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Jury deadlocks on most charges in case of reputed MS-13 gang members accused in 2001 kidnapping, homicide

Jury deadlocks on most charges in case of reputed MS-13 gang members accused in 2001 kidnapping, homicide
Melvin Sandoval, left, Rogelio Contreras and Santos Grimaldi listen to closing arguments in their trial in the kidnapping and murder of a 13-year-old girl found shot to death in Elysian Park. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles jury deadlocked on nearly all the counts in the case of three suspected Mara Salvatrucha gang members charged in the 2001 rape, kidnapping and killing of a teenage runaway from Whittier.

Despite deliberating for nearly two weeks, the panel on Thursday told a judge they hadn't reached a unanimous verdict regarding Melvin Sandoval, 38, and Santos Grimaldi, 35, who each faced one count of special circumstance murder along with one count of kidnapping in the killing of 13-year-old Jacqueline Piazza. The teenager ran away from home in May 2001 and ended up in the Westlake area of Los Angeles.

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A third defendant, Rogelio Contreras, 40, was acquitted of a kidnapping charge, but jurors deadlocked on his murder count.

The judge asked jurors — who sat through a five-month trial — whether there was anything he could do to help them reach a verdict. He offered, for example, to let prosecutors and defense attorneys make further arguments.

"The answer is no, we don't believe there's anything else that can be done," the foreman said, telling the judge that on most of the counts, the panel was split either 8-4 or 9-3.

As the judge declared a mistrial on all remaining counts, the defendants stared ahead with little expression. A family member of the victim dabbed at her nose with a tissue.

The judge then turned to Deputy Dist. Atty. Dayan Mathai, asking if the district attorney's office planned to retry the case.

"Yes," the prosecutor said, nodding.

On June 27, 2001, a drug dealer for the MS-13 street gang, Jorge Palacios, along with his common-law wife, beat Jacqueline near West 8th Street and Magnolia Avenue, then directed others, including Sandoval, Grimaldi, and Contreras, to get "rid of the girl," whom for reasons unknown he perceived as a threat, prosecutors said.

That night, prosecutors alleged, Sandoval, Grimaldi and Contreras, along with two others, drove Jacqueline to Elysian Park. She was put in the trunk so she couldn't be seen.

The teenager was taken to a remote area, where prosecutors said that two men — Sandoval and Grimaldi — sexually assaulted the girl. Investigators found DNA matching Grimaldi and Sandoval on the victim, according to testimony.

After the assault, the girl, who was seated on the ground nude, holding her hands up in protest, was shot in the head twice, prosecutors said.

In closing arguments, Mathai said the brutal crime "defies logic."

"But on that day and on that time, there was a motive, there was logic," he said. "They took her there for the purpose that no one would witness the dastardly deeds that they were going to do."

"They took her there so you would never hear what happened," he said.

The investigation into the girl's killing stalled until a member of MS-13 who was working as an informant told authorities what she knew about the crime. The woman took investigators to the area in Elysian Park where the killing occurred and described the events.

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"You heard from an eyewitness … because somebody broke free," Mathai said.

Another gang member also later told authorities that Sandoval and Contreras each told him separately about the crime, and corroborated other evidence, including the people involved and the vehicle that was used. The man also said that Sandoval and Grimaldi "wanted a piece" of the victim.

According to court testimony, Contreras told that gang member years later that he could "still see her ghost in my car."

Defense attorneys questioned the reliability of the two main witnesses, particularly the female gang member. Victor Salerno, Sandoval's attorney, told jurors that the woman had been in a relationship with Sandoval and was jealous of the teenager.

Salerno argued that Sandoval had consensual sex with the teenager in the days before the killing. Salerno pointed to the "lengthy" criminal record of the female gang member and said she shouldn't be trusted.

Rick LaPan, Contreras' attorney, said his client was not a gang member and was in the area on the day of the killing for a church event. During the trial, friends and family testified to Contreras' character, LaPan said.

"He's a good father to his three kids," he said.

In closing arguments, LaPan suggested the prosecution's two main witnesses might be framing Contreras.

"Mr. Contreras is telling the truth. He's a victim. He has been sitting here for six years because of these lies," he said. LaPan also said that no testimony pinned Contreras as a gang member named "Whisper" until 2004, three years after the killing.

Robin Yanes, Grimaldi's attorney, also questioned the veracity of the female gang member, asserting she changed her story after speaking with investigators.

But Mathai told jurors "the DNA evidence is powerful and can't be denied," adding that the killing only made sense in the eyes of the gang.

"All of these things work together," he said, "to do a bad thing to a young girl."

On March 2, a jury convicted Palacios, 39, of special circumstance murder and one count of kidnapping to commit another crime. Palacios, who is scheduled to be sentenced April 11, faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.

For more crime news, follow @nicolesantacruz on Twitter.

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