From early on in the investigation into the March 15th death of Ethan Morse, Atwater Police Chief Michael Salvador had a good description of the alleged gunman. It was based on video surveillance and descriptions from people who saw the alleged gunman walking around town the day of the fatal shooting.
“Hispanic male, medium build, wearing a blue sweatshirt and red pants, a very, very distinct color pattern,” he says.
It’s distinct because blue and red are the colors of opposing street gangs in Central California, and not ones typically worn together by people reportedly carrying semi-automatic handguns on the streets of Atwater.
The search for the suspect involved local, state and federal agencies and finally last week, after a series of tips, police identified 26-year-old Dagoberto Franco Penoloza as the prime suspect in the case.
Salvador describes Penoloza as a transient who had worked landscaping jobs in Atwater and Modesto, as well as up north in Red Bluff and even in the Bay Area, apparently moving around for work.
Penoloza has been wanted on an attempted murder charge in Menlo Park in the Silicon Valley since November 2017. Authorities there say he got into an argument while smoking meth with a man at a homeless camp before shooting him several times. That victim survived, and a judge in San Mateo County signed an $11 million dollar warrant for Penaloza’s arrest. Authorities declined to provide further details of that case.
Since he didn’t flee the state or the country for such a pricy warrant for attempted murder, authorities doubt Penaloza would do so for a murder charge and believe he’s still in the area.
Chief Salvador says Morse was killed just after he dropped off his daughter at daycare around 10 AM, and his death certificate says he was shot in the head and torso with a 45-caliber handgun.
“This is a very, very tragic event and you really have to feel for the family, no matter what the victim’s past was,” Salvador says.
That past made Morse’s name well-known in Merced County after he was arrested and charged for a 2013 triple murder in Atwater.
Back then, Ethan was still in high school and his parents were out of town that Easter weekend. He drove some friends in his dad’s SUV to a party on Westside Boulevard.
“There was a good amount of people in the backyard. It was packed shoulder-to-shoulder like sardines that’s what I remember,” he later told sheriff’s investigators. “And then one of my friends, Andrew, who saved our lives basically that night, said, ‘Hey, I don’t have a good feeling about this.’”
Before Ethan and his friends left, three other teenagers were killed in a gang-related shootout. Merced County Sheriff’s investigators alleged Morse was a getaway driver after one of his passengers, Jacob Logan Tellez, shot a gun from the SUV and killed an 18-year-old man, Bernabed Hernandez-Canela, in the front of the house.
But, at Morse and Tellez’s preliminary hearing in 2014, Judge Ronald Hansen declared both men innocent of the crime, releasing them from jail.
Morse then sued the county in federal court, alleging he was unjustly targeted for prosecution, in part, because his father — Larry D. Morse II, then-District Attorney for Merced County — had publicly criticised the sheriff’s department about it’s handling of the investigation. Last May, a federal jury awarded Ethan Morse more than half a million dollars for his wrongful arrest.
One of the first questions in many people’s minds, from social media comments to the law enforcement officials charged with investigating his death, was how much do those events play into the motive behind Morse’s killing?
Chief Salvador says that remains unknown.
“They might have a role. We don’t know,” he says. “We won’t eliminate them, but you know, it’s a very tragic case. His dad was a prominent person. He was the district attorney for the county for years.”
Until January, after losing a midterm election to his first inner-party challenger since assuming office in 2006.
The current district attorney, Kimberly Helms-Lewis, is expected to recuse herself when a suspect is formally charged because of a conflict of interest, an issue that plagued her predecessor.
Chief Salvador is new to the Atwater police chief’s office. He’s only been here for less than three months. While his ties to Atwater and Merced County may not run as deep as other investigators in Merced County, he grew up in the Valley and was formerly Coalinga’s police chief and undersheriff of Madera County.
Investigators don’t yet know why Penaloza, dressed in those opposing gang colors, was even at the intersection of Fir and Winton Way the morning of March 15, or why Morse stopped his car there, minutes after dropping his daughter off at daycare.
“We’re looking at his past activities, his past 24 hours. We’re trying to backtrack his steps. We’re trying to figure out who he knew, what they knew,” Salvador says. “There’s all kinds of ways you can get to motive and then you never rule out that this could have been 100 percent totally random.”
Some who knew Ethan Morse, including his former attorney, are convinced his death is long-awaited retribution stemming from his arrest in the 2013 gang-related shooting.
But for now, the search for the suspected killer — and his motives — continues. While Penoloza’s last known address is five years old and in East Palo Alto, Atwater police say he had rented a room at an Atwater motel under a fake name.
Police say they were able to track Penaloza’s steps as he casually walked away from the crime scene and stopped at several businesses, including back at his hotel room.
“We were able to track him using a variety of video sources from the scene,” Salvador says. “Everything from Ring doorbells to school cameras because one of our schools was very close by.”
Last week, Salvador showed reporters at a press conference several photos of Penaloza from video footage from the day of the deadly shooting. The images were circulated by media in the Valley and some in the Bay Area. Police warn that Penaloza is considered armed and extremely dangerous.
As police across the state search for Dagoberto Franco Penaloza in connection with two shootings, what’s left of a memorial remains at the base of the ash tree where Morse’s black Nissan came to rest after hopping the curb.
That includes a pocket-sized Bible, a few burned candles, dried out roses, a small basket of artificial blue flowers, and a crucifix-shaped clock that has since stopped ticking.