A member of the MS-13 street gang who was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for a day, has confessed to the slayings of his former girlfriend and her 2-year-old son, a federal prosecutor said Monday.
Eastern District federal prosecutor John Durham disclosed Juan Garcia's confession to the 2010 killings of Vanessa Argueta, 19, and son Diego Torres, at Garcia's arraignment in federal District Court in Central Islip.
Garcia, speaking through a Spanish interpreter, pleaded not guilty to a seven-count indictment that included murder, conspiracy, discharge of a firearm during crimes of violence and causing deaths through the use of a firearm. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
The plea, common in the initial phase of a felony case, drew gasps of "oh" or "no" from some among the two dozen relatives and friends of Argueta and her son in the courtroom. Most wore large buttons with a picture of the young mother and her toddler son.
Garcia's mother, an uncle and two other relatives, who had flown up from their native El Salvador for the hearing, had no comments.
U.S. District Judge Joseph Bianco ordered Garcia held without bail as a flight risk and a danger to the community after prosecutor Durham argued during the brief hearing that the FBI agents had obtained a signed confession from Garcia and that the government also had other "overwhelming evidence" against him.
Garcia surrendered on Thursday to FBI agents at a fast-food restaurant in Managua, Nicaragua, where he was working, a day after he was added to the FBI's top-10 list, sources have said.
The bureau had offered a reward of up to $100,000 for information leading to his arrest.
Members of the FBI's Long Island Gang Task Force had convinced members of Garcia's family to have him surrender, sources said. Law enforcement officials had argued that bounty hunters and leaders of MS-13 might harm Garcia's family members to locate him for the reward.
The sources said the family members would share in the reward after the task force's expense in tracking Garcia down and flying him back to Long Island were deducted. The sources did not say how much money the family would get.
Garcia, who had been a fugitive for four years since the killings in Central Islip in February 2010, was living in the Managua area with a girlfriend and their 2-year-old daughter, the sources said. But he often traveled back to his native El Salvador to see his family, the sources said.
After the hearing, Oscar Argueta, Vanessa's father and Diego's grandfather, said, "I have her in my heart . . . We need justice . . . life in prison for him."
Garcia's court-appointed defense attorney, Barry Rhodes of Manhattan, also declined to comment after the hearing, as did Durham and the other prosecutor in the case, Raymond Tierney.
Three other Long Island members of MS-13 have been convicted in federal court in Central Islip in the murders of Argueta and her son.
Heriberto Martinez, 27, of Far Rockaway, a leader of the Brentwood clique of the gang, was sentenced to life in prison in December after being convicted of approving the killing of Argueta and then helping the killers flee. Awaiting sentencing in connection with the killings are Rene Mejia, 20, of Brentwood and Patchogue, and Adalberto Guzman, 21, of Central Islip. They also face life in prison.
The three lured Argueta to a vacant lot in Central Islip, ostensibly because they were taking her out to a restaurant. She took her 2-year-old along because she could not find a baby-sitter.