There’s a reason residents of Brentwood and neighboring Central Islip have been saying — repeatedly, and for far too many years — that they’ve been living with the threat of gang violence. And that reason was on full and sobering display at the federal courthouse — in Central Islip, no less — Thursday.
Thirteen men were charged in a 41-count indictment that chronicles allegations including racketeering; seven murders; attempted murder; assaults; obstruction of justice; arson; and conspiracy to distribute marijuana.
Seven of those charged live in Brentwood, and four in Central Islip. All allegedly are members of the MS-13 gang.
Three juveniles also are in custody. But because their cases are sealed, prosecutors did not say where they live. A prosecutor also declined to say whether any of the 16 total suspects attended local schools.
But at least three of the seven murder victims mentioned in the indictment did.
On Sept. 13, 2016, Kayla Cuevas, 16, and Nisa Mickens, 15, both Brentwood High School students, were walking down Stahley Street.
Two friends, out walking. How could they have known that, sometime earlier, a group of MS-13 members also had decided to go out — “to hunt for rival gang members to kill,” according to prosecutors. The gang split into two cars and began driving “around Brentwood, looking for targets.”
At one point, Selvin Chavez and Enrique Portillo, both 19 and from Brentwood, and two juvenile gang members riding with them spotted the girls, prosecutors said. The group took time enough to put a call in to two suspected gang leaders, Alexi Saenz, 22, and his brother Jairo, 19, of Central Islip — and received permission to kill both girls, prosecutors said.
Kayla was targeted because of disputes she had with gang members and associates, most recently at the high school. Nisa, prosecutors said, was marked for death to keep her from becoming a witness.
“She was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” a prosecutor said.
It was an observation that raised the chilling question of whether any Brentwood resident, who happened to be looking out a window or opening a door to walk a dog during the baseball-bat-and-machete attack on the girls, could have ended up targets for the same reason.
Many murders, attempted murders and attempted assaults do not happen in isolation. Such violence pulls at the soul of a community — especially one where gang members are bold enough to “hunt.”
It took six months — an impressively short time — for the Long Island task force, which includes federal, state and village law enforcement agencies, to pull in suspects in the deaths of the two high school girls.
But as the indictment makes clear, MS-13 has become well established, with roots strong enough to breach schools, deep enough to scar childhoods and wide enough to impact every community resident.
The gang, as prosecutors pointed out, had power enough to decide who lived and who died — including another Brentwood high school student, Jose Pena-Hernandez, 18, whose skeleton was discovered in a wooded area on the grounds of Pilgrim Psychiatric Center. That was months after fellow MS-13 members — after consulting with gang leadership in El Salvador — took turns stabbing and slashing him to death for violating gang rules. He was reported missing in June 2016.
On Thursday, before arraignment, suspects Chavez, Portillo and the brothers Saenz walked single-file, with hands chained, across the courtroom to be seated in the jury box.
They were provided ear buds from which to hear the proceedings translated from English into Spanish. Prosecutors said they intended to try and seek the death penalty in the case.
Kayla’s mother, Evelyn Rodriguez, sat next to Suffolk Police Commisisoner Timothy Sini in the last bench on one side of the courtroom; some of the suspects’ relatives, one of whom carried a small child, sat in the last bench on the other.
At one point, the defendants — all of whom entered pleas of not guilty — turned to each other, quietly talking, and laughing. From time to time, they looked out across the courtroom.
But never, it appeared, in the direction where they could see Kayla’s mom.