MADISON COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) — A 38-year-old man charged with capital murder in an alleged drug cartel double killing has pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of murder, according to court records.
On Wednesday, October 26, Israel Palomino entered his plea in the Madison County Courthouse. He was facing two counts of capital murder until the defense offered a plea deal, allowing Palomino to plead guilty to the lesser charge of murder.
Palomino was set to go to trial on December 5 in the deaths of 49-year-old Oralia Mendoza and her 13-year-old granddaughter Mariah Lopez in June 2018. He was charged in the killings alongside Yoni Aguilar.
Court documents show both men were indicted in 2019.
A farmer discovered the body of Mariah Lopez on Lemley Drive in Owens Cross Roads on June 7, 2018. Madison County Sheriff’s Office officials at the time called it a “heinous homicide.”
Palomino, 34 at the time, and Aguilar, 26 at the time, were arrested just over a week later in connection to the teen’s death.
The sheriff’s office later discovered human remains two miles from Lemley Drive near Moon Cemetery. Those remains were later identified as Mendoza.
Madison County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Stacy Rutherford testified at a preliminary hearing in July 2018 that the murders were related to Mendoza’s ties to the Sinaloa drug cartel and that Lopez was beheaded with a knife after witnessing Mendoza being stabbed, according to our news partner AL.com.
According to more testimony, Palomino became suspicious after a drug run to Georgia on June 2, 2018, when he, Aguilar, Mendoza and another woman picked up a batch of methamphetamine.
Investigators testified that Mendoza was told she and her granddaughter would be taken somewhere safe. They were instead driven to Moon Cemetery on Cave Springs Road.
Aguilar, in a statement to investigators, said Palomino and Mendoza get out of the car, arguing about the drug run to Georgia. When the argument got heated, Aguilar reported that Palomino killed Mendoza.
Realizing 13-year-old Lopez had witnessed the incident, Aguilar said Palomino forced him to kill her, telling investigators that as he held the knife, Palomino grabbed his arm, moving it back and forth in a sawing motion, according to testimony.
Prosecutors had announced plans to seek the death penalty against Palomino, but the plea agreement to the lesser charge of murder took that off the table. Murder charges in Alabama can carry a sentence between 20 years and life in prison.
Aguilar faces two counts of capital murder. His jury trial is set for May 1, 2023. If convicted, prosecutors could seek the death penalty.
Palomino was immediately sentenced to life in prison on both counts, meaning he will serve two life sentences in the Alabama Department of Corrections, running concurrently.