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