Five people are facing murder charges in what authorities say was the 2016 machete killing of a Uniondale man in Massapequa Preserve at the hands of the MS-13 gang, court records show.
Last month a grand jury indicted Christian Rodriguez, 22, of Hempstead, and Jeustin Maldonado, 20, of Uniondale, on second-degree murder and first- and second-degree conspiracy charges in the slaying of Bryan Steven Cho Lemus.
Authorities recovered the 18-year-old Uniondale man’s remains in May, nearly three years after they claim his killers hacked him to death and buried him in the woods. Nassau police made the first arrests in the case in June.
Lemus knew his killers and associated with gang members, who allegedly lured him into the 432-acre preserve after marking him for death because of a petty dispute, according to police.
Rodriguez put in a not guilty plea Thursday in Nassau County Court before acting State Supreme Court Justice Helene Gugerty.
Prosecutor Jared Rosenblatt told the judge Rodriguez already was serving a 9-year prison sentence for a 2016 attack in Hempstead Lake State Park. In that case, Rodriguez pleaded guilty to attempted murder after prosecutors said he and other MS-13 members assaulted three high school students who were in the park to play soccer.
Rosenblatt also said Thursday that Rodriguez had given two statements to authorities, one in October and another in November, in the case concerning Lemus.
Rodriguez's attorney, William Kephart, said later the defense would explore "the circumstances under which his statements were supposedly made, along with the substance of it all," while doing its own investigation.
The judge ordered Rodriguez jailed without bail.
Last week, Rodriguez’s co-defendant Maldonado pleaded not guilty during a separate arraignment before the same judge. Maldonado’s attorney, Dana Grossblatt, declined to comment at the time.
Prosecutors said Rodriguez uses the street name “Estricto” and Maldonado goes by “Muerte.”
The same indictment also charged other defendants, Raul Ponce and Gerson Stanley Juarez, with first- and second-degree conspiracy charges.
Juarez, 23, of Hempstead — who goes by “Angel Black” and “Siniestro” on the street — pleaded not guilty last week. His attorney, Greg Madey, declined to comment.
Raul Ponce, 21, of Hempstead, who prosecutors said also goes by “Shadow” or “Little Shadow,” put in a not guilty plea last week in the Lemus case. His attorney, Dennis O’Brien, declined to comment.
Previously, a different indictment charged Raul Ponce and Juarez with murder in the same killing. Both denied involvement during August arraignments.
Police in September also arrested Raul Ponce's younger brother, Samuel Ponce, in Lemus’ murder. Court records show the 18-year-old Hempstead man, who prosecutors said goes by "Little Chickie," pleaded not guilty to a murder indictment in November.
Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said in a statement Thursday that Lemus "was lured into the park by people he believed to be his friends and violently hacked with machetes by multiple MS-13 members."
The district attorney said the deadly attack happened after Lemus accepted an invitation to smoke marijuana in the woods, not knowing MS-13 members saw him as an enemy.
Prosecutors also said others were involved in Lemus' killing and the probe is ongoing.
Law enforcement officials have said Lemus’ slaying was among a dozen MS-13 homicides committed in Nassau County in 2016 and 2017 — with his body located near where police in 2017 found the remains of Julio Cesar Espantzay, 18, another alleged MS-13 victim.
In October, Raul Ponce and Juarez pleaded not guilty to murder and conspiracy charges in Espantzay’s death — a killing in which seven people face charges, authorities said previously.
Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder has said investigators searched repeatedly for Lemus’ body, before finally locating a depression caused by the decomposition of his remains, after the discovery of Espantzay led to intelligence about Lemus’ similar demise.
The victim’s mother, Amanda Lemus, said in a Newsday interview following the first arrest in her son’s slaying that he had worked construction jobs to support his family and girlfriend, who was five months pregnant when he went missing in August 2016.
Lemus’ mother also said his disappearance sparked a yearslong agony for her that included sleeplessness and headaches as she waited for an answer about his fate.
It was an answer that later left her calling for “earthly justice” of “the maximum penalty under the law.”