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Former MS-13 gang leader sentenced for role in Hempstead killing

The former leader of a clique of the MS-13 street gang was sentenced to 20 years in prison Wednesday for his role in the 2012 murder of a Hempstead man who was selling drugs on what the gang considered to be its turf, officials said.

Federal prosecutors said that Mario Diaz, now 27, of Freeport, participated in the killing of Jose Vallejo in order to have his membership moved from the Hempstead clique, or chapter, of the gang to the more violent Brentwood-based Sailors clique. Diaz eventually rose to be leader of that clique before he was arrested, Eastern District federal prosecutors Raymond Tierney and John Durham said in court papers.

The prosecutors asked that Diaz be sentenced to 22 years in prison, the maximum under the terms of a plea bargain in August in which he pleaded guilty for his role in causing the death of Vallejo through the use of a firearm.

Diaz’s attorney, Michael Gold of Manhattan, had asked for a term of 16 years, the lower end of the plea-bargain range, saying that his client, who was born in the United States, had only joined the gang while in Freeport High School as protection against being bullied. And Gold said that while there was no excuse for the killing, Diaz had the solid support of his family, noting the presence in the courtroom of more than two dozen of Diaz’s relatives.

Gold said that while his client was active in the gang, he also lived at home, worked full-time as a truck washer, contributed to his family’s support, and helped his younger sister with her homework.

“He is not irredeemable,” Gold said of his client.

Before he was sentenced, Diaz told U.S. District Judge Joseph Bianco, in Central Islip, “I would like to apologize to everybody that I have hurt.”

In imposing the 20-year sentence, Bianco said he was taking into account Diaz’s strong family ties, but noted prosecutor Tierney’s earlier remarks that even if Diaz had been bullied in high school, the Vallejo killing occurred three years after he graduated.

Given all the violence the gang has caused, Bianco said, “the sentence has to send a message” that joining the gang and being involved in its violence cannot be tolerated.

Vallejo had defied MS-13 and at one point pulled a gun on a gang member in Hempstead’s Kennedy Park, according to the prosecutors. While Diaz had not participated in the actual killing, he had lured Vallejo to the park where he was killed, ostensibly to purchase marijuana from him. Diaz had also helped plan the killing, and had gone to the scene with other gang members who shot and used a machete to kill Vallejo, prosecutors said. The other gang members are awaiting sentencing.

Diaz’s relatives declined to comment afterward, as did Gold and the prosecutors.

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