probably drugged and sexually assaulted by a man he met in the Gaslamp Quarter. Prosecutors used the information to arrest a City Heights resident, Philong Huynh, who was charged with the sexual assault of the sailor and the sexual assault and murder of Orange County resident Dane Williams.

Williams disappeared after leaving the Hard Rock Cafe in the Gaslamp on Jan. 26, 2008. His body was discovered three days later in an alley about a block from where Huynh lived.

Investigators found pharmaceuticals and a prescription for benzodiazepine during a search of the defendant’s home. A preliminary hearing in the case will resume March 3.

At the San Diego Hall of Justice, the ongoing legal battle to get rid of a colony of harbor seals from Children’s Pool in La Jolla wound its way to a close. In November, Judge Timothy B. Taylor ruled the seals can stay in the area unless the city of San Diego decides otherwise.

In 2004, swimmer and former San Diego resident Valerie O’Sullivan filed a lawsuit seeking to restore the area for human use, and the next year, Judge William Pate ordered the city to dredge Children’s Pool and disperse the seals. Early in 2009, Judge Yuri Hofmann told city officials to comply with Pate’s order.

But in July, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation into law amending the trust that established the beach as a children’s swimming pool, giving the San Diego City Council the discretion to designate the area as a seal sanctuary.

At the Vista Courthouse in 2009, gang member Meki Gaono was convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Oceanside police officer Steve Bessant. Bessant was killed as he helped out with a traffic stop in the defendant’s crime-ridden neighborhood.

Co-defendant Penifoti Taeotui was also convicted of murder even though he didn’t fire the fatal shot. Both defendants were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Also in North County, San Diego police Officer Frank White was acquitted of weapons charges stemming from a road-rage incident involving Oceanside resident Rachel Silva. White, who was off-duty, shot Silva and her 8-year-old son when she cut him off in traffic and followed him into a shopping center parking lot.

Silva pleaded guilty in San Diego to felony child endangerment and misdemeanor DUI. She was sentenced to probation and told to complete a residential substance abuse treatment program.

In September, an Escondido man who fatally beat and tortured his girlfriend’s 2-year-old son was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Jose Maurice Castaneda was convicted of murder and other charges, but a jury deadlocked between recommending the death penalty or life behind bars.

Castaneda’s girlfriend, Maria Razo, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the death of her son and was sentenced to 16 years in eight months in prison.

At the El Cajon Courthouse in 2009, Jean Pierre Rices pleaded guilty to murdering two liquor store clerks during a 2006 robbery. A jury later recommend a death sentence, which a judge imposed in August.

His co-defendant, Anthony James Miller, was convicted in a retrial but a jury deadlocked on special circumstance allegations that the murders of 22-year-old Heather Mattia and 23-year-old Firas Eiso were committed during a robbery or burglary. If prosecutors decide not to retry the allegations, Miller could be sentenced to a maximum 52 years to life in prison.

Also in El Cajon, a 20-year-old man was convicted of attempted murder and torture in the beating and kidnapping of a 76-year-old La Mesa woman who was abducted from her home and kept in the trunk of her car for 26 hours. Jeffrey Nelson is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 1.