Sources: Suffolk detectives' removal hindering gang task force

Police officers from the Suffolk County Police Department's

Police officers from the Suffolk County Police Department's anti-gang unit, patrol a housing complex in Huntington Station. Suffolk police withdrew from a federal gang task force, preferring to address gang violence internally on a precinct level, official said. (Oct. 10, 2012) (Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas)

The removal last August of three Suffolk detectives who helped solve some of the county's most notorious gang homicides from a federal task force, law-enforcement sources said, has hurt the unit's ability to combat the violence.

"The biggest thing is that this just slows things down," a source said of the reassignment. "It makes it more difficult and it leaves murderers on the street longer."

During the more than two years that the officers were on the Long Island Gang Task Force, said six sources familiar with the unit's operations, the detectives:

Developed gang informants in just one month through which they were able to learn the identities of key MS-13 members.

Gathered information that led to arrests in crimes that local authorities had considered to be unsolvable.

Helped arrest 38 suspected gang members, including many tied to crimes in Brentwood and Huntington Station.

The detectives "took the nucleus of the hard-core guys" off the streets in those areas, one of the sources said.

The detectives' removal has crippled several federal homicide investigations, sources said, and there have been no arrests in suspected MS-13-related homicides since their departure.

The law-enforcement sources agreed to discuss the task force as long as their names were not used because they had not been authorized to speak.

Since its creation in 2003, the task force has prosecuted more than 200 MS-13 members who were later convicted. Next month, the trials of two MS-13 members whom the detectives helped link to multiple slayings -- Heriberto Martinez and Carlos Ortega -- are slated to begin.

MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, is an extremely violent transnational street gang that federal officials have identified as a national security threat. On Long Island, the group, whose members come from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States, has been blamed for a rash of violent crime that included shootings, machete slayings and robberies. The violence reached a peak in 2009 and 2010, when the Suffolk Police Department joined the task force.

The federal Long Island Gang Task Force was originally formed as a partnership among the FBI, Nassau County police, the Nassau County Sheriff's Department, New York State Police and the Hempstead Village Police Department.

The State Police left in 2011 because it had fewer troopers and needed officers for other duties, spokesman Frank Bandiero said.

Federally run task forces have the advantage of prosecutions under unique federal criminal and penal codes that include racketeering, drug conspiracy and firearms violations.

"Some of the murders that occurred were ordered from people in El Salvador," said a law-enforcement source. Federal agents can track people in Central America, but Suffolk does not have that capability. "Locally, it's impossible," the source said.

Suffolk said it left the federal task force because fighting gangs on the precinct level would be more effective -- the same reason County Executive Steve Bellone gave in January 2012 when he announced that he was disbanding the police department's own centralized gang unit and returning those officers to the precincts.

Suffolk County Legis. Rick Montano, who represents some of the areas most affected by the gang violence and helped forge Suffolk's alliance with the task force, does not support the decision to remove the officers.

"It doesn't make sense to me and I don't know why they did it," Montano (D-Brentwood) said. "What's going to happen? Nothing. These guys are going to stay where they are assigned until they retire."

 

Transferred to precincts

The three Suffolk detectives -- John Oliva, William Maldonado and Robert Trotta -- were ordered off the task force Aug. 31 and transferred to the Fifth Precinct in Patchogue, the Sixth Precinct in Coram and the First Precinct in West Babylon, respectively. In total, six of 15 Suffolk detectives left federal task forces in 2012.

Former Suffolk Chief of Detectives Dominick Varrone backed Suffolk's participation in the gang task force and the selection of the three detectives. He disagreed with the decision to remove them.

"I won't speculate as to why they were removed from the task force but I can't believe that this was for financial reasons," said Varrone, who retired in December 2011 after a 39-year career. "I do know that because of attrition, there is an extreme shortage of detectives in investigating commands, but the returns for this manpower investment have been astounding."

Between April 2010 and August 2012, Maldonado and Oliva helped arrest 27 gang members who sources said are linked to 12 homicides, more than 20 assaults and more than a dozen robberies.

Then, on Sept. 21, the U.S. attorney's office announced the indictments of another 11 gang members -- all from MS-13. Maldonado and Oliva had helped build the cases against those members, some of whom were accused in the 2010 killings of two MS-13 members believed to be confidential police informants. The arrests were considered a significant blow to MS-13.

Maldonado and Oliva were notified of their redeployment while working on an MS-13 slaying case, another law enforcement source said.

"They were transferred in the middle of a murder confession in Yaphank at headquarters," the source said.

Having local law-enforcement officers partner with the federal task force is crucial to solving MS-13 cases, sources said, because the local detectives are the first responders, they get a first crack at witnesses and they know their communities the best. Nassau detectives continue to work on the task force and one of their cases resulted this month in an MS-13 member admitting that he fatally shot a security guard.

"In general, the task force model works," one source said. "Having Suffolk police on the task force helps them get information and quicker."

Suffolk police said the officers were taken off the task force because the war against gangs will be fought and won on the precinct level.

"That is why the reassignment of these three officers back to the precincts will bring their gang-fighting experience and knowledge back to the front lines," police said in a statement. "Reassigning three officers back to precincts does not in any way diminish Suffolk County Police Department's commitment to working with other agencies to provide the resources necessary to fight gang violence."

 

New duties not gang-related

But the precincts Oliva and Maldonado were transferred to are not considered to have high MS-13 gang problem areas, sources said, and their duties are not related to combating gangs.

Spokesmen for the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York and the FBI declined to comment on Suffolk's departure from the task force.

The Suffolk County district attorney's office, which prosecutes cases that police bring, declined to comment. Interview requests were declined for District Attorney Thomas Spota, police Commissioner Edward Webber and police Chief James Burke, the DA's former chief investigator and commander of the police organized-crime bureau that operated from the DA's office.

The Long Island Press first reported the transfer in 2012.

Relatives of crime victims have criticized the detectives' removal.

Idelsa Espinal, 30, of Brentwood, lost her uncle Miguel Peralta, 57, when he was shot and killed Sept. 12, 2009, during a gunpoint robbery of Los Hermanos Grocery in Brentwood, police said.

Sources said the work of Maldonado and Oliva helped lead to the arrest of Joyser Velasquez, 28; Francisco Ponce, 30; and an unnamed co-defendant accused in Peralta's death.

Espinal said the family felt a connection with the detectives, especially with Oliva because he spoke fluent Spanish and could update family elders who didn't quite have a grasp on English.

"If they did their job so well, why would they pull them out?" Espinal said. "That doesn't make sense."

Erica Boynton, 39, the mother of Christopher Hamilton, who was fatally shot in November 2009 outside a house party in Brentwood, said she heard about the Suffolk detectives' departure from the task force in early September.

"I was shocked that they would do something like this," she said. "They should be put right back to where they were. This coming from a parent who lost a child."

 

Other officers reassigned

The three detectives removed from the task force were not the only Suffolk officers to leave federal units last year.

In November, Suffolk pulled two detectives from working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A detective who had been working with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was transferred back to Suffolk.

Before Aug. 31, a total of 15 Suffolk detectives had been assigned full time to federal task forces, Suffolk police spokesman Kevin Fallon said.

These other three detectives who left were reassigned to the narcotics section within the detective division, Fallon said.

Louis Martinez, a spokesman for ICE, said Suffolk police can remove personnel at their own discretion.

Eric Immesberger, resident agent in charge of the ATF's Long Island Field Office, said Burke told him the detectives were being pulled back because the department is short-staffed.

Suffolk joined the gang task force after Michael Ferrandino, the FBI special agent in charge of the Melville office, asked the county to participate after a rash of violent MS-13 slayings, Varrone said.

Det. Sgt Robert Doyle, who was then the commanding officer of the major crimes unit, recommended Oliva and Maldonado for the task force, Varrone said.

"Det. John Oliva was especially sought out because he was bilingual and very experienced in debriefing MS-13 gang members," Varrone said.

In about a month's time after being placed on the federal task force, he and Maldonado were "knocking the cases out of the park," said a source.

Trotta, assigned to the task force in late 2009, had minimal involvement with the MS-13 cases because his expertise was in contraband, the source said.

Varrone said Oliva and Maldonado were highly regarded by their peers and by FBI investigators and federal prosecutors.

"The outstanding results speak for themselves," Varrone said. "Numerous MS-13 gang members have been arrested and charged with dozens of homicides, felony assaults, and robberies."

 

 

LI GANG INVESTIGATIONS

 

Some incidents that law-enforcement sources say detectives William Maldonado and John Oliva took on as members of the task force and helped solve:

JULY 24, 2008 Murder conspiracy plot and assault with a dangerous weapon in Timberline Park in Brentwood. Jose Alvarenga, 22; Hector Torres, 21; Jonathan Ayala, 19; Edwin Molina, 24; Francisco Ponce, 30; and Joyser Velasquez, 28, are charged.

SEPT. 12, 2009 Miguel Peralta, 57, is fatally shot at Los Hermanos Grocery in Brentwood. Velasquez, Ponce and unnamed co-defendant charged.

OCT. 4 Slaying of Luis Castro in Huntington; Alvarenga, Torres, Ayala, Molina, Ponce and Velasquez charged.

NOV. 20 Fatal shooting of Christopher Hamilton in Brentwood; Alvarenga, Torres, Ayala, Molina, Ponce and Velasquez charged.

AUG. 31, 2010 Slaying of Rigoberto Gomez in Brentwood; Alvarenga, Torres, Ayala, Molina, Ponce and Velasquez charged.

SEPT. 9 Slaying of Bayron Vasquez-Nunez in Brentwood; Alvarenga, Torres, Ayala, Molina, Ponce and Velasquez charged.

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