Tustin police waited as the plane touched down at LAX.
After 15 years, they would finally handcuff Tustin’s first Most Wanted murder suspect, the now 59-year-old Juan Palacios.
It took nearly four years for the department’s request for extradition from El Salvador to be approved, and in May, the FBI and Interpol delivered Palacios to Tustin police officers waiting at the airport.
Palacios is now at Orange County Jail facing murder charges and a potential sentence of 25 years to life in prison. He pled not guilty on June 1.
Police believe Palacios fled to El Salvador in 2003 following the fatal shooting of his coworker, 32-year-old Mario Cano Santamaria.
The El Salvador native is accused of shooting Santamaria once through the heart following a dispute over $60 on Jan. 5, 2003. The two argued over money at work that day, with Palacios wadding up the cash and throwing the bills at Santamaria, Tustin Det. Eric Haug said.
Palacios, who lived in Santa Ana, later had a friend drive him to an apartment on Alliance Avenue in Tustin, where Santamaria lived with his wife and young children, who were home that night. The men argued in the courtyard, Haug said, and that’s when Palacios is accused of shooting Santamaria.
Palacios lived in Santa Ana at the time. Shortly after Santamaria’s death, officials learned Palacios had fled to his home country, El Salvador. Years later, a source told Tustin police that Palacios was working as a taxi driver in El Salvador and wearing wigs in public to hide his identity.
Tustin police enlisted help from the FBI, Interpol, the Department of Justice, the Department of State, and El Salvadorian police. Palacios was arrested in December 2016 and was granted extradition from El Salvador in March 2018.
There is a lot of work between different departments and various agencies in order to get a wanted suspect extradited back to the United States. “We have good partnerships, luckily, to make these things happen,” Haug said. “Everybody had a vested interest in this and it worked out.”
FBI and Interpol officials delivered Palacios to Tustin police officers at LAX on May 17, 2018, bringing closure to a case that began more than a decade earlier.
“The detectives that came before me are the ones that did all the heavy lifting,” Haug said. Former Tustin detective and now Supervising Investigator Paul Carvo of the Orange County District Attorney’s office was the lead on the original case. Carvo sat in on the interview when Palacios arrived at the Tustin Police Department.
Police also were able to call Santamaria’s family, including his son, Giovanni, who was 10 when his father was shot, and tell them Palacios was in custody.
“I’m just glad,” Haug said. “It was definitely a win for the Tustin Police Department. It is very satisfying to bring someone to justice and hopefully provide some comfort and closure for the family.”