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Defendant sentenced to 50 years in quadruple MS-13 murders

An MS-13 gang member was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his part in the killing of four young men in a Central Islip park when he was 15 years old in 2017. His defense attorney Martin Geduldig spoke outside federal court in Central Islip on Monday. (Credit: Barry Sloan)

An MS-13 member, just 15 at the time of the crime, was sentenced Monday to 50 years in prison for his part in the killing of four young men in a Central Islip park — murders that helped shine a national spotlight on the brutal gang from El Salvador.

Freiry Martinez apologized for his actions in federal court and told Judge Joseph Bianco: “From the bottom of my heart, I feel very bad for the pain I have caused.” But he also asked for a lenient sentence, saying he had matured since his arrest and adding: “I ask that you take into account, I was a … boy and did not know what I did."

In the Central Islip courtroom watching were relatives of the victims, including the mother of Jorge Tigre, 18. She cried throughout the proceeding. The father of Justin Llivicura, 16, was also there and both parents, declined to speak in court or afterward.

In imposing sentence, Bianco said, while the parents chose not to speak, he could see on their faces “the pain” they were enduring.

Martinez of Brentwood, who was known by the street names of “Freddy,” “Discreto,” and “Sovietico,” pleaded guilty in September 2018 for his role in the killings, which even his defense attorney conceded in court papers was “breathtaking in its violence.”

Prosecutors have charged six juveniles and four adults for taking part in what prosecutors called a “frenzy of violence” in which the victims were “savagely attacked” with machetes, knives, clubs, tree limbs, and an ax. They were lured to the park with the promise of smoking marijuana with two female juvenile gang associates and were targeted because MS-13 thought they were part of a rival gang — something their relatives deny.

Defense lawyer Martin Geduldig said he would appeal the sentence as excessive. In arguing for a 25-year sentence, he had said the defendant's grandmother had sent Martinez from El Salvador to live with an aunt on Long Island to get away from the gang in his native country.

“In a stunning turn of events, [he] quickly discovered his aunt lived in a community overwhelmed with gang members,” Geduldig wrote in court papers. “Unfortunately the grandmother did not know that [he] was being sent to one of the most dangerous hot spots in the United States.”

But Bianco said that while he felt Martinez’s remorse was genuine, his actions were so heinous that he deserved the sentence he got.

Authorities identified the four victims as Michael Lopez Banagas, then 20, of Brentwood; Llivicura, of East Patchogue; Tigre, of Bellport, and Jefferson Villalobos, 18, of Pompano Beach, Florida.

When Martinez pleaded guilty in September 2018, he admitted he used a machete to “hit someone repeatedly … Justin Llivicura.”

The killings in April 2017 came after the murders in September 2016 of two teenage Brentwood High School girls — Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas. The teens were bludgeoned to death with bats and hacked with machetes by MS-13 gang members, authorities have said. The violent deaths prompted President Donald Trump and then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to visit Long Island and vow to crush the gang and the teens' parents were guests at the president's State of the Union speech in 2018.

The crackdown on MS-13 by the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force, HSI, and Nassau and Suffolk police since the killings of the two girls and the park victims, has sharply reduced MS-13 activity on Long Island, officials have said.

Eastern District United States Attorney Richard Donoghue said in a statement, “It is my hope that today’s sentence brings some measure of closure and a sense of justice for the family members of the four victims, whose lives were so senselessly cut short.”

Federal prosecutors on the case, John Durham, Paul Scotti and Justina Geraci, declined to comment afterward. 

The mastermind of the April 2017 killings, according to prosecutors, was Josue Portillo, who was also 15 at the time of the killings. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison for his role in the killings.

Before the attack, Portillio “had an altercation at a 7-11 convenience store with Witness-1 and several of the other victims,” and told fellow gang members about it, prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum in the Martinez case.

The victims involved in the previous 7-Eleven incident were not identified. Nor was “Witness-1,” who, prosecutors said, was lured to the park along with the victims by two female juvenile associates of MS-13, under the guise of smoking marijuana. But “Witness-1” fled when the attack began, prosecutors said.

MS-13 thought the victims were members of the rival 18th Street gang, and “Witness-1” had disrespected the gang by flashing MS-13 signs, as if he were a member of MS-13 gang, prosecutors said in the court papers.

Parents of the victims denied that they were involved in any gang activity in the days following the attack.

Martinez pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering with five predicate acts: conspiracy to murder rival gang members, and four individual counts of murder — one for each of the victims.

Prosecutors said in court papers that Martinez fled to Virginia and Maryland after the park killings and wasn’t captured until seven months later, during which time he took part with MS-13 members in assaults, “street-level drug sales, and participating in the armed robberies of check-cashing establishments. “ Martinez also took a leadership position in one Virginia MS-13 clique while a fugitive, prosecutors said.

Though both Martinez and Portillo were juveniles, prosecutors successfully argued that they should be treated as adults because the killings and their previous actions for MS-13 showed that they were, in effect, incorrigible.

“Most 15-year-olds are worried about a chemistry test at school or making the football team, not plotting a grotesque attack and murder of four other teenagers,” the head of the FBI's New York office, William Sweeney, said at the time of Martinez’s plea.

Juveniles can only be sentenced to prison until they are 21. Juveniles converted to adult status can face up to life in prison, but not the death penalty.

Four adult members of MS-13 accused of involvement in the killings in the Central Islip park are awaiting a decision by federal prosecutors as to whether to seek the death penalty in their cases. 

They have been identified as: Alexis Hernandez, Santos Leonel Ortiz-Flores and Omar Villalta, all of Central Islip, and Edwin Diaz, of Brentwood.

The adult members of MS-13 charged in the killings of Mickens and Cuevas, are also awaiting a similar decision. 

Newsday has reported that though federal prosecutors have convicted hundreds of MS-13 members on Long Island since the early 2000s, the more recent spate of extreme violence has been attributed to an influx of relatively young members of MS-13 from Central America, according to gang expert and sources.

The newer younger gang members are a small fraction of the thousands of unaccompanied minors who have entered the country since 2015. But these younger MS-13 members are more violent even by the standards of older gang members and are anxious to prove their status to fill the vacuum left by ongoing gang prosecutions and convictions.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of Jorge Tigre, one of the victims.

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