Salem man gets 25 years for killing 3 teens in DUI crash on Salem Parkway

Whitney Woodworth
Salem Statesman Journal

A Salem man was sentenced Thursday to 25 years in prison for driving drunk, speeding through a red light and killing three teens in a crash.

Juan Rodriguez-Palacios, 26, could've faced a sentence as short as 10 years or as long as 30.

He is ineligible for early release or alternative programs for the entirety of his sentence. 

Family members of the teens he killed in a June 2 crash on Salem Parkway tearfully addressed the courtroom Thursday. 

Photos and videos of Trinity Watt, 19, of Salem, Madison Capobianco, 19, of Salem, and Makayla Tryon, 18, of Keizer, smiling at the beach, graduating, cuddling with pets and their arms around their families lined the courtroom. 

Tammy Watt, victim Trinity Watt's mother, cries while detailing the day she found out her daughter had died, during the sentencing of Juan Rodriguez-Palacios at the Marion County Circuit Courthouse in Salem on May 14, 2020.

Tammy Watt recounted the last words her daughter said to her: "I just love you, Mom."

The next day, when police came to her workplace, Tammy Watt said she knew immediately from the looks of their faces that something terrible had happened to her daughter. 

The ensuing year was filled with mourning for the families of the three teens.

"I have no life today," Tammy Watt said ."I walk around like a zombie. I died with my daughter that day."

Last week, Rodriguez-Palacios was convicted of three counts of first-degree manslaughter, DUI and two counts of third-degree assault following a three-day bench trial before Marion County Judge Thomas Hart. 

Hart found Rodriguez-Palacios guilty on all charges, despite the defense's arguments that Rodriguez-Palacios had committed the less-severe crimes of second-degree manslaughter. 

Previous coverage:Salem man found guilty in fatal DUI that killed 3 teens

Prosecutors argued that Rodriguez-Palacios acted recklessly and with extreme indifference when he drove drunk, sped and ran a red light.

Watt was driving her friends Capobianco and Tryon for a quick snack run the night of June 2. 

She stopped at the light while traveling southbound on Cherry Avenue at Salem Parkway. She then waited for the light to turn green before proceeding into the intersection with the right-of-way.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez-Palacios was driving from Tequila Nights in Keizer down Salem Parkway at about 85 mph. He had a series of drinks over the night, first at work, then at home and then at the bar, and had done cocaine and marijuana.

Prosecutors:Salem man who killed 3 teens sped, did cocaine, ran red lights

His blood alcohol content was later tested to be 0.239% blood-alcohol content —almost three times the legal limit of 0.08.

As he approached the red light at the intersection of Salem Parkway and Cherry Avenue, he continued speeding, only braking a fraction of a second before the crash.

The impact crushed the side of Watt's Toyota Camry. All three teens died at the scene. 

Two of Rodriguez-Palacios' passengers were also injured. 

Juan Rodriguez-Palacios, 26, listens as members of the crash victims' families testify during his sentencing at the Marion County Courthouse in Salem on Thursday, May 14, 2020.

Rodriguez-Palacios' defense attorney Denny Maison asked that his client be sentenced to the mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. 

Maison said Rodriguez-Palacios has been filled with remorse since the crash and has accepted responsibility. During the trial, Maison argued that Rodriguez-Palacios was guilty of second-degree manslaughter instead of first-degree manslaughter. First-degree manslaughter requires evidence of extreme indifference. 

"We went to trial because he couldn't stand up in court in front of the families and say, 'I don't care about their lives'," Maison said. 

He said that Rodriguez-Palacios had been born and raised in Salem and had a 6-year-old son. 

In 2015, Rodriguez-Palacios was arrested on DUI, hit-and-run, reckless driving and reckless endangerment charges after he struck a trailer being towed on Lancaster Drive.

According to court records, during the 2015 crash, Rodriguez-Palacios ran a stop sign and hit a trailer. He fled the scene. 

A test administered at the hospital revealed he had a blood-alcohol content of 0.17%. 

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Because Oregon's diversion program allows certain offenders to enter into treatment, abstain from alcohol and attend a victim impact panel in exchange for a lesser punishment, Rodriguez-Palacios' DUI charge was diverted and later dismissed. 

Juan Rodriguez-Palacios, 26, is taken out of the courtroom after receiving a 300-month sentence at the Marion County Circuit Courthouse in Salem on May 14, 2020.

Maison said Rodriguez-Palacios has struggled with alcohol abuse and is planning on remaining sober and would not be dangerous to the community. 

"He didn't get the message from the diversion," Maison said. "He's got the message now."

Before Rodriguez-Palacios was given the opportunity to speak, the Watt family walked out of the courtroom. 

"I don't want to hear him speak," Tammy Watt said.

"He killed my kid," another said. 

Rodriguez-Palacios tearfully addressed the courtroom, saying he would never forgive himself for the three deaths. 

"I do care about the lives I took that night," he said. "I always will."

He said he had taken time to learn about Watt, Tryon and Capobianco in the past year. 

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According to their obituaries, Capobianco both worked and attended college full-time with the hopes of becoming a police officer. Watt, a vet tech at Salem Friends of Felines, loved the outdoors, animals, kids and art. Tryon worked at a bakery-cafe and loved animals, bargain-hunting at thrift stores and reading. 

All three were former Salem-Keizer Public Schools students. Their celebration of life service was held June 17.

A memorial for the women is still in place at the site of the crash. 

Salem crash victims from left, Makayla Tryon, 18, of Keizer, Madison Capobianco, 19, and Trinity Watt, 19, both of Salem were killed June 2, 2019, when a suspected drunk driver ran a red light at Cherry Avenue at the Salem Parkway and crashed into their car, according to Salem Police.

Rodriguez-Palacios said he would accept whatever punishment Hart deemed was just. 

Prosecutor Nicole Theobald argued for consecutive sentences for each of the lives lost the night of June 2 for a total of 30 years in prison. 

She pointed to Rodriguez-Palacios' "incredibly reckless behavior," the devasting loss to the families and the danger he presented to the community.

"He's already shown what he does when the community gives him the opportunity to reform his behavior," Theobald said. 

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What normally would have been a packed courtroom was thinned out by restrictions put in place in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Family members sat in groups spaced six feet apart. More relatives sat in an overflow courtroom or listened on the phone. 

Tryon's family described an introspective, kind teen who was growing into a creative, thoughtful young woman. 

"Makayla, Madison and Trinity deserve all the justice we could possibly give them," said Tryon's mother Jenny. 

Capobianco was described as a vital part of her family. She struggled growing up but was dedicated to making her family proud. She worked fulltime and had just made the Dean's List in college before her death. 

"I will never be whole again nor will my family or the other families," said her mother Sheri Capobianco. 

Tammy Watt said her daughter was responsible beyond her years and volunteered constantly to help animals, children and those in need. 

Madison Capobianco, Trinity Watt and Makayla Tryon were making a snack run on June 2 when their car was struck by a Jeep running a red light near the intersection of Salem Parkway and Cherry Avenue, pictured on May 1, 2020.

"She had so many hopes and dreams and that was taken away from her,"' she said. 

Hart said the crash was every "parent's worst nightmare."

"Our community is diminished because of what occurred on June 2," Hart said. 

He sentenced Rodriguez-Palacios to a total sentence of 25 years in prison.

For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at, call 503-910-6616 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth