Atwater Police identify suspect in Morse killing

By JOHN MILLER
May 9, 2019

Atwater Police Department investigators have identified a prime suspect in the homicide of 22-year-old Ethan Morse, the son of former Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse.

“The investigation has changed from an investigation to a manhunt,” said Police Chief Michael Salvador during a press conference on Monday.

The suspected killer — Dagoberto Franco Penaloza — is described as a 26-year-old Hispanic male, standing at 5-foot, 9 inches, and weighing 170 pounds. His last known address is from 2014 at 2712 Fordham Street in East Palo Alto. Police have identified the weapon used in the homicide as a semi-automatic handgun.

On March 15, Morse was in the Atwater area to drop off his daughter at childcare shortly before the shooting near the intersection of Fir Avenue and Winton Way. He was shot multiple times, and was pronounced dead after being rushed to Mercy Hospital in Merced.

There is currently no information that ties Penaloza to gangs, and he is believed to be “semi-transient.”

Said Salvador, “We think that as jobs come across, he moves with the work. … We don't have any detail about motive. We just know that, for whatever reason, Morse stopped at that intersection and had contact with this subject. With that, whatever happened during that contact led to Mr. Morse's death.”

Salvador noted there was no indication that Morse and Penaloza knew one another, or what happened after they crossed paths that led to Morse's death.

Penaloza is known to frequent the Atwater area to work in the landscaping industry, and has ties to the Bay Area, Modesto, and Red Bluff. Currently Atwater officers are working with the Menlo Park Police Department, where Penaloza is also wanted for an attempted homicide on Thanksgiving in 2017.

When asked if the suspect had prior convictions, Chief Salvador explained that Penaloza's fingerprints are not currently in law enforcement databases. “On our first step trying to identify the subject, his name did not come back.”

Chief Salvador thanked the community of Atwater for providing numerous tips that led to the identification of Penaloza.

After the shooting Penaloza remained in the Atwater area, making his way to his last known location at a local motel.

“We do know that he walked through the city for quite some time after the shooting,” Salvador said, “and we caught him on everything from ringing doorbell cameras to business surveillance throughout the city.”

Salvador went on to say that he assumes Penaloza knows he is wanted in Menlo Park, and he did not flee the state in that instance, and it is not believed that he will flee once reports of his identification in the Atwater case are made public.

Chief Salvador warned members of the public to not approach Penaloza if they see him, and to instead contact a law enforcement agency.

“This is a cold-blooded killer,” said Salvador. “He has shown a propensity for violence and he needs to be off the streets, and I have instructed my people to work with every agency possible.”

The chief said former District Attorney Larry Morse appeared to be “relieved but subdued” at the news.

Ethan Morse was a standout varsity wrestler at Golden Valley High School, where he graduated from in 2014. He later made headlines after a Merced County judge declared him factually innocent regarding a 2013 Atwater murder case involving multiple shootings at a house party. Afterward, he sued Merced County for being falsely arrested, and a federal jury ruled in his favor in a civil lawsuit. His father, Larry Morse, was district attorney in Merced County from 2006 to 2018 before losing the June primary election to Kimberly Lewis.

The Atwater Police Department is working alongside of the California Department of Justice Fresno Task Force, California Department of Justice Merced County Task Force, Merced County Sheriff's Office Gang Unit, Menlo Park Police Department, Merced Police Department, Red Bluff Police Department, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

The Atwater Police Department has secured a $1 million warrant for Penaloza’s arrest.

“We would love to talk to anybody that has any information about this case,” Chief Salvador said.

Those who believe they have information that is useful to officers can contact the Atwater Police Department at (209) 357-6396, Atwater Police Department Investigations at (209) 357-6384, or the Merced Area Crime Stoppers at 855-725-2420.


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