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Teen pleads not guilty to murder charge in MS-13 witness case

Nassau police investigate the scene at 1113 Broadway

Nassau police investigate the scene at 1113 Broadway in New Cassel where a homicide victim's body was found in the rear yard in early February. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A 17-year-old alleged MS-13 member pleaded not guilty to murder Wednesday in the February slaying of a man who authorities said was fatally bludgeoned in New Cassel while slated to testify against gang members who tried to kill him in 2018. 

A 10-count indictment against Axel Daniel Sierra Argueta also charged him with attempted murder counts, witness tampering, gang assault and other felonies after the death of Wilmer Maldonado Rodriguez, 36.

The New Cassel teenager took part in his virtual arraignment Wednesday by video conference from the Westchester juvenile facility where he’s been remanded since his February arrest.

He wore a face mask when he first appeared in the Skype proceeding — held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The teenager’s attorney, Dana Grossblatt, of Jericho, contends police nabbed the wrong person while under pressure to make an arrest and said her client denies the allegations and denies being a gang member.

But prosecutors say Sierra Argueta admitted in a video interview with police that he hit the victim with a baseball bat at least twice during the deadly encounter as another attacker stabbed the man multiple times.

More suspects also took part in Maldonado Rodriguez’s slaying, according to Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas’ office. Authorities haven’t announced any other arrests.

Singas' office declined to comment on the case after Wednesday's arraignment.

Sierra Argueta also admitted he was present at the planning of the killing and brought a bat to the abandoned home on Broadway where it happened, according to prosecutors.

The defendant described beating Maldonado Rodriguez with a bat on Feb. 1 and being part of a group that inflicted the deadly beating early Feb. 2, Singas’ office has said.

On Wednesday, prosecutor Michelle Lewisohn asked Acting State Supreme Court Justice Helene Gugerty to keep Sierra Argueta in custody and the judge agreed.

Grossblatt, who previously has cast doubt on her client’s alleged video admissions, told Gugerty she might ask for bail for him in the future.

Grossblatt said after the arraignment that “at no point does Mr. Argueta ever admit to this murder” and called his video interactions with police “a relentless interrogation” of a native of Honduras with very little education or understanding of criminal proceedings.

Police also charged Sierra Argueta with attempted murder in the previous 2018 attack on Maldonado Rodriguez at the same time they arrested him in the man’s slaying, suggesting the teen could have recognized the victim from prior contact.

Singas’ office has said Maldonado Rodriguez was attacked then after he intervened when MS-13 members threatened two boys.

That attempted murder charge seemed to counter an early contention from some officials that the victim’s slaying was related to the disclosure of his identity as a potential witness against other alleged MS-13 participants in the 2018 attack.

At a Feb. 5 news conference, Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder initially linked the victim’s slaying to justice reform measures that took effect in January that require prosecutors to turn over discovery — or evidence — to the defense much earlier in a criminal case.

“We believe the information that was released, our victim’s information, which should have been protected, was turned over too early … This law is not helping us,” said Ryder, a position County Executive Laura Curran supported.

But they soon backtracked and Ryder said in a statement later he didn’t blame defense attorneys for releasing Maldonado Rodriguez’s name, but “gave the facts and the public could make their own assumptions.”

Defense attorneys for others already awaiting trial in the 2018 attack denied sharing Maldonado Rodriguez’s identity with their clients.

Singas’ office said Maldonado Rodriguez had been “prepared to testify against his alleged assailants” but was “brutally beaten to death before he could.”

The district attorney’s office also said prosecutors protected the victim’s identity by getting a protective order in 2018 “but his identity was disclosed pursuant to a judge’s order” in December.

Gugerty fired back that Singas’ office never asked her to extend the order when the trial of some of the alleged 2018 attackers didn’t start on time in January and said defense attorneys “were not obligated to withhold that information.”

However, Gugerty added days later that the “original protective order … was always in full force and effect.”

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