Murder mystery grows as police release suspected killer’s identity in Ethan Morse case

Atwater police on Monday identified the man they believe killed Ethan Morse, the son of former Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II.

Speaking at a news conference from Atwater City Hall, Chief Michael Salvador named the “prime suspect” as 26-year-old Dagoberto Franco Penaloza. The chief said the investigation into the slaying of the 22-year-old Morse is now considered a “manhunt.”

Morse was shot to death in the area of Fir Avenue and Winton Way at about 10 a.m. March 15.

Chief Michael Salvador identified the “prime suspect” in the slaying of Ethan Morse as Dagoberto Franco-Penaloza on Monday, May 6, 2019. The chief said the investigation into the slaying of the 22-year-old Morse is now considered a “manhunt.” Thaddeus Miller

Salvador described identifying Morse’s suspected killer as a “major development” in the investigation. A $1 million warrant has been issued for the arrest of Franco Penaloza.

The motive for the killing remains unclear. It is also unclear whether Franco Penaloza and Morse knew each other or why they interacted on the day of the shooting.

Police said previously that Morse was in the area to drop his daughter off at daycare.

Franco Penaloza was spotted on surveillance footage walking in and out of stores and through neighborhoods in Atwater in the hours after the shooting.

His last known address was in East Palo Alto, according to police, but Franco Penaloza was described as “transient” with ties to Modesto, the Bay Area, and Red Bluff. Police said he may have been in the Atwater area to work in landscaping and was staying in a motel.

He’s known to have worked in landscaping in Modesto but does not have family in the area, Salvador said. It’s unclear if he lived on the street or in motels while in Modesto.

Investigators characterized Franco Penaloza as “armed and extremely dangerous” and cautioned the public to stay away if he’s spotted in public.

“This is a cold-blooded killer. He’s shown a propensity for violence,” Salvador said. “He needs to get off the streets.”

Franco Penaloza also is wanted in the attempted homicide in 2017 of a 29-year-old Menlo Park man, the chief confirmed. A Menlo Park Police Department news release in connection with that case states Franco Penaloza also goes by the name Gustavo Torres.

The Palo Alto Daily Post in 2017 reported Franco Penaloza and the Menlo Park victim both lived at a homeless encampment in marshland near East Palo Alto and had been smoking methamphetamine together before getting into an argument that sparked the violence.

He has never been captured in the Menlo Park case. An $11 million warrant was issued in that case in late 2017.

The Merced County District Attorney’s Office is working with Atwater police but is expected to recuse itself from the prosecution following an arrest, according to Salvador.

The elder Morse was district attorney in Merced County from 2006 to 2018 before losing the June primary election to Kimberly Lewis.

Franco Penaloza was described by police as a Hispanic male adult, 5-foot-9, weighing 170 pounds.

Police ask anyone with information on the crime to call the Atwater Police Department at 209-357-6396 or 209-357-6384. The Merced Area Crime Stoppers line is 855-725-2420, and it accepts text messages at 274637.

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