A key member of the MS-13 street gang pleaded guilty Tuesday to murder in connection with the killing of a worker during the 2009 robbery of a Brentwood grocery store.
Francisco Ponce, 31, of Brentwood, admitted that he drove the getaway car in the September 2009 robbery of Los Hermanos Grocery, during which two of Ponce's fellow gang members shot and killed a worker in the store, Miguel Peralta. Peralta, 57, of Brentwood, was shot when he came out of the store's backroom.
Ponce was also the MS-13's chief metropolitan area liaison, arranging meetings between the leaders of the gang's 20 area chapters that are mostly on Long Island and in Queens, according to Eastern District federal prosecutors John Durham and Raymond Tierney. He was not charged in connection with that activity, which was based on information from testimony at previous trials of MS-13 members.
The monthly gang leaders' meetings that they called "universals" were ordered by the MS-13's overall leadership in El Salvador as it sought tighter control over the activities of its U.S. gangs, and to ensure the flow of money from them to the Central American bosses.
The coordinated effort was known as "the Program," of which Ponce was the New York leader, officials said.
"Ponce was in charge of the MS-13 'brand' in New York, and sought to strengthen it with acts of mayhem," Eastern District United States Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement. "Seeking funds to fuel their violent lifestyle in New York and abroad, he and his cohorts robbed and terrorized Long Island neighborhoods. Miguel Peralta fell victim to their thirst for blood and money when he unknowingly walked in on a robbery at the store at which he worked."
During his plea, Ponce also admitted that he was the getaway driver in the February 2009 robbery of the Pollo Campero restaurant in Lindenhurst in which $15,000 was stolen from a safe, officials said. Ponce read his plea from a statement in Spanish, which was translated into English by a court interpreter.
One of the two alleged shooters in the grocery store killing, Joyser Velasquez, is awaiting trial. The second, Carlos Chicas, is being sought by the FBI.
Velasquez also took part in the restaurant robbery, officials said. He and a second alleged accomplice, Freddy Fuentes-Gonzalez, are awaiting trial in that case. Another alleged accomplice in the restaurant robbery, Wilmer Granillo is being sought by the FBI.
Ponce's attorney, Robert La Russo of Mineola, declined to comment afterward, as did prosecutor Durham.
Ponce faces 292 to 365 months in prison when he is scheduled to be sentenced in the spring by U.S. District Judge Joseph Bianco.