When Ethan Morse’s father, Larry D. Morse II, was still district attorney for Merced County, he often criticized the sheriff’s department, saying it didn’t have a strategy to overcome gang violence.
“The district attorney’s office has become the county’s primary gang suppression party despite that not being our core mission,” Morse told the county board in early 2014.
In fact, Morse often used state money to execute large gang raids, sometimes in conjunction with the state attorney general’s office. The sheriff’s office, he said, had too many open gang homicide cases, including one where three teens were fatally shot at a party over Easter weekend in 2013.
That’s why he was caught off guard when more than a year after that shooting detectives told him they’d cleared the case.
“They were already headed towards a press conference, we hadn’t reviewed it, which is something we’re not terribly comfortable with, on an old case, a cold case,” Morse later said on Merced’s talk radio station KYOS.
At the press conference, Sheriff’s Sergeant Chuck Hale said new witnesses and evidence led them to make three arrests, including one of a suspected Norteno member that morning.
“Jacob Tellez, 18, was arrested in San Jose, California,” Hale said.
Hale said Tellez shot Bernabed Hernandez-Canela, one of the three teenagers. The bullets in his body were from two handguns: a .38 and a .25.
That night, when the Morse family was sitting around the dinner table,18-year-old Ethan shocked his father.
“And he’s standing in the kitchen and he looks at me and goes, ‘They’ve got the wrong guy, Dad,’” Larry Morse said on KYOS. “And I said, ‘What do you mean they’ve got the wrong guy?’ He goes, ‘He didn’t do it.’ And I said, ‘How do you know he didn’t do it?’ And he said, ‘I was there.’”
Not only was he there, but he admitted to driving Tellez to the party, knowing Tellez had a gun with him.
“So that night, I texted one of the detectives and said, ‘We’ve got a problem with the Tellez case,’” Morse told KYOS
Two days later, Ethan told sheriff’s investigators Hale and Erick Macias that he, Tellez and six other people had been in his dad’s Toyota Pathfinder that night. He told them all who were with him that night.
“Every single person on that list will tell you exactly what I’m saying. Exactly,” Ethan said during his interrogation.
After Ethan said no gun was fired from his vehicle, investigators Hale and Macias pressed him for more details.
“Before you guys went out there, did you know you know anybody carrying any firearms on them?” Macias asked.
“Yes,” Ethan replied.
“I knew Jacob had one,” Ethan said. “He showed me before we left.”
But Hale was suspicious about the timing of Ethan’s statements.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but we’ve got to ask these questions, but why now? Why are you coming forward now?” Hale asked.
“I kind of thought I was going to get in trouble for taking my dad’s car out to a party that eventually people got killed at,” Ethan said, “and because we didn’t, my car didn’t do anything, so I didn’t think it was huge for us to come forward.”
After nearly 38 minutes of Ethan stressing that he was 100 percent sure Tellez didn’t fire his gun, and it was absolutely a .22-caliber, investigators let him leave.
But five days after they interviewed Ethan, sheriff’s deputies arrested him on the Morse family front lawn, believing Tellez pulled the trigger and Morse drove the getaway car.
With an obvious conflict of interest, Larry Morse recused his office. The state attorney general’s office, then headed by Kamala Harris, formally filed the charges against Morse and Tellez.
A key part of the sheriff’s case relied on a butt dial Tellez made to 911, as investigators said he could be heard discussing the shooting.
Four months later, during the preliminary hearing, Judge Ronald Hansen heard testimony from dozens of people, including some who Morse said were in the car that night.
As ABC30 reported at the time, one passenger claimed Tellez announced he was going to shoot him, “for the hood” and then pulled out a black revolver and fired twice through a rolled-down window. Another passenger said Morse encouraged it by asking, “You going to do it?” But defense attorneys argue the witnesses were coerced into making those statements.
Other witnesses testified that no shots had been fired from Morse’s car, saying Tellez tried to pull his gun, but it got caught up in his seatbelt. But the gun Tellez reportedly carried with him that night, the one Morse swore was a .22, was never recovered.
After four days of hearings, Judge Hansen made a highly unusual move. He declared Tellez and Morse factually innocent, meaning he didn’t believe there was enough evidence to even charge them with a crime.
“If there’s anything good to take away from this horrific experience it’s that the system can be fair or unfair to anybody, whether it is a farm laborer’s son or the district attorney’s son,” Larry Morse told KYOS.
While being held without bail on the murder charge, Ethan Morse’s family said he lost a wrestling scholarship to a small liberal arts college in Arkansas, missed his grandfather’s funeral, and was largely known as being connected to a gang shooting.
That’s why he sued the sheriff’s department, the county, and investigators Hale and Macias, eventually reaching out to attorney Gary Gwilliam in Oakland.
“The publicity continued to haunt Ethan,” Gwilliam said, “and he always felt the gangs were after him.”
Last May, a federal jury in Fresno awarded Ethan more than half a million dollars in compensation for his wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution. It was enough for him to leave the county, but he stuck around because he became a father.
Less than a year later on March 15th, Ethan was shot to death shortly after dropping off his three-year-old daughter at daycare.
Gwilliam says it wasn’t random.
“I don’t have any doubt in my mind whatsoever that his killing was definitely related to his being charged with a crime with the gangs,” he said. “I don’t have any doubt about that in my mind.
The program for Ethan’s funeral shows a picture of him clean-shaven with a short-cropped haircut parted to the left. He is wearing a striped tie with a light blue shirt under an olive tweed jacket.
The photo was taken outside the federal courthouse in Fresno where Ethan won his lawsuit…. just ten months before someone with a 45-caliber handgun shot him multiple times at the intersection of Fir and Winton Way in Atwater.
“He was such a good kid and such an unnecessary death,” Gwilliam said.
Police say 26-year-old Dagoberto Franco Penaloza was the shooter, but why Ethan Morse was killed, remains a mystery.
Police across the state are still searching for Penaloza, whom they consider armed and dangerous. Anyone with knowledge of his whereabouts is urged to call their local police department.