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Hempstead man pleads guilty in Massapequa Preserve machete killing

Antonio Cullal leaves Nassau County Police Headquarters in

Antonio Cullal leaves Nassau County Police Headquarters in Mineola in 2017. Credit: Newsday

A 26-year-old admitted Tuesday to wielding a machete during a 2017 assault in the Massapequa Preserve that authorities described as a coordinated attack by the MS-13 gang that ended the life of a Valley Stream man.

Antonio Cullal pleaded guilty to murder and conspiracy charges in the death of Julio Cesar Gonzales-Espantzay, 19, in a plea bargain that includes a sentence of 20 years to life in prison.

The Hempstead resident is among seven alleged MS-13 members authorities charged in the case following a dog walker's discovery of the victim's remains in March 2017.

The defendant, who was born in El Salvador, admitted to striking Gonzales-Espantzay with a machete and to causing the victim's death while acting with others. He also agreed he acted in concert with members of a gang as part of a conspiracy in Nassau County.

The defendant didn't admit in Nassau County Court on Tuesday to being part of MS-13. In 2017, Cullal said the gang's name aloud and flashed a gang sign in front of a photojournalist's camera while seated in the back of a police car before his arraignment.

Law enforcement officials have said MS-13 marked the victim for murder because they believed he was an enemy of the gang. One gang member pretended to befriend Gonzales-Espantzay before enticing him to come to the wooded area by saying they'd smoke marijuana and he would have sex, according to authorities.

Prosecutors have said four MS-13 members hacked the victim to death on Jan. 28, 2017, before putting tree branches, leaves and other brush on top of his remains.

Cullal's attorney, William Shanahan, said after court Tuesday that his client came to the United States when he was about 18 years old before the gang took him in and became family to him.

Cullal won't testify against any of the other defendants still facing charges in the case, the Mineola attorney said. Prosecutors said cases against four other defendants remain pending.

"This gives him an opportunity of having some light at the end of the tunnel. It gives him a possibility that if he changes his life in prison, maybe someday he'll be able to come out and have somewhat of a life," Shanahan added of Cullal's guilty plea.

Acting State Supreme Court Justice Helene Gugerty accepted the plea and also dismissed prison contraband charges that were pending against Cullal. She said she also planned to punish him with a concurrent sentence of 5 to 15 years for his conspiracy conviction.

Prosecutor Jared Rosenblatt, Homicide Bureau chief of Nassau District Attorney's Office, asked Gugerty to drop the contraband charges while also recommending a sentence of 23 years to life on the murder charge.

Gugerty set sentencing for Aug. 10.

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