Mistrial declared in Los Palillos case; Penalty phase to begin next week

SAN DIEGO - A judge declared a mistrial Tuesday on seven unresolved murder, robbery and kidnapping counts against two leaders of a Mexican drug trafficking gang convicted last week of similar charges.

Jorge Rojas Lopez, 34, was found guilty of four murders on Thursday, while Juan Estrada-Gonzalez, also 34, was convicted of six counts of first-degree murder, marking a major milestone in one of the longest trials in San Diego history.

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 in San Diego County between 2004 and 2007 to benefit the defendants' gang.

On Tuesday, jurors reached a verdict finding Estrada-Gonzalez guilty of kidnapping for ransom and told Judge David Rubin that they were hopelessly deadlocked on seven other charges, including five murder counts against Rojas Lopez.

The judge scheduled a penalty phase of trial to begin next Tuesday, in which jurors will be asked to recommend the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

Jury selection in the current case began a year ago and closing arguments were delivered in late October, with jurors deliberating 17 days.

After the Arellano Felix drug organization killed Rojas Lopez's brother in 2002, he and other members of Los Palillos fled Mexico and set up their drug-running operation in Kansas City and San Diego, prosecutor Mark Amador said at the outset of the trial.

The prosecutor said the members of Los Palillos were "cold, calculated, hard men" who committed evil deeds in San Diego County, including shooting at a Chula Vista police officer and murdering two men on a ranch in San Ysidro, then dissolving their bodies in acid.

Amador said the defendants were motivated by "greed and revenge."

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

Rojas Lopez told the victim's wife that she needed to come up with the ransom money if she wanted to see her husband again. "If not, I will send him in pieces to your doorstep," Rojas Lopez told the woman, according to Amador.

Rojas Lopez said the Arellano Felix Organization kidnapped and killed in Mexico, "but I have the balls to do it here," according to the prosecutor.

Amador said Rojas Lopez was one of four Los Palillos gang members who in 2004 lured three friends to a home in southern San Diego and eventually killed them. The victims, who were Tijuana residents, were shot and asphyxiated by having socks stuffed down their throats, Amador said. He said one of the victims had ties to drug trafficking.

Amador said both Rojas Lopez and Estrada Gonzalez participated in the August 2005 murder of a 22-year-old low-level drug dealer who was tied up, beaten, stomped or punched and dumped along a road in Chula Vista.

Two weeks later, a man was kidnapped, beaten with a police-type club and killed in Bonita, the prosecutor said. Both Rojas Lopez and Estrada-Gonzalez are charged in that crime.

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

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