Key witness says she heard gang discuss killing mom, toddler

Leaders of the MS-13 gang Heriberto Martinez, left,

Leaders of the MS-13 gang Heriberto Martinez, left, and Carlos Ortega, right, are scheduled to go on trial in federal court in Central Islip. (Credit: Handout)

A former associate of the MS-13 street gang who said she was in the federal witness-protection program because the group has a contract on her life testified Tuesday she was present as gang members discussed the killings of a 19-year-old Hempstead mother and her 2-year-old son.

Carla Santos, who said she had been an associate of the gang for the 10 years since she was 12 and growing up in Brentwood, testified she became fed up with the gang and decided to become an FBI informant after the February 2010 slaying of the mother, Vanessa Argueta, and her toddler son Diego Torres.

Crying on the stand and occasionally rocking her head back and forth, Santos testified in federal court in Central Islip before U.S. District Judge Joseph Bianco: "There were plenty of bad things happening. . . . I had to make a choice. . . . I chose to move on."

Santos, guarded by a federal marshal standing behind her and several others in court, was a key government witness in the case against accused MS-13 leaders Heriberto Martinez, 25, of Far Rockaway, and Carlos Ortega, 23, of Brentwood, in connection with the two killings and three others.

Martinez is accused of approving the killing of Argueta and of being an accessory after the fact in the killing of her son. They face up to life in prison if convicted.

Bianco has ruled it would be too prejudicial to the defendants for the anonymous jurors to be told of the age of Torres and his relationship to Argueta.

Martinez also is accused of taking part in the March 6, 2010, death of Nestor Moreno, 22, a guard at a Hempstead bar, a few weeks after he had unsuccessfully attempted to stop Martinez and other MS-13 members from leaving without paying their bill.

Ortega is charged with the Feb. 17, 2010, slaying of David Sandler, 20, in Brentwood because MS-13 members thought he belonged to the rival Latin Kings gang.

Both Martinez and Ortega are charged in the March 17, 2010, killing of Mario Alberto Quijada, 25, of Far Rockaway, who was slashed and knifed to death on a Far Rockaway beach because he did not have enough "heart" to take part in the killings of rival gang members, court papers say.

Santos said she was so trusted by the three MS-13 members who have been accused in the actual shootings of the mother and son that she was with them when she overheard their telephone conversation with Martinez.

One of them, Argueta's off-and-on boyfriend, Juan Garcia, said Argueta "found out that he had another girlfriend, and they started arguing about that, and Vanessa tried to get him beat up," Santos testified under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham.

Argueta had asked members of a rival gang to hurt Garcia, she continued, but he evaded them.

Martinez approved the killing of Argueta because she should not be allowed to show disrespect to MS-13 members, Santos testified.

"He just told them to fix it. . . . Do what they had to do," she testified.

Prosecutors have said that when the boyfriend and two other MS-13 members went to Argueta's home, ostensibly to take her to a restaurant, she could not get a babysitter for her son.

After his mother was killed in a wooded area of Central Islip, court papers say, the toddler also was shot dead because he "began crying" and hugged the leg of one of the killers.

Santos said she later helped the three shooters escape by driving them to a van in the Bronx, which took them to the Texas border. From there, they made it to their native El Salvador, she said.

The other two killers singled out by the government are Adalberto Guzman and Rene Mejia.

Mejia pleaded guilty in the case, and Guzman is awaiting trial. Argueta's boyfriend, Garcia, remains at large.

Martinez later told Santos that Argueta had to die because "She put herself in that position," Santos testified.

Prosecutor Durham asked Santos whether Martinez also "said Diego's murder was justified."

"Yes, he did," Santos replied.

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