A 23-year-old man was sentenced Monday to 11 years in prison for a fatal stabbing at a Santa Ana nightclub that was triggered by aggressive slam dancing.
Juan Angel Rivera of Santa Ana was convicted May 15 of voluntary manslaughter for the March 3, 2016, death of 23-year-old Nathan Alfaro at Underground DTSA, 220 Third St.
According to Senior Deputy District Attorney Keith Burke, Rivera was "moshing'' — a form of dancing to punk music that involves jostling other concert-goers — in a way that upset Alfaro. They got into two fights, and in both cases, other patrons at the club pulled them apart, according to the prosecutor, who said both men had been drinking and Alfaro had also used marijuana that night.
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During the sentencing hearing that stretched over two days, Rivera told Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue that he "found it extremely difficult to talk about" the stabbing.
"I wish this tragedy never occurred," the defendant said Friday afternoon.
Since the stabbing, Rivera said he has found out enough about Alfaro that he figured the two might have become friends under different circumstances.
"That makes me feel even more mournful," Rivera said.
"I hope they find it in their heart to forgive me," he said of Alfaro's family.
Rivera pleaded for mercy, telling the judge that his 4-year-old "precious daughter... needs me."
Alfaro's aunt, Brenda Contreras, told Donahue that her nephew was an aspiring musician. She read from an essay he wrote on his goals following his first semester at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, in which he vowed to pay better attention to his studies and homework and said he wanted to save up enough money someday to open his own "cool, chill, kick-it spot to throw shows and events at."
Alfaro also wrote about the thrill of getting a bass guitar and learning how to play it while he jammed with his band, The West Boys.
"Last, but not least, I want to be the best and nicest person I can be to everyone," he wrote.
Alfaro's mother, Karina Tapia, told the judge that "my heart is shattered. The impact of losing my only son to a completely senseless act of violence has left me confused, sad, hurt and angry."
She said, however, she holds no "grudges" against her son's killer.
"I really hope, your honor, that the man responsible for taking my son's life is forgiven by a higher power," she said.
Alfaro's uncle, Joshua Alfaro, shared how the two attended classes together at Golden West.
"We would plan to meet in between classes," he said. "I would hand him half of my coffee and he would hand me half of his breakfast burrito. We did that every day for a whole year."
No one realized immediately what had happened in the deadly conflict between Alfaro and Rivera, and the band on stage at the time kept playing, Burke said. Alfaro got up and stumbled out to the front of the club. He collapsed on the sidewalk, bleeding, and was pronounced dead soon after being taken to a hospital.
He had been stabbed five times — in the chest, the backside of his left arm, twice in his left armpit and once in the left side, which "got his lung and that was the one that killed him," the prosecutor said.
The defendant, meanwhile, exited via a side door mainly used by the bands to truck in their instruments and walked a half-mile to his home, he said.
Police quickly sized up Rivera as the prime suspect and put him under surveillance. They arrested him the following morning and found the defendant's bloody clothes in the car he was riding in, Burke said.
The prosecutor told the jury that Rivera sustained a "significant" wound to his left small finger as "he was killing Nathan Alfaro," and that he was involved in another incident with a knife the Christmas before the killing.
In that case, Rivera was kicking someone's car when he was confronted by the owner. He pulled a knife and chased the victim when the man tried to knock the weapon out of his hand with a stick, Burke said.
Rivera's attorney, Alison Worthington, told jurors that her client was engaged in "pretty normal behavior" for a punk rock concert and was merely "clearly exuberant and really feeling it" when he tried to start a "mosh pit" of dancers.
Alfaro, however, was "annoyed" and "shoved (Rivera) so hard, (and) that's when the fight started," Worthington said.
In the first squabble, Alfaro was "getting the better of Mr. Rivera," but the other concert-goers broke it up, Worthington said. But the next song was more "up-tempo," and when Rivera started "bouncing around like a pinball," the two got into another scrum, she said.
Alfaro pushed Rivera up on the stage and "started punching Mr. Rivera in the head," Worthington said.
"It took four or five guys to pull Mr. Alfaro off of Mr. Rivera," who felt he was "suffocating and thought he was going to die," she said. "He can't breathe, he's losing consciousness, he can't stop the blows from coming and that's when he grabs his knife."
Rivera left the club because he was unaware of the seriousness of Alfaro's wounds, Worthington said.