A member of the MS-13 street gang pleaded guilty Monday to taking part in the April 2017 killing of four young men in a Central Islip park, admitting that, at age 15, he helped coordinate a plan in which the victims were lured into place, then brutally stabbed to death.
“Myself and another MS-13 member personally murdered Michael Lopez [Banegas] by stabbing him with knives,” Josue Portillo, now 17, said through a Spanish interpreter in federal court in Central Islip. “I did this knowingly, willfully, and without coercion when I was 15 years old.”
Portillo pleaded guilty to a charge of racketeering that included one act of conspiracy and four acts of murder before U.S. District Judge Joseph Bianco. He is the first person to publicly plead guilty in the case, of the 10 people who have been charged so far, officials said.
Portillo admitted that in 2017 he and other MS-13 members planned the attack weeks in advance because the victims were believed to be members of the 18th Street gang.
“On April 11, 2017, as a member of MS-13, I joined and participated in the murder of Michael Lopez [Banegas], Justin Llivicura, Jorge Tigre and Jefferson Villalobos at the Clayton Street park in Central Islip because they were members of a rival gang,” Portillo said.
“I will forever suffer the pain of knowing how senseless these murders were and that none of the victims deserved to die,” Portillo continued. “I apologize to the families of the victims, knowing that my apologies will not be accepted.”
Relatives of the victims have denied that they were gang members.
The killings followed the deaths of two teenage girls — Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens — in nearby Brentwood. The girls were beaten by MS-13 gang members with baseball bats and a machete and the brutality of their deaths shone a national spotlight on Long Island’s MS-13 gang violence, drawing the attention of President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Both visited Long Island to highlight the government’s battle against the El Salvador-based gang.
In court, Portillo said he “coordinated” the attack on the four young men, who were lured by two young female associates of the gang into the park under the pretext of smoking marijuana. He said that after he received a text saying the victims were in place, he contacted other gang members waiting nearby. They then joined him in surrounding and killing the four. The teen said he used a blade.
Prosecutors — who asked that Portillo be sentenced as an adult despite his age — said in court papers that knives, machetes and clubs made out of tree limbs found at the park were used in the murders.
Portillo, who goes by the gang nicknames of “Sparky” and “Curios”, faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced in January.
His attorney, Joseph Ryan, of Melville, said after the plea that his client had crossed the U.S. border into Texas by himself several years ago to join his mother, who was living in Central Islip. He was arrested in Texas by immigration officials, and released into the custody of his mother, after being treated for a case of chicken pox, Ryan said.
Eastern District U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said in a statement that the plea by Portillo “marks a milestone in the MS-13’s brutal murders,” adding, “We hope the victims’ families can find some measure of solace in knowing that the perpetrators of these murders are now being held responsible for their crimes.”
Federal prosecutors Paul Scotti, Michael Keilty and Raymond Tierney declined to comment afterward.
Officials have said previously that four adults and six juveniles were charged with the crime, based on an investigation by the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force.
Portillo, just a month short of his 16th birthday at the time of the slayings, was initially charged as one of the juveniles, according to officials. Proceedings against juveniles in federal court are closed to the public.
At the request of prosecutors, however, Bianco ruled that Portillo should be treated as an adult, according to officials.
Bianco based this decision on the violence of the crime, Portillo’s role in the killings, the record of discipline problems he faced in high school, and the inability of his mother or other responsible adults to control his untoward behavior, according to court records.
“The court concludes that there is no likelihood that the [rehabilitation] goals of the juvenile system will be achieved while the defendant is in juvenile custody,” Bianco wrote. And quoting a previous court ruling, Bianco added, “the concerns of public protection and punishment become paramount.”
An adult can face the death penalty if convicted of a federal crime involving murder. But a person who is normally considered a juvenile at the time of the crime, even if treated as an adult by the court, faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Portillo faces deportation after he completes his sentence, Bianco said.
In a statement issued after the plea, Ryan wrote that at the time of Portillo’s sentencing: “We will urge the judge to place safeguards in his sentence that will protect a juvenile’s development into adulthood when imprisoned with an adult population. A juvenile’s brain is not fully developed until 21 years of age . . . Mr. Portillo’s sentence as an adult presents a challenge to rehabilitate him from being juvenile into a law-abiding person, given these unique circumstances.”