Prison - Photo courtesy of Unsplash

One of four men convicted in the killing of a 13-year-old Whittier girl more than two decades ago was sentenced Wednesday to 40 years to life in state prison.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler — who denied the defense’s motion for a new trial — said he didn’t believe Rogelio Contreras’ claims that he is innocent in the June 2001 killing of Jacqueline Piazza, and called the case “the result of incredible police work.”

Contreras, 44, was convicted March 3 of second-degree murder, while co-defendants Santos Grimaldi, 39, and Melvin Sandoval, now 43, were convicted of first-degree murder.

Jurors also found true the special circumstance allegations of murder during the commission of a rape and a lewd act on a child against Grimaldi and Sandoval, who are awaiting sentencing and are facing life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A jury deadlocked in March 2018 on the murder charge against the three men, but a separate jury convicted a fourth man, Jorge Palacios, now 44, in March 2018 of first-degree murder and kidnapping to commit another crime involving Piazza’s killing.

Jurors in Palacios’ case also found true the special circumstance allegations of murder during a kidnapping, murder during a rape or attempted rape and murder during the commission or attempted commission of a lewd act on a child, along with gang and gun allegations.

Just before being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in June 2019, Palacios told the teen’s parents, “I feel really terrible about what happened. Trust me, I wasn’t part of what happened … I know justice will be served.”

A state appeals court panel subsequently upheld Palacios’ conviction, with the panel noting that the victim was quietly sobbing in the back seat when the vehicle stopped under a freeway underpass and she was ordered into the car’s trunk so roadway cameras would not be able to document her as a passenger.

The four defendants were indicted in May 2012 for the girl’s killing.

In his opening statement to jurors in the first trial of Grimaldi, Sandoval and Contreras, Deputy District Attorney Dayan Mathai said Palacios told the other gang members that they had to get rid of the teenage runaway after he and his girlfriend beat the girl, whom he called an enemy.

The prosecutor told jurors that Grimaldi, Sandoval and Contreras took the crying girl — who was eventually forced to ride in the trunk — to a wilderness area in Elysian Park, where her body was found the next morning by a hiker walking his dog.

“This crime against Jacqueline was a violent murder where she was shot twice in the head and this is how she was left,” Mathai said, showing jurors a photo of the victim wearing only a pair of socks and shoes.

The prosecutor said the teenager had been raped, with DNA testing showing that a DNA sample consistent with Sandoval was found on a vaginal swab taken from the victim and that a DNA sample consistent with Grimaldi was collected from her breast.

During Contreras’ sentencing hearing, the deputy district attorney told the judge that “it was this defendant (Contreras) who said, `I know a place to take her,” and noted that it was a remote area and “so relevant” to the fact that she wasn’t going to be coming back.

Monique Piazza told the judge that she was “10 years old when I found out that my best friend — the most important person in my life at the time — would never come home again.

“I had already seen my sister for the last time. I would never get the chance to say goodbye,” she said.

She told the judge that she had thought for 21 years of what she might say “to the people responsible for ending my sister’s life — the people who got to see in her in her last moments when I would have done anything to see her one last time, the people that did these horrific things to her, the ones who made her last moments a nightmare.”

She said she eventually came to the conclusion that “the people who did this to my sister must have had lives that I could not imagine — lives that were also marked by violence and terror.”

But the victim’s sister insisted that there was “still no excuse for harming another human being or taking a life, especially that of an innocent child.”

“Nothing will change what has already happened, and nothing will bring her back,” she added. “I only hope that those involved can forgive themselves for the wrongs they have done, and the wrongs others have done to them.”

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