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Man who killed co-worker, then spent more than 15 years as a fugitive, convicted of murder

A man who shot a co-worker to death during an argument over $60 and fled the country, and then spent more than 15 years as one of Orange County’s most wanted fugitives, was convicted Wednesday of murder.

An Orange County Superior Court jury deliberated for less than a day before finding Juan Palacios, now 63, guilty of second-degree murder with a sentencing enhancement for the personal discharge of a firearm in connection with the 2004 slaying of 32-year-old Mario Cano Santamaria at a Tustin apartment complex.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Jeff Moore told jurors during closing arguments earlier this week in a Santa Ana courtroom that Palacios previously had threatened to kill Santamaria over money he felt was owed to him.

“He basically went to Mario’s home, hunted him down and murdered him,” the prosecutor said.

Palacios’ attorney, Tania Rebecca Vallejo, described Santamaria as the aggressor in the fatal confrontation, alleging he hit Palacios with a gun and then the two men struggled before the weapon went off, striking Santamaria.

“Mr. Palacios was afraid,” Vallejo said. “Mr. Palacios defended himself that night.”

Both men worked as security guards at Salon Guadalajara in Santa Ana. According to court filings, the fatal confrontation began the night before with an argument at the business.

The owner of the business gave Palacios $60, prosecutors wrote in a trial brief, but Palacios felt he was being short-changed for the work he had done. Santamaria got involved in the argument by asking Palacios to give him the $60 in order to pay back a loan, prosecutors wrote in the brief.

Palacios crumpled up the money and threw it, and Santamaria picked it up and kept it, according to the prosecution brief. The argument at the business ended and both man left.

Santamaria went home to the Tustin apartment he shared with his wife and three children. Prosecutors said he told his wife he had gotten into a fight with a co-worker over money.

Another man gave Palacios a ride to Santamaria’s apartment so that he could get his money back, according to the prosecution brief. Palacios knocked loudly on the door to the apartment, according to prosecutors, then grabbed Santamaria and pulled him out of the apartment when he answered the door.

Minutes later, a gunshot rang out. According to prosecutors, Santamaria’s wife discovered him bleeding in the courtyard of an adjacent apartment complex. Meanwhile, Palacios told the driver who had given him a ride to the apartment, “If you say anything I’ll kill you,” prosecutors alleged.

Palacios persuaded his brother to give him a ride to the Mexican border, telling him that he was having problems with his wife, prosecutors alleged.

Years later, the FBI located Palacios in El Salvador, his native country. He was arrested in 2016 and extradited to the United States to face a murder charge in 2018.

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