Madison County grand jury will hear drug cartel-linked double-murder case that included teen’s beheading

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- A man charged in the killing of a woman and the beheading of her granddaughter was in Madison County Circuit Court Friday, but his trial date could be more than a year away.

Israel Palomino and co-defendant Yoni Agular are both charged with capital murder in the June 2018 killings of Oralia Mendoza and her 13-year-old granddaughter Mariah Lopez.

Palomino, 35, was in Madison County Circuit Judge Ruth Ann Hall’s courtroom this morning for a case status conference.

Palomino listened to the proceedings through an interpreter.

Yoni Martinez Aguilar (Image: Madison County Jail)

Tim Gann, chief trial attorney for the Madison County District Attorney’s Office, told the court he expects a grand jury to hear the case against Palomino next month. The case against Aguilar, which is before a different judge, is also expected to be presented to the grand jury next month.

Gann told Judge Hall that even assuming Palomino is indicted next month, his own trial schedule makes it unlikely the state could bring the case to trial before August 2020.

The bodies of the woman and the girl were discovered weeks after they were reported missing. A Madison County Sheriff’s Office investigator testified at a preliminary hearing in July 2018 that the murders were tied to Oralia Mendoza’s ties to a Sinaloa drug cartel, according to our news partner AL.com.

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The investigator Stacy Rutherford’s testimony, AL.com reported, included a number of claims about the brutal killings:

  • Mendoza had ties with the Sinaloa Cartel, a drug-trafficking organization.
  • Days before the killings, Mendoza went with three others to pick up a shipment of methamphetamine in Georgia.
  • The situation turned deadly when something went wrong with the trip.
  • Investigators believe that Palomino thought it was a setup.
  • Mendoza was told that she and Mariah Lopez would be taken somewhere safe early June 4.
  • Instead, the two men drove the woman and her granddaughter to Moon Cemetery on Cave Springs Road.
  • Aguilar reported that Mendoza and Palomino argued about the drug buy before Palomino stabbed her with a knife.
  • Aguilar also reported he and Palomino took Lopez to a secluded area because she witnessed the event where Palomino forced him to kill the girl.
  • Aguilar told investigators that Palomino moved his arm in a sawing motion, causing him to behead the girl.
  • Aguilar complied because "he said he was fearful of Israel."

Defense attorneys Ron Smith and Nick Heatherly told the judge that because they were still in the discovery process and receiving evidence, it was too soon to estimate when they could be ready for trial.

Judge Hall noted that she is looking to set a trial scheduled in order to ensure the availability of one of the small pool of experts  -- usually called by the defense to argue against the death penalty – who are retained in Alabama capital murder cases.

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