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Reputed MS-13 drug dealer found guilty in 2001 murder of teenage runaway

Reputed MS-13 drug dealer found guilty in 2001 murder of teenage runaway
Jorge Palacios, right, sits with lawyer Lawrence Forbes during closing arguments in his trial. Palacios was found guilty of killing Jacqueline Piazza in 2001. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

A drug dealer for the Mara Salvatrucha street gang was found guilty Thursday of murdering a 13-year-old runaway whose nude body was found by a hiker in Elysian Park in 2001.

A jury convicted Jorge Palacios, 39, of special circumstance murder and one count of kidnapping to commit another crime. The jury also found gun and gang allegations to be true.

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Three other reputed MS-13 gang members — Melvin Sandoval, 38, Santos Grimaldi, 35, and Rogelio Contreras, 40 — are also on trial in the teenager’s killing, and a separate jury is hearing closing arguments in the case.

On the night of June 27, 2001, prosecutors said that Palacios and his common law wife at the time beat Jacqueline Piazza near West 8th Street and Magnolia Avenue in Westlake. Palacios then directed other gang members to “get rid of” the girl because she was a threat, according to court testimony.

Prosecutors allege that Contreras, Sandoval and Grimaldi drove the teenager in the trunk of a car to a remote area in Elysian Park, where she was sexually assaulted and shot twice in the head.

Five years later, a woman came forward with new evidence for detectives. The woman, a female gang member, told authorities that she had been present during the killing. Another gang member also had information about the killing, and their combined testimony implicated Palacios and the other defendants.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Rachel Greene told the jury during closing arguments that Palacios “had a problem” with a 13-year-old girl, and “he thought he had the perfect solution.”

“You could look at her,” Greene said of the victim. “And tell she was a regular girl, not a gang member.”

Palacios’ attorney, Lawrence Forbes, argued that his client was a low-level drug dealer at the time, and didn’t have the power within the gang to direct others to kill the girl.

Forbes said that Palacios was in the gang to “avoid paying taxes” on the drugs he sold. He called the allegation that Palacios set the killing in motion “preposterous,” and cast doubt on the female former gang member’s testimony.

“It’s not a clean case,” Forbes told the jury during closing arguments.

As the verdict was read, family members of the victim cried.

Palacios, who faces life without parole, is scheduled to be sentenced April 11.

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