Suspect arrested in killing of Mexican Mafia member

Authorities have arrested a man on suspicion of killing Donald Ortiz, a Mexican Mafia member who was gunned down last year on a street in Chino, decades after others in the prison-based organization decided he should be killed.

Cesar Palomino, 49, was taken into custody Friday in Las Vegas, where he lives, and is being held in a city jail while San Bernardino County authorities seek to extradite him, according to Chino police.

Ortiz was inducted into the Mexican Mafia in the 1980s, joining a group of about 140 men who control much of the drug trade in California’s prison system and hold sway over nearly all of the Southland’s Latino street gangs. But by 1995, Ortiz had angered other members of the organization, who plotted to kill him during a meeting in a motel room that was secretly recorded by authorities.

For the next quarter-century Ortiz eluded several attempts on his life, refusing appeals from law enforcement to renounce his allegiance to an organization intent on killing him.

His past seemingly caught up to him on a sidewalk in Chino, a city of about 90,000 people on the western edge of San Bernardino County. In the afternoon on Nov. 19, a man wearing a blue suit jacket walked up to Ortiz, exchanged a few words with him and then shot him once in the head. Ortiz was 59.

His killer escaped through an apartment complex, eluding a police dragnet that locked down several city blocks for hours.

In a statement, Chino police did not explain why they believe Palomino killed Ortiz, saying only that he was identified as a suspect after a “lengthy and complex investigation.” Nor did they disclose a motive beyond saying the killing was “gang-related.” Palomino is a member of a Southern California gang, according to Chino police. They didn’t specify which one.

The detective investigating the case declined to comment.

By the time of his death, Ortiz, who was nicknamed “Little Man,” had spent most of his life in prisons, jails and juvenile hall. At 13, he joined a local gang, the Whittier Varrio Locos, and racked up a rap sheet as a minor that included robbing a man of an eight-track tape deck, taking a woman’s purse at knifepoint, and threatening the staff of a reform school, according to probation records.

At 23, while he was being held at the Los Angeles County Jail on a firearms charge, two Mexican Mafia members handed Ortiz a knife stolen from the staff dining room and told him to kill another Mafia member who was suspected of skimming money from drug sales, according to a former member and records reviewed by The Times.

Shortly after the man was stabbed to death in June 1986, Ortiz was “made,” or inducted into the Mexican Mafia, the former member said. But word later circulated that Ortiz, instead of carrying out the killing himself, had asked another inmate, also nicknamed “Little Man,” to do it, the former member said.

That man was charged with the murder, convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 11 years in prison, while Ortiz pleaded guilty to merely being an accessory and got two years, court records show.

By 1995, a group of Mexican Mafia members decided that Ortiz should die for “disrespecting” the organization, according to a recording of the motel room meeting. The dozen Mexican Mafia members who had gathered hatched a plan to have an associate of the gang subpoena Ortiz to court, where he would be stabbed to death in a holding cell.

FBI agents and sheriff’s deputies arrested the architects of the plot before it was carried out. Although most of them were convicted of racketeering, murder and other crimes and sentenced to life in prison, Ortiz’s fortunes remained precarious. Two years later, while back in custody after violating his parole, Ortiz was beaten and stabbed on the exercise yard at the state prison in Chino. Authorities suspected a Mexican Mafia member had ordered the attack.

He nevertheless refused to “debrief,” or defect from the Mexican Mafia and give up its secrets to law enforcement, officials said.

In 2001, Ortiz stole a car that had been left unlocked in an alley in Whittier as part of a police sting operation.

Convicted at trial, a prosecutor urged the judge to send Ortiz to prison for as long as the law allowed. Ortiz, she wrote in a sentencing memo, was the “prime suspect” in three murders that remained unsolved because witnesses would not cooperate: a man whose body was found in Turnbull Canyon in 1982, whose grandmother insisted that Ortiz was the killer; Ronnie “Goofy” Villasenor, who had previously fathered a child with Ortiz’s girlfriend, shot dead by a hooded gunman in 1993; and Manuel Osuna, a Mexican Mafia associate, gunned down in Whittier in 1994.

Ortiz’s lawyer called the prosecutor’s memo “character assassination.”

Ortiz was sentenced to 13 years in prison, plus another six for possessing weapons in jail. Released in 2019, he soon ran afoul of the law again, getting arrested in Chino that year with two sons of his girlfriend for robbing a man of a handgun. Convicted of grand theft, Ortiz was sentenced to a year and four months in jail.

Freed a final time in January 2021, Ortiz listed his address as a second-story apartment in the 5100 block of Philadelphia Street when he was yet again arrested for being drunk in public.

It was on this block that Ortiz was killed last November.

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