Her Body Was Found in California Wilderness in 2001. Now, Justice

3 MS-13 gang members convicted of murder in death of 13-year-old girl
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 4, 2022 2:05 PM CST
MS-13 Gang Members Convicted in 13-Year-Old's 2001 Murder
Stock photo of LA skyline as seen from Elysian Park.   (Getty Images/Patricia Elaine Thomas)

Justice was finally served Thursday in the case of a young California teen murdered more than two decades ago by MS-13 gang members. The Whittier Daily News reports that Santos Grimaldi, 39, and Melvin Sandoval, 42, were convicted of first-degree murder in the case of 13-year-old Jacqueline Piazza, who was kidnapped, raped, and then shot in a remote area in the Elysian Park section of Los Angeles. A third man, 44-year-old Rogelio Contreras, was convicted of second-degree murder, and all three men were found guilty of weapons and gang charges. A fourth MS-13 member, Jorge Palacios, now 43, had already been found guilty of murder and kidnapping in the case in 2018 and is serving life in prison without parole.

It's a case that remained a cold one for more than a decade, and then stuck in the legal system for a decade more. Per court documents and testimony cited by the Los Angeles Times, Jacqueline, a runaway, met Palacios while living on the streets of LA in June 2001. For unknown reasons, Palacios deemed Jacqueline an enemy of MS-13, and so he and his girlfriend beat the teen, then instructed Grimaldi and Sandoval to take her somewhere, rape her, and "get rid of her," per witness testimony. Contreras is said to have driven Grimaldi, Sandoval, and a female MS-13 member, with Jacqueline crammed in the trunk, to Elysian Park, which is where the two men raped her. The girl was shot twice in the head and her body left in a hilly area.

The female MS-13 gang member was key to breaking open the case, though it took 10 years for her to come forward, and another witness backed up her claim, noting that the three men had confessed the crime to him. DNA evidence from Jacqueline's body clinched the case, and all four men, including Palacios, were indicted in 2012. Palacios later started working as an FBI informant, infiltrating MS-13 gangs in multiple states starting around 2004. The three men convicted Thursday are set to be sentenced on May 13. A spokesman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office notes that because Grimaldi and Sandoval killed Jacqueline while committing a rape and lewd act on a child, they face mandated life in prison without the possibility of parole, per the Daily News. (More MS-13 stories.)

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