Two decades after a girl was murdered, three MS-13 members have been found guilty

Three members of the MS-13 gang were found guilty Thursday of murdering a girl on a hilltop in Elysian Park in 2001.

The jury’s verdict answered the question of who was responsible for a crime that went unsolved for a decade and then dragged through the courts for another.

Melvin Sandoval, 42, and Santos Grimaldi, 39, have been convicted of first-degree murder in the death of 13-year-old girl Jacqueline Piazza. Because the jury found that Sandoval and Grimaldi murdered Jacqueline while committing a rape and committed an act of indecency on a child, the men were sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Rogelio Contreras, 44, was convicted of second-degree murder. The jury found that all three men killed Jacqueline for the benefit of her gang, MS-13.

Supreme Court Justice Larry P. Fidler scheduled her sentencing for May 13.

Another MS-13 member, Jorge Palacios, was convicted of murdering and kidnapping Jacqueline in 2018. Now 43, he is serving his life without the possibility of parole.

Jacqueline had run away from her family’s Whittier home and ended up on the streets of the Westlake area of ​​Los Angeles when, on the afternoon of June 27, 2001, she encountered Palacios a few blocks west of MacArthur Park. Palacios sold drugs there, according to an appeals decision that summarized the evidence at his trial, and believed for a reason authorities never realized the teenager was a “chavala‘ or enemy of his gang.

Palacios and his girlfriend threw Jacqueline to the ground and beat her, then told Sandoval and Grimaldi to take the girl somewhere, rape her and “get rid of her,” a witness testified in court.

With Jacqueline in the trunk, Contreras drove Sandoval, Grimaldi, and a female MS-13 member to Elysian Park, where witnesses said Grimaldi and Sandoval raped the girl. She was shot twice in the head and her body was left in the dark on a hill.

The case remained unsolved for a decade, until the female MS-13 member told detectives what she had seen. DNA evidence from Jacqueline’s body linked Grimaldi and Sandoval to her rape, and another witness told authorities Sandoval, Grimaldi and Contreras gave him details of the crime years later. Contreras, the witness testified, once said he “can still see her ghost in my car.”

Men sit in a courtroom

Melvin Sandoval (from left), Rogelio Contreras and Santos Grimaldi, who were shown in 2018, were sentenced on Thursday.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Palacios, Sandoval, Grimaldi and Contreras were charged with the girl’s murder in 2012. During the investigation, it emerged that Palacios had worked as an informant for the FBI from around 2004 and had been used to infiltrate MS-13 cells in Nebraska, Maryland. Virginia, Florida and Indiana, according to an agent in a Nebraska indictment. He helped agents collect evidence in drug and gun cases and a murder for hire.

The Palacios office paid more than $300,000 for his work, the agent said. When asked by a defense attorney whether Palacios made more money selling drugs – his source of income before becoming an informant – “or made more money working for the FBI,” the agent replied, “I don’t know.”

The FBI continued to use Palacios as an informant after being told in early 2009 that he was suspected of killing a 13-year-old girl, the agent testified.

Palacios was tried separately from his co-defendants for the kidnapping and murder of Jacqueline. He was convicted, but a jury deadlocked in the 2018 case against Sandoval, Grimaldi and Contreras.

For the retrial, Deputy Dist. atty Dayan Mathai, who had worked with the detectives investigating the murder since 2010, said he decided to refine the evidence from the crime scene. At the first trial, testimony had formed the heart of the prosecution’s case, but the defendants’ attorneys had attacked their credibility and cast doubt on their motives for coming forward.

Mathai said he wanted to show the jury “what the crime scene told us what happened”: physical evidence Jacqueline had been raped on the hillside, blood splatters showing where her body was and the DNA of two accused. Many witnesses from the first trial testified again in the second, but prosecutors emphasized how their testimony was consistent with evidence from the scene, Mathai said.

The second attempt was canceled in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It resumed in May 2021, with jurors hearing testimony and closing arguments until deliberation began last week.

“We believe the jury spoke, and it was a full and complete review of the evidence,” Mathai said. “Every subject was dealt with in unbearable detail, every witness was called, tested, cross-examined.

“Our topic was what happened to Jacqueline and demanded an answer,” he said. “A 13-year-old is sexually assaulted – raped – and left naked with two bullets in the back of the head. It took so long to get it, but now we have an answer. Now we have the answer.” Two decades after a girl was murdered, three MS-13 members have been found guilty

Huynh Nguyen

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