After Army veteran is gunned down at party, authorities offer reward to find suspect

Ismael Zabala, 26.
Ismael Zabala, 26, was shot to death Dec. 20 at his cousin’s birthday party in Lancaster. Detectives are seeking his suspected killer, Oscar Palazuelos.
(Alex Zabala)

Detectives from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are searching for a man suspected of shooting to death a U.S. Army veteran at a birthday party in December.

The night of Dec. 19, 2020, Ismael Zabala, 26, went to his aunt’s home in the 400 block of West Avenue J 12 in Lancaster to celebrate his cousin’s birthday.

The 26-year-old — the second of eight children — was accompanied by several of his brothers. He’d been looking forward to the party and bought a new shirt to wear, his father, Alex Zabala, said Tuesday.

“He couldn’t wait for that day. He was inviting everyone he could.”


One of the guests Zabala had invited, a young woman, showed up with two men he didn’t know, his father said.

At some point that night, the two men were asked to leave the party, authorities said. Around 2 a.m., they got into an argument with their hosts on the doorstep that escalated into a physical struggle, according to Sheriff’s Lt. Derrick Alfred. Zabala intervened and was punched by one of the men, Alfred said.

Both of the party guests drew handguns, and one of the men — identified by sheriff’s officials as Oscar Palazuelos, 20 — fired a single shot into Zabala’s chest, Alfred said. His younger brother was shot in the thumb, according to Alex Zabala. The two armed men then fled.

Alfred declined to name the man authorities said accompanied Palazuelos to the party, but sheriff’s officials identified him in a motion submitted to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors as Ervin Alvarez. Alvarez, 22, was arrested in February, pleaded no contest to one count of attempted murder and was sentenced in April to 19 years in state prison, according to court records.

Oscar Palazuelos is being sought as a suspect in the killing of Ismael Zabala on Dec. 20, 2020.
(Los Angeles County Sheriff Department)

As for Palazuelos, “the trail’s kind of run cold,” Alfred said Tuesday. He was known to stay in the Antelope Valley, but he also frequented the Highland Park area, where he boasted of being affiliated with a local gang, the lieutenant said. Palazuelos may have recently returned to the Antelope Valley, authorities said.

The Sheriff’s Department has offered a $20,000 reward, funded by the Board of Supervisors and the city of Lancaster, for information leading to Palazuelos’ arrest.

Alex Zabala called it a sad but undeniable truth that a reward might close his son’s case.

“Unfortunately, the way society is, money moves people,” he said.


The elder Zabala said he had tried to shield his children from the violence and gangs that encircled their onetime home in South Los Angeles. They moved, beginning when Ismael Zabala was young, to El Monte, West Covina, Victorville, Barstow and, eventually, Lancaster, where Ismael played football at nearby Littlerock High School.

He was known for his “big old Kool-Aid smile,” his father said. “Everyone who knew him, they’d tell you the same thing.”

After falling behind on credits at Littlerock High, Zabala graduated from a charter school in the Lancaster area and worked various jobs at warehouses and a Family Dollar store before announcing in 2016 that he’d enlisted in the Army. He told his parents there was nothing they could do to change his mind, his father recalled.

Zabala went to boot camp in Georgia, then was stationed in Mississippi and eventually Texas, where he was training to work as a driver, his father said. But one day, after getting hurt in a training accident, Zabala was evaluated by a doctor and found to be medically unfit to continue serving in the military. He was honorably discharged in March 2020, his father said.

Disappointed that his career had been cut short unexpectedly, Zabala returned to his family’s home in the Lancaster area.

The night he died, his younger brother stirred their father awake, saying Ismael had been shot. Alex Zabala got to his sister-in-law’s house in time to see paramedics trying to revive his son in the back of an ambulance. He was pronounced dead at a hospital an hour later.

Knowing the man suspected of firing the fatal shot remains at large is like “having this wound and we can’t let it heal,” the elder Zabala said. “It’s like putting salt on it every day.”

Especially difficult was Christmas, five days after the young man’s death. “This guy, he’s out there, probably opening gifts with his family,” Zabala’s father said. “And we’re trying to find a funeral home.”

The Sheriff’s Department is asking anyone with information about Palazuelos’ whereabouts to call detectives at (323) 890-5500.