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Judge Declares Mistrial In Penalty Phase Of ‘Los Palillos’ Trial

Aired 3/5/14 on KPBS News.

A judge has declared a penalty phase mistrial for two Los Palillos gang members convicted of several murders between 2004 and 2007 in San Diego.

A judge has declared a penalty-phase mistrial in the case of convicted murders Jorge Rojas Lopez and Juan Estrada-Gonzalez, the Los Palillos gang members found guilty of several killings between 2004 and 2007 in San Diego.

Jurors told San Diego District Court Judge David Rubin they were hopelessly deadlocked on whether to recommend the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

The defendants smiled and hugged their attorneys after the mistrial was declared.

Prosecutors from the District Attorney's Office must now decide whether they want to retry unresolved counts from the guilt phase and/or retry the penalty phase. A status conference is scheduled for March 12.

During a four-year stretch, the gang, called “Los Palillos” (“toothpicks” in Spanish) brought some of the more brutal tactics of Mexico’s drug cartels to the U.S. side of the border. Victims were kidnapped, tortured and murdered.

The bodies of at least two victims were dissolved in acid; others were left to rot in abandoned vehicles. The gang also left messages to rival gangs on their victims’ corpses and so-called “calling cards,” including toothpicks stuck behind the ear or, with one victim, in the buttocks.

Rojas Lopez, 34, was found guilty in January of four murders, while Estrada Gonzalez, also 34, was convicted of six counts of first-degree murder in a trial that began in January 2013. Jurors deadlocked on seven charges, including five murder counts against Rojas Lopez.

In both cases, jurors found true special circumstance allegations of kidnapping, torture and multiple murders, as well as an allegation that the killings were committed to benefit the defendants' gang.

"Mr. Rojas is thankful for the jury's careful deliberation process,'' said one of his attorneys, Ricardo Garcia. "The jury was not convinced or sold on the prosecution's over-arcing conspiracy theory that this was an ongoing gang with one goal in mind that acted from day one to the final day with the same purpose."

Al Arena, one of the attorneys for Estrada Gonzalez, said the mistrial was the "end of a very long road."

Rojas was also found guilty of attempted murder of a Chula Vista police officer.

The trial took more than a year and was one of the county’s longest ever.

During the trial, former collaborators and law enforcement agents testified that the Los Palillos gang was borne out of revenge. The Arellano-Felix drug cartel, which until recently controlled trafficking routes through the Tijuana area, killed Rojas’s brother, Victor Rojas Lopez, in 2002.

Victor had worked for the cartel, running a kidnapping and extortion ring.

After his death, some of his crew fled to San Diego, including his brother, Rojas. Here, they started their own murderous gang, which largely sought retribution against the Arellano-Felix cartel. Many of their victims were cartel associates.

Since 2009, 18 defendants from the U.S. and Mexico have been indicted in connection with the gang’s activities.

Rojas, Estrada and other members of Los Palillos were arrested in June 2007 after the FBI raided a home in Chula Vista to rescue a kidnapping victim. The two leaders are already serving life sentences without parole for that kidnapping.

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