This story was reported by Sarah Armaghan, Nicole Fuller, Robert E. Kessler, Chau Lam, Mark Morales and David Olson.
The family of a high school honor student who was among four young men found brutally slain this week in a Central Islip park said Friday the 18-year-old recently had been the target of harassment by the MS-13 gang and feared for his safety.
The revelation came as police released the names of the dead, and publicly drew an even stronger link between the criminal syndicate with ties to El Salvador and a homicidal rampage that has shaken a community already beset with fears about its reach and violence.
“At this time, all indications are that this is the work of MS-13,” Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said Friday of an attack authorities previously said was carried out with a “sharp or edged instrument.”
Sini, whose department is jointly investigating the crimes with the FBI, also confirmed a video was part of the probe and urged anyone who believed they had received such a file to contact authorities right away.
“We are aware of its origins and it’s certainly part of the investigation,” Sini said of the video.
The family of one of the victims, Justin Llivicura, 16, has said his girlfriend received a graphic video file Thursday that depicted dead bodies lying together, including the remains of their loved one. She got the video — which the family shared with police — a day after the discovery of the victims at about 8 p.m. Wednesday near a soccer field in a park at Clayton Street and Lowell Avenue.
Authorities identified the victims Friday as: Llivicura, of East Patchogue; Jorge Tigre, 18, of Bellport; Michael Lopez Banegas, 20, of Brentwood; and Jefferson Villalobos, 18, of Pompano Beach, Florida.
Tigre’s sister Monica, 20, said Friday that MS-13 had been preying on her brother, a Bellport High School senior who had dreamed of becoming a police officer.
“Almost every day they would flatten his tires. He always had to go get his car fixed because they would always ruin it at school,” she said. “He never wanted to say anything to my mother. He was scared of getting hurt.”
The student’s family said he wasn’t in a gang and was an honor roll student who had tried to distance himself from anyone at school connected to MS-13, of which at least one of his friends was a member.
Tigre’s mother, Bertha Ullaguari, 43, was inconsolable Friday as she mourned her son. Family said he’d been one of six siblings, worked in a restaurant and always had a smile as he helped with chores around the house.
“He was my beautiful boy. Why did they kill him? My god, why?” Ullaguari said.
Family members of Villalobos and Banegas, who were cousins, also came together Friday to grieve for the young men — who they said had no gang affiliations.
Villalobos had been visiting Banegas from Florida after arriving on Long Island last Friday with his sister, father and grandmother, said Yensy Fuentes — a cousin of both those victims.
Fuentes, 20, of Florida, said Friday she had seen a video that showed both their bodies, and that Banegas’ head was covered with a plastic bag.
A seconds-long video clip Newsday obtained from relatives of one of the victims appears to show the remains of multiple males, including one with an object near his head that appears consistent with her description.
Fuentes said family last saw the two cousins at 9 p.m. Tuesday, believing they left to play soccer at an indoor facility. Both were natives of Honduras, where their grandparents still live, according to family.
Villalobos’ aunt, Marleni, also from Florida, said Friday that her nephew came to live in the United States three years ago. Playing soccer was his passion, she said through tears.
Sini said Friday authorities are “making real progress in this investigation,” but declined to provide more details. He said police would “devote the necessary resources to solve these brutal crimes.”
“All hands are on deck,” Sini said. He added that police also would enhance patrols in the area and said anyone with information shouldn’t fear approaching authorities because of immigration issues.
“If you come to us as a victim or a witness, we don’t even inquire into your immigration status,” Sini also said at a news conference Friday evening.
One of the leading theories of investigators is that one of the four victims, or a close friend, had been close with MS-13 members and had angered them when he tried to back away, sources familiar with the investigation said Friday. They stressed authorities hadn’t reached any definitive conclusion about the reason for the killings.
Under the theory, the marked person — whose identity was unclear — was invited to the field and took friends with him for what he believed was some sort of party.
Once there, they were met by a number of MS-13 members who were armed with bats and machetes and pounced on the planned victim and his companions in a frenzy, the sources said. The MS-13 members assumed the others were potential witnesses to the crime or potential defenders of the targeted victim under this working theory of the crime.
Sources familiar with the investigation previously told Newsday the victims’ bodies were mutilated with both blunt and sharpened weapons, presumably bats and machetes.
Some family and friends of the victims paid tribute to them Friday morning by laying crosses and flowers at the park.
“It just gives us peace in our hearts, and makes us feel better,” said Fuentes, the cousin of Banegas and Villalobos.
In Llivicura’s home, his family honored the homicide victim Friday with a display of candles with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Jesus, along with a framed photo of him as a 10-year-old boy.
His father, Marcelo Llivicura, said the 16-year-old loved listening to traditional Ecuadorean music and working on his white Scion — still parked in the driveway Friday.
The man paused as photos of his son, a Bellport High student, and Tigre flashed onto his television screen during a News 12 Long Island report on the murders.
“There he is,” Llivicura said. “The blue shirt.”
The father said the family often keeps the TV on to see if there are any updates on the slaying case.
Llivicura’s family last saw him Tuesday night, when he said he was going to a party in Manhattan. They reported to police that he was missing on Wednesday evening.
Tigre’s family has said they reported him missing Wednesday afternoon. His brother, William Tigre, 21, previously said he then got a call from a friend at 7:30 that evening saying his brother was hurt and at the park. He later spoke to investigators at the scene.
Authorities are offering a $25,000 “fast cash reward,” to be paid within three days, for information leading to the arrest of the killer or killers.
The FBI has asked anyone with information to call the agency at 631-501-8600.
The discovery of the victims Wednesday comes six weeks after more than a half-dozen members of MS-13 were indicted in the killings of Brentwood teens Kayla Cuevas, 16, and Nisa Mickens, 15, and MS-13 member, Jose Peña-Hernandez, 18.
Sources have said previously that the street gang’s members are under pressure to “put in work,” or kill rivals who belong to other gangs or people believed to have disrespected the gang.
There also are scores of gang members who have recently come to Long Island, mainly from El Salvador, who have to prove their worth to the syndicate with acts of violence, sources said.
The killings of Cuevas and Mickens and the discovery of several sets of skeletal remains of other young victims, prompted Suffolk police to execute a monthslong sweep that yielded more than 100 arrests.
Sini on Thursday had declared that law enforcement’s efforts locally against gang violence would be “a long-term war.P”
Suffolk police have said they believe at least 11 homicides in Brentwood and Central Islip since September 2016 are gang-related.
- Nisa Mickens, 15, found Sept. 13 in a wooded area in Brentwood.
- Kayla Cuevas, 16, found Sept. 14 near where Mickens’ body was found.
- Oscar Acosta, 19, found Sept. 16 in a wooded, industrial area in Brentwood.
- Miguel Garcia Morán, 15, found Sept. 21 in the same area near the LIRR tracks as Acosta’s remains.
- Dewann A.S. Stacks, 34, found Oct. 13 in Brentwood. Stacks had been walking along American Boulevard when he was assaulted, police said.
- Jose Peña-Hernandez, 18, found on Oct. 17 in a wooded area of the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood.
- Esteban Alvarado-Bonilla, 29, shot and killed inside a Central Islip deli on Jan. 30.
- Four young men, found in a Central Islip park on Wednesday. Family members identified two of them as Justin Llivicura, 16, of East Patchogue, and Jorge Tigre, 18, of Bellport.
Compiled by Zachary R. Dowdy