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'If you eat a butterfly, you become a butterfly': Hearing reveals details of Mexican Mafia killing

Matthew Ormseth, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

The prosecutor asked the woman if she recognized Ortiz's killer in the courtroom. The defendant, Cesar Palomino, sat about 20 feet from her, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and draped in shackles.

"I don't believe so," she said.

William Drake, a deputy public defender, seized on her failure to identify his client in arguing for the judge to dismiss the murder charge. But detectives would describe other evidence — DNA, cellphone records, internet searches, surveillance video and jail calls — that indicated the man at the defense table was Ortiz's killer.

A detective for the Chino Police Department had reviewed the internet search history for Palomino's accounts. Before Ortiz was killed, someone using the accounts had looked up "Donald Ortiz," "Mexican Mafia Little Man" and "Eme dropouts," the detective testified. The day after his death was a search for "Chino local news."

Like the man he is accused of murdering, Palomino, 50, spent much of his life behind bars. He served brief terms for low-level drug and weapons offenses and longer stretches in federal prison for entering the country illegally.

Records filed in these immigration cases describe a life spent with one foot on either side of the U.S.-Mexican border.


The oldest of three children, Palomino was born in Acapulco, according to a report filed in a deportation case whose author, a Stanford psychology professor, interviewed Palomino in a Las Vegas jail in 2004.

At 9, Palomino's mother took him and his siblings to join their father, who had found work in California installing cable television lines. The family settled in Long Beach. Not wanting to appear "dumb" to his American cousins, Palomino learned English quickly, the professor wrote. He attended public schools in Long Beach, Lakewood and Bellflower until the 11th grade, when, for reasons left unexplained in the report, he was expelled.

Palomino described himself as a "history fanatic" and avid reader who liked novels by John Grisham and Sidney Sheldon.

"I'm Mexican born, but inside I'm American," he said, according to the report. "I don't know anything else. This is just how I feel. I'm American, I guess, in every way, except they tell me in nationality."


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