The federal trial of an alleged MS-13 associate accused of luring four young men to their deaths in a Central Islip park is set to begin Monday, nearly five years after the 2017 quadruple homicide helped put a national spotlight on Long Island’s MS-13 street gang violence.
Opening statements will begin Monday in the case of Leniz Escobar, who was 17 at the time authorities say she and another teenage girl lured five victims, including the four young men, to a community park, supposedly to smoke marijuana.
At the park, more than a dozen MS-13 members attacked the victims with knives, machetes, an ax and clubs made from tree limbs, killing Justin Llivicura, 16, of East Patchogue; Michael Lopez Banegas, 20, of Brentwood; Jorge Tigre, 18, of Bellport and Jefferson Villalobos,18, of Pompano Beach, Florida, prosecutors said. One of the five victims escaped.
Escobar, whom prosecutors say was known as “Diablita” -- Spanish for “little devil” – has pleaded not guilty to charges of racketeering. She is being tried as an adult.
Defense attorney Jesse Siegel, of Manhattan, told Newsday Sunday that Escobar is “looking forward to her day in court.”
Authorities say Escobar and other participants sought to gain entrance to the gang or improve their position within it, according to a copy of her February 2021 indictment charges.
The MS-13 members and associates believed the victims to be members of the rival 18th Street gang who had disrespected the MS-13, according to authorities. The victims’ families have denied the young men were gang members.
Before the killings, Escobar and another teen showed MS-13 members pictures of some of the victims flashing the gang’s signs on social media, which is a sign of disrespect, authorities said.
Escobar also destroyed evidence, including her cellphone, SIM card and clothing from the night of the killings, authorities said.
Judge Joseph Bianco, who will preside over the trial, ruled in 2018 that Escobar should be tried as an adult because of her allegedly prominent role in the killings. If she had been tried as a juvenile, she could only be imprisoned until age 21.
Siegel had argued that Bianco failed to consider Escobar’s lack of criminal record or her chance for rehabilitation and said he gave too much weight to the charges.
Escobar was indicted in February 2021, just weeks after federal prosecutors and a defense attorney said they failed to reach a plea deal.
Jury selection concluded Wednesday. The trial is expected to last three to four weeks.
More than a dozen MS-13 gang members and their associates, one as young as 15 years old at the time, have been charged in the killings.
Josue Portillo, who was 15 at the time, was the first defendant to plead guilty. He admitted to stabbing Banegas during his 2018 guilty plea and was sentenced to 55 years in prison.
Escobar’s trial will start at 9:30 a.m. in Central Islip federal court.