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Santa Rosa man charged in fatal SSU stabbing

The stabbing death of a man Sunday in a Sonoma State University dorm room was described Wednesday in court by prosecutors as “a sudden quarrel and heat of passion” as they charged 19-year-old Tyler J. Bratton with voluntary manslaughter.

In a courtroom packed with supporters of Bratton and victim Steven John Garcia, 26, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Jamie Thistlethwaite set Bratton’s bail at $150,000. Wearing navy blue jail scrubs, Bratton had an attorney from the Public Defender’s Office at his side. He’s scheduled to enter a plea May 31.

Afterward, the supporters shouted and pushed in the narrow hallway outside the courtroom.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Straebell would not comment on a motive in the case or any other aspect of it.

Bratton, of Santa Rosa, had been booked Monday on a no-bail murder charge by Petaluma police in the death of Garcia, also from Santa Rosa.

“We looked at all the evidence and evaluated it to see what we could prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Staebell said. “(Voluntary manslaughter) is the charge we felt was appropriate.”

Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons also declined to provide details on what took place inside the Sauvignon Village apartment-style dorm Sunday just before 6 p.m.

“The challenge for us is trying to get a straight story of what happened,” Lyons said.

He said absent a court order, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibits the university from providing police with not only the name of the female student who lived in the room where the fatal stabbing occurred, but any student. The privacy law even blocks police from obtaining records on past complaints about the SSU freshman without a subpoena or warrant, Lyons said.

But SSU students who live in Sauvignon Village in the heavily freshman Alicante housing where the incident occurred provided details Wednesday of an area that has been a magnet for trouble since January.

Three students, including 18-year-old Sauvignon Village resident Samantha Keller, referred to a separate “drug bust” in the Alicante buildings earlier this semester, though it’s unclear which of the 10 units was the focus of the alleged raid or what drugs authorities were seeking.

“There was a big police gathering around Alicante, a big drug bust in the beginning of the semester,” said Keller, a global studies freshman from San Jose.

Nicole Austin, a 19-year-old freshman from Danville, lives below the crime scene. She’s friends with the residents upstairs, where the stabbing happened, visiting them about three times a week. She said the arrival this semester of a new roommate was the beginning of problems upstairs.

The woman was one of six people living in the four-bedroom unit, and Austin said she would invite older “random” guests to the apartment.

The new roommate, who was home at the time of the stabbing, kept “very to herself,” said Austin, who sometimes noted a strong smell of marijuana emanating from the woman’s room.

The other women in the apartment lodged at least three complaints about their new roommate with college housing staff during the course of the semester, Austin said. The university “did nothing,” she said.

“That’s what I think needs to change,” the psychology major said. “All the girls upstairs were talking with their parents and trying to get people to change that and listen to the students more. They have been scared all semester and then a (killing) happened in their apartment.”

She said her upstairs neighbors were reassigned to emergency housing in another dorm after the deadly encounter. Two of them left for home this week after completing finals. Since access to the unit where the stabbing happened is still restricted, authorities bagged their possessions and returned them Tuesday.

“The poor girls, I feel so bad,” Austin said. “They are the sweetest girls, just goody-two-shoes sweethearts. Two of them have been wishy-washy this semester about if they’re going to come back (to SSU), and this sent them over the edge. They’re going to talk to their parents this summer about maybe switching schools.”

Sonoma State University’s interim Chief of Police David Dougherty and a university spokesman did not respond Wednesday to several email and phone requests for information about past police responses to the unit where the stabbing occurred, the alleged drug raid or other recent drug-related arrests in campus student housing.

Wednesday’s court hearing for Bratton took place in a charged environment, with families and supporters of Bratton and Garcia packing Courtroom 9. Tempers flared as the 40 or so people exited the courtroom, starting with a racial epithet and nearly ending in blows.

“He’s gonna pay!” yelled a man wearing a button with Garcia’s face and the words “We love you Steven.”

A supporter of Bratton yelled that Garcia’s family was a “bunch of tweakers,” meaning methamphetamine addicts.

While the families of Bratton and Garcia had plenty of words for each other, neither wished to make a public comment.