Man Sentenced in Mexico for 2 U.S. Killings

Times Staff Writer

Saul Zavala, father of one of two teenage girls who were gunned down as they walked to Lynwood High School, for three years fought to have the accused killer extradited from Mexico, where he had fled.

Working with Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, Zavala hoped to bring attention to what he calls Mexico's unjust extradition policies.

Instead, with Mexican authorities trying 24-year-old Juan Manuel Casillas themselves, Zavala learned this week of the quiet end to his daughter's case.

A Mexican judge sentenced Casillas -- who could have faced the death penalty or life without parole here -- to 60 years without the possibility of parole for murdering the two girls, who aspired to be soap opera stars. If he's healthy when he's released, Casillas could live out his life in freedom.

Zavala hoped he would be sentenced to 120 years. Adding insult to injury, Zavala said, Mexican officials in Los Angeles did not notify him of the sentencing hearing held on Dec. 10. He didn't get to address the judge.

The news of the sentencing got to Zavala 26 days later in a two-sentence memo that Mexican authorities sent to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Cooley summoned Zavala to his office and showed him the document.

"My daughter was going to school," said Zavala, who works cleaning office buildings. "If she was into drugs, I would be embarrassed to be asking for help. I swore to her I would fight for justice."

The case traces back to 1999. Casillas was angry that Olivia Munguia, 17, had broken up with him. He found her walking to school with her cousin, Jessica Zavala, 15, on a Tuesday morning, and riddled them both with bullets.

Saul Zavala sought help from Cooley. Since then, the two have used the case to rail against Mexico's extradition policies, which they say favor numerous criminals who have fled there from California.

Mexico does not extradite suspects who might face the death penalty or life in prison.

Trying to get Casillas back to Los Angeles, Cooley first agreed not to seek the death penalty. Then the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that life in prison is also cruel punishment. Mexico again refused to extradite.

In Mexico, the judicial system considers "the possibility to rehabilitate" in order to reincorporate the person into society, said Jorge Garcia Villalobos, the Los Angeles regional legal attache for the Mexican attorney general's office

"Rehabilitate him from what?" asked Petra Zavala, Jessica's mother. "He wasn't sick."

Villalobos said that his office did not have the responsibility to notify the Zavalas of the sentencing hearing.

His office notified "the people" of Los Angeles County -- meaning the Sheriff's Department -- after the sentence had been handed down. He cited the successful prosecution as an example of cooperation between Mexican authorities and the Los Angeles County district attorney and Sheriff's Department.

"We agreed to make our best effort to punish this guy with the maximum sentence, and we did accomplish that," said Villalobos.

Cooley's office disagrees.

"Our goal was always extradition. We worked for nearly two years to accomplish that," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Jan Maurizi. "When we refused to make other promises, they kept the case. In that sense, it was nothing we accomplished together. It's something that Mexico did in spite of our requests."

Maurizi warned that, pending appeals, it remains to be seen whether Casillas will serve his sentence.

She cited similar cases of criminals who, though convicted in Mexico of crimes committed in the United States, had their sentences drastically reduced.

In one case, she said, a man who killed a 17-year-old boy in Los Angeles was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison. He served only two years and later returned to Southern California, she said.

The issue of extradition from Mexico is such a sore point for the district attorney's office that Maurizi works almost exclusively on it. Her office is working to have the United States withdraw from the U.S.-Mexico extradition treaty and to change California double-jeopardy laws to make it possible to charge people here after they have been tried in Mexico.

Zavala, who with the rest of his family visits his daughter's grave in Long Beach each weekend, also intends to keep the girls' case alive in the issue of extradition.

"Whichever way," he said, "I'm going to do her justice."

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