Shock and sorrow rippled through Central Islip Thursday as residents and merchants learned that the bodies of four men had been discovered at town park.
Anger was not far behind.
“This is not who we are,” said community activist Nelsena Day, a retired social worker who has lived in Central Islip for decades. “Ninety-five percent of the people who live in Central Islip are good people. Five percent give us a bad name.”
Like neighboring Brentwood, Central Islip has become ground zero in Suffolk County’s battle against MS-13 and other street gangs. Police commissioner Timothy Sini said Thursday that investigators believe the quadruple homicide is gang-related.
Activists say Central Islip, a working-class, heavily Latino community, is paralyzed by fear — of gangs, of police, of immigration officials, of deportation. Few people would agree to talk about the region’s gang issues Thursday and most of those who did agree to talk requested anonymity.
“In Central Islip, everybody is afraid to get involved,” said Raoul Martinez, the owner of Antojito’s Tipicos Restaurant on Wheeler Road. “There are people who take advantage of that to commit crimes.”
Suffolk police and the FBI have done a good job pressuring MS-13 since two Brentwood girls were allegedly killed by members of the gang in September, Day said. Residents need to do their part by working with police and letting MS-13 and other gangs know they are not welcome in Central Islip, she said.
“We can’t go hide behind our locked doors at night anymore,” Day said. “People are afraid of gangs and the sad part is that fear prevents the community from recovering from something like this.”
Sini and other county officials have repeatedly said Suffolk police will not ask crime victims or witnesses about their immigration status. Rev. Christopher Nowak, the pastor of St. John of God Catholic Church, said police officers have spoken at Masses to reiterate that point.
But many residents, especially those who are undocumented, remain fearful of the police. “They are nervous,” Nowak said. “The fear they will be deported.”
President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric during and after the 2016 election campaign made matters worse, Day said. “People are so afraid of deportation they will stand back and not say anything. That is not right.”
Day hopes to organize a Central Islip peace and unity rally in the near future that will embolden residents.
“The good lord tells us he is with us and he will never forsake us” she said. “But we have to do the work.”
Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), who emailed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office Thursday after he heard of the killings to ask for more help with resources to fight violence, said gang warfare is out of control in the community.
“Our children are dying,” Cilmi wrote in his email. “A community is scared and hurting. The men and women of the Suffolk County Police Department are doing their best, but we need more help.”
A representative for Cuomo was not immediately available for comment Thursday night.
Legis. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) said despite the MS-13 arrests last month in connection with the girls’ killings, the fight to get rid of gangs continues.
“Yes, there were arrests but we knew this wasn’t the end. We knew we’d have to continue to bring resources in, continue policing the community. I know the police department hasn’t let up on that.”
Martinez, whose district includes the area where the bodies were found, said a constituent came into the office and knew one of the victims as family of a neighbor.
“Everyone’s concerned. A small percentage is really hurting the whole. Those families who are working hard every single day to make ends meet,” she said.
With David Schwartz and Sarah Armaghan