Regina Leah Chavez spoke about her 15-year-old daughter, Jewels Marie Wolf, on Tuesday in a Placer County courtroom. She said explaining her grief in front of a judge is just as difficult as finding a mortuary, planning her daughter’s funeral and giving her eulogy.
The Roseville mother told the judge her daughter was taken advantage of sexually and murdered by the 22-year-old man seated a few feet away from her in the courtroom, Nathaniel Evan Cabacungan.
Chavez said Cabacungan supplied her underage daughter with a lethal dose of fentanyl and left her dying in her bedroom. Less than an hour later, Cabacungan went out and sold more pills containing the deadly synthetic opioid to someone else, the mother said.
“He knew the drugs he was selling were deadly, were poisonous because he had just witnessed my daughter die from the pill he had given her,” Chavez said in court. “This man is inhumane and dangerous.”
In July, Cabacungan pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and solicitation of a minor to use or sell a narcotic as part of a plea agreement with the Placer County District Attorney’s Office. Cabacungan is the first person in California to be convicted of and sentenced for a murder charge in a fentanyl death.
Prosecutors dropped a special allegation enhancement with the felony solicitation charge — the victim was at least four years younger than the defendant at the time — as part of the deal with Cabacungan. He was 20 years old at the time of the Roseville girl’s death.
On Tuesday morning, Cabacungan was formally sentenced to 15 years to life in prison as part of the deal. He sat in the courtroom silently throughout his 40-minute sentencing hearing, wearing an orange jail inmate clothing and a blue surgical mask to cover the lower portion of his face.
In a departure from common county court practice, Placer Superior Court Judge Angus Saint-Evans on Tuesday denied professional media photographers, including The Sacramento Bee’s Paul Kitagaki Jr. who was present in the courthouse with a previously signed court order granting him access to photograph in the courtroom, the opportunity to photograph the sentencing of Nathanial Cabacungan for the first fentanyl murder sentencing in California.
Instead of creating a media pool, the judge directed news organizations to rely on handout photographs produced by a government employee. The Bee declines to reproduce these images because they represent a chilling restriction on the function of a free and independent media.
Convicted man’s statement read in court
Brad Whatcott, Cabacungan’s court-appointed attorney, read in court a statement written by his client: “I apologize for my actions and the damage I have caused everyone.”
That’s all that was written in the defendant’s statement.
Jewels’ parents, other family members and friends spoke Tuesday morning in court about the consequences of her death before Cabacungan was sentenced. About two dozen people with large photos and signs honoring the teen nearly filled the courtroom.
Chavez said her daughter “was a performer at heart and shined on stage,” growing up doing ballet, music, talent shows, dance and cheerleading. The teen also had a compassionate soul, with love empathy and humility, Chavez said.
“My daughter was beautiful inside and out, and it radiated through her whole being,” she told the judge. “She had her whole life ahead of her and was happily planning her future when the defendant murdered her with a counterfeit Percocet pill.
The mother had dropped off her daughter at their Roseville home on June 19, 2022. She did not know that Cabacungan had convinced her daughter to let him come over while Chavez wasn’t home to take advantage of her daughter and give her the drugs that contained a lethal dose of fentanyl.
“According to his own confession, my daughter died in his arms,” Chavez said. “I was informed in Jewels desperate time of need, Nathaniel Cabacungan abandoned her in her bed. He cold-heartedly left her to die. … He did nothing to try to save her life. He didn’t even call 911.”
Dealing dangerous drugs on social media
The girl’s older brother found his sister dead that night, Chavez said. He had told a chaplain assisting investigators at their home not to allow his mother to go into the bedroom and be stuck with the image of what he discovered.
Chavez told the judge that 15 years to life in prison is not long enough for Cabacungan, suggesting he would not be rehabilitated in prison. The mother said Cabacungan has no regard for life other than his own, and has a history of dealing dangerous drugs on social media and preying upon and targeting young girls.
Initially, the District Attorney’s Office also filed charges of transporting drugs, possessing drugs for the purpose of sale and meeting with a minor for the purpose of engaging in lewd and lascivious behavior in connection with the teen’s death. Those felony charges against Cabacungan were dropped.
Jake Wolf, the girl’s father, told the judge that his daughter brought joy and happiness to everyone she met, and she deserved a full and rich life. But, instead, she was robbed of that future, he said.
“This perpetrator deserves to hear the impact of the irreparable harm he has caused to our family and to our community,” the father said about Cabacungan. “Jewels was more than a statistic or a news headline.”
Wolf said his family was not there for vengeance but seeking justice for his daughter and all the other innocent lives that might be saved from such a tragic death. Wolf hopes Cabacungan realizes the depth and gravity of the harm he caused, and he trusts that the justice system will not allow Jewels to become just a forgotten statistic.
“My daughter was a victim of the first convicted fentanyl murder in the history of California,” Wolf said in court. “A horrifying milestone that should shock all of us to our core.”
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