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Ex-gang member recounts how he chose to cooperate with law enforcement after deli killing

Kevin Cifuentes, who has spent the last two years in jail, has kept a cool demeanor on the witness stand over three days, even as he described watching the fatal shooting just a few feet away.

Suffolk County police investigate a shooting at 133

Suffolk County police investigate a shooting at 133 Caleb's Path in Central Islip on  Jan. 30, 2017. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

An MS-13 gang member testifying against a former associate on trial for the killing of a rival gang member in a Central Islip deli described Thursday how he quickly made "the most difficult decision of my life" to cooperate with law enforcement.

He decided to do it, he said, after being confronted by Suffolk County police detectives, who recognized him as a member of the gang and accused him of being involved in the slaying. 

Kevin Cifuentes recalled standing in the El Campesino Deli in the moments after the Jan. 30, 2017, fatal shooting of Esteban Alvarado-Bonilla, a suspected member of the rival 18th Street gang. He had helped plan the killing and was planted at the scene by gang leaders to appear as an innocent bystander, he recalled. But two officers recognized him, with one saying: "I had something to do with that murder and he said I was also from the Mara," meaning MS-13. 

Cifuentes, a cooperating witness for the government, ultimately pleaded guilty to his role in the deli slaying and is awaiting sentencing. He testified Thursday at the federal trial of Jose Suarez, accused of driving the getaway car in the deli slaying, that he asked one of the detectives to go into the deli bathroom with him for privacy. 

"I told him if he wanted to know everything that happened there, I need protection" from the gang for him and his family, said Cifuentes, 25, formerly of Brentwood, testifying through a Spanish language interpreter. "I knew that my life would be in danger." 

Cifuentes, answering questions from Prosecutor Raymond Tierney, then detailed his cooperation with Suffolk police at the Third Precinct in Bay Shore, where he said he identified Suarez, 24, then of Central Islip, and gang leaders for police and later the FBI. 

Cifuentes said he told police that Suarez had "driven for the death," and detailed the other gang members' roles, including Mario Aguilar-Lopez, whose gang name was "Flexible," as the trigger man. Aguilar-Lopez has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. 

Cifuentes, who has spent the last two years in jail, has kept a cool demeanor on the witness stand over three days, even as he described watching the victim die on the deli floor and seeing victims of MS-13 machete attacks. 

But Cifuentes appeared agitated Thursday afternoon when faced with cross-examination by Suarez's attorney, who attempted to attack the credibility of the government’s star witness.

Cifuentes narrowed his eyes and at one point audibly sighed as Suarez's defense attorney Raymond L. Colon pressed him on details of the crimes he committed — including the beating of his girlfriend, the mother of his young daughter. 

"You were the devil incarnate?" Colon asked. 

"That's a lie," replied Cifuentes. 

Asked if he was an “outlaw,” Cifuentes replied: “That’s the person I used to be.”

That answer prompted Colon to ask him whether he had a “come to Jesus moment” after the killing.

“I got scared,” said Cifuentes. “I had never seen anything like that.”

Asked how many times in his life he has lied, Cifuentes said he couldn’t provide a number.

“From the time I was a child, I’ve been lying,” said Cifuentes.

Colon then went through the many crimes that Cifuentes had admitted committing, while pointing out that he had not been charged for many of them.

Colon then brought up allegations that Cifuentes had used a cellphone to “smash” his girlfriend “over the head," which Cifuentes admitted doing. Asked if the assaults had occurred in front of their daughter, Cifuentes sighed before answering affirmatively.

"You failed to mention that, didn't you?" Colon said of the domestic violence incidents.

Cifuentes replied sarcastically: "I did not remember it. But thank you for reminding me."

Colon, who is set to continue questioning Cifuentes on Monday, said after court: “Hopefully the jury will see through his new ‘born again’ veneer.”

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