Victims Jefferson Villalobos, 18, of Florida; Michael Lopez, 20, of...

Victims Jefferson Villalobos, 18, of Florida; Michael Lopez, 20, of Brentwood; Jorge Tigre, 18, of Bellport; and Justin Llivicura, 16, of East Patchogue. Edwin Rodriguez admitted Wednesday to participating in the murder of these four in a Central Islip park in 2017. Credit: Family handouts

An MS-13 member who fled the United States as a teen admitted Wednesday to participating in the 2017 killings of four young men in a Central Islip park, an attack federal prosecutors have called “one of the most brutal and horrific crimes committed by the MS-13 on Long Island.”

Edwin Rodriguez, 24, who law enforcement officials say went by the street name “Manicomio” or “Mental Hospital” after joining the violent street gang at age 16, told a federal judge he was looking to rise up the ranks of MS-13 when he and several associates beat the victims they believed to be rival gang members to death with machetes, knives and wooden clubs.

Rodriguez, whose identity had been kept under seal in the seven years since the killings because he was 17 at the time, became the final participant to admit to his role in the beatings when he pleaded guilty to racketeering Wednesday.

“I just had a knife,” Rodriguez told Visiting Circuit Court Judge Joseph Bianco, explaining how he and one associate focused their efforts on killing one of the four victims by repeatedly stabbing him while several co-conspirators beat the other three to death.

The victims of the deadly violence on April 11, 2017, were Justin Llivicura, 16, of East Patchogue; Jorge Tigre, 18, of Bellport; Michael Lopez Banegas, 20, of Brentwood; and Lopez Banegas' cousin, Jefferson Villalobos, 18, who was visiting the area from Pompano Beach, Florida.

Law enforcement officials have said MS-13 members believed the victims were rival gang members who had been disrespectful to their organization, so they lured them into the woods with the help of two female associates before attacking them. The victims’ families have denied they had ties to any street gangs.

Police were led to the victims’ remains by a friend, Alexander Artiaga-Ruiz, who escaped the attackers by jumping a fence and a stone wall, law enforcement officials have said.

Rodriguez, who lived in Central Islip when he joined the Normandie clique of the MS-13 in 2016, said he and his co-defendants did not realize Artiaga-Ruiz had escaped as they carried on with the attack.

“After we saw the four dead people we realized there was one missing,” he said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York said Rodriguez was charged in the case in 2018, arrested a year later in El Salvador and extradited to the United States in July 2022. Rodriguez’s defense attorney, Glenn Obedin, said his client had left for his native El Salvador shortly after the killings.

“He is relieved to put this behind him in terms of the plea, and he’s ready now to move on to the next phase of the proceeding and the next phase of his life,” Obedin said.

Rodriguez agreed to be transferred to adult status as part of the plea, leading the judge to unseal the proceedings.

Prior to accepting his plea, Bianco informed Rodriguez of the possibility he could be sentenced to life in federal prison for his role in the killings. He also would likely be removed from the United States following any potential release from incarceration, the judge said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Scotti said at trial prosecutors would have presented evidence and testimony from cooperating witnesses and cell phone location records to prove Rodriguez participated in the conspiracy to commit murder.

To date, more than a dozen people have been charged in connection with the homicide case that rattled a Suffolk County community already beset with fears about MS-13's reach. 

Admitted MS-13 member Henry Edenilson Salmeron was the most recent co-conspirator to admit to his role in the killings, when he also pleaded guilty to racketeering last July. He still awaits sentencing.

Anderson Sanchez, another co-conspirator to plead guilty, was sentenced in March 2023 to 32 years in prison.

A pair of ringleaders in the attack, Josue Portillo and Freiry Martinez, pleaded guilty and were each sentenced to 50 years or more in prison.

Another co-conspirator, Leniz “LaDiablita” Escobar, was convicted by a jury in April 2022 and faces life in prison when she is sentenced.

Escobar and Keyli Gomez, who testified as a cooperating government witness at her trial, lured the young men with the promise to smoke marijuana, according to trial testimony.

Rodriguez’s co-conspirators have said the patch of woods behind the park was a hangout spot for MS-13, who prosecutors have said are responsible for more than 70 killings on Long Island since 2010.

Bianco set Rodriguez’s sentencing for Sept. 18.

An MS-13 member who fled the United States as a teen admitted Wednesday to participating in the 2017 killings of four young men in a Central Islip park, an attack federal prosecutors have called “one of the most brutal and horrific crimes committed by the MS-13 on Long Island.”

Edwin Rodriguez, 24, who law enforcement officials say went by the street name “Manicomio” or “Mental Hospital” after joining the violent street gang at age 16, told a federal judge he was looking to rise up the ranks of MS-13 when he and several associates beat the victims they believed to be rival gang members to death with machetes, knives and wooden clubs.

Rodriguez, whose identity had been kept under seal in the seven years since the killings because he was 17 at the time, became the final participant to admit to his role in the beatings when he pleaded guilty to racketeering Wednesday.

“I just had a knife,” Rodriguez told Visiting Circuit Court Judge Joseph Bianco, explaining how he and one associate focused their efforts on killing one of the four victims by repeatedly stabbing him while several co-conspirators beat the other three to death.

     WHAT TO KNOW

  • Edwin Rodriguez, 24, formerly of Central Islip, admitted Wednesday to participating in the brutal killing of four young men in a Central Islip Park in April 2017.
  • Rodriguez, the last participant to plead guilty, was first charged in 2018 but his identity remained under seal because he was 17 at the time of the attack.
  • He faces the possibility of life in prison when sentenced in September, though the longest sentencing in the killings to date has been 50 years.

The victims of the deadly violence on April 11, 2017, were Justin Llivicura, 16, of East Patchogue; Jorge Tigre, 18, of Bellport; Michael Lopez Banegas, 20, of Brentwood; and Lopez Banegas' cousin, Jefferson Villalobos, 18, who was visiting the area from Pompano Beach, Florida.

Law enforcement officials have said MS-13 members believed the victims were rival gang members who had been disrespectful to their organization, so they lured them into the woods with the help of two female associates before attacking them. The victims’ families have denied they had ties to any street gangs.

Police were led to the victims’ remains by a friend, Alexander Artiaga-Ruiz, who escaped the attackers by jumping a fence and a stone wall, law enforcement officials have said.

Rodriguez, who lived in Central Islip when he joined the Normandie clique of the MS-13 in 2016, said he and his co-defendants did not realize Artiaga-Ruiz had escaped as they carried on with the attack.

“After we saw the four dead people we realized there was one missing,” he said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York said Rodriguez was charged in the case in 2018, arrested a year later in El Salvador and extradited to the United States in July 2022. Rodriguez’s defense attorney, Glenn Obedin, said his client had left for his native El Salvador shortly after the killings.

“He is relieved to put this behind him in terms of the plea, and he’s ready now to move on to the next phase of the proceeding and the next phase of his life,” Obedin said.

Rodriguez agreed to be transferred to adult status as part of the plea, leading the judge to unseal the proceedings.

Prior to accepting his plea, Bianco informed Rodriguez of the possibility he could be sentenced to life in federal prison for his role in the killings. He also would likely be removed from the United States following any potential release from incarceration, the judge said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Scotti said at trial prosecutors would have presented evidence and testimony from cooperating witnesses and cell phone location records to prove Rodriguez participated in the conspiracy to commit murder.

To date, more than a dozen people have been charged in connection with the homicide case that rattled a Suffolk County community already beset with fears about MS-13's reach. 

Admitted MS-13 member Henry Edenilson Salmeron was the most recent co-conspirator to admit to his role in the killings, when he also pleaded guilty to racketeering last July. He still awaits sentencing.

Anderson Sanchez, another co-conspirator to plead guilty, was sentenced in March 2023 to 32 years in prison.

A pair of ringleaders in the attack, Josue Portillo and Freiry Martinez, pleaded guilty and were each sentenced to 50 years or more in prison.

Another co-conspirator, Leniz “LaDiablita” Escobar, was convicted by a jury in April 2022 and faces life in prison when she is sentenced.

Escobar and Keyli Gomez, who testified as a cooperating government witness at her trial, lured the young men with the promise to smoke marijuana, according to trial testimony.

Rodriguez’s co-conspirators have said the patch of woods behind the park was a hangout spot for MS-13, who prosecutors have said are responsible for more than 70 killings on Long Island since 2010.

Bianco set Rodriguez’s sentencing for Sept. 18.

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