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Prosecutors To Retry Death Penalty Phase Against ‘Los Palillos’ Gang Members

Prosecutors will once again seek the death penalty for two leaders of the violent Mexican "Los Palillos" drug trafficking gang, who were convicted of several murders and kidnappings in San Diego County between 2004 and 2007, it was announced Wednesday.

A penalty phase mistrial was declared last week when jurors told Judge David Rubin they were hopelessly deadlocked on whether to recommend death or life in prison without parole for Jorge Rojas Lopez and Juan Estrada Gonzalez.

Deputy District Attorney Mark Amador told the judge today that the District Attorney's Office will again seek the death penalty against both defendants. The penalty phase retrial is not expected to begin before next year. Three other Los Palillos gang members are set to go to trial before then.

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 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.

Deputy District Attorney Dan Owens told the jury during the first penalty phase that the defendants "imported their brand of cartel violence and put it on the streets of San Diego for all of us to see."

Owens said the defendants — members of the Los Palillos or "toothpicks" gang — were "evil men" who committed "evil deeds" out of revenge and greed, including shooting at a Chula Vista police officer and murdering two men on a ranch in San Ysidro, then dissolving their bodies in acid.

The "beginning of the end" for Rojas Lopez and Estrada Gonzalez came on June 16, 2007, when they and three fellow gang members were arrested after kidnapping a wealthy businessman and holding him for ransom in a Chula Vista home for eight days, according to prosecutors.

Estrada Gonzalez was also convicted in the kidnapping and murder of a man whose body was stuffed in the trunk of a car, stuck with toothpicks behind his ear and in his buttocks.

The defendants are already serving life-without-parole prison sentences after being convicted of kidnapping and other crimes.

A status conference is scheduled for June 20.

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