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MS-13 member sentenced to 55 years in machete quadruple murder

Lourdes Benegas, the mother of one of the

Lourdes Benegas, the mother of one of the victims, Michael Lopez Benegas, speaks outside federal court in Central Islip on Wednesday. Credit: Newsday

An MS-13 street gang member apologized Wednesday for the “heinous" hacking to death of four teens in a Central Islip park before a federal judge sentenced him to 55 years in prison.

Josue Portillo, who was 15 at the time of the crime, was the first of about a dozen gang members and associates accused in the April 2017 quadruple murder to plead guilty and to be sentenced in the case. He had faced up to life in prison.

Eastern District prosecutor John Durham had asked for a 60-year sentence, saying, even by the standards of MS-13 these were "extraordinarily serious, serious murders." He called the murders “cold blooded, carefully planned."

The four teens were lured into the park, and then savagely attacked with machetes, clubs, tree limbs and an ax, prosecutors said, because Portillo and other gang members believed the victims were members of a rival gang. 

Portillo's attorney, Joseph Ryan of Melville, asked that his client be given a reduced sentence so that he has a “chance of being rehabilitated in federal prison … When he committed the crime he did not have an adult brain, he had a juvenile brain …. We're here to ask he be given a second chance."

But U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Bianco  said:  “A 15-year-old’s brain is different [but] I don’t believe that explains this defendant’s conduct.” He cited “the unbelievably coldblooded nature of the crime … for no reason," adding that the killings are "hard for anyone to fathom.”

The judge, however, said he had considered Portillo's age at the time as well as the fact that he was the first person to confess.

Before he was sentenced, Portillo addressed the judge in Spanish, saying "please do not put me in jail for the rest of my life."

“I know what I have done was so very wrong," he said, according to the English translation. "I apologize for my heinous crime and will always pray for the families of these victims, none of whom deserved to die.

"I respectfully pray that I be given a second chance to prove … that I can be a different person than I was at 15 …. I pledge to make you proud," Portillo told the judge. "I now realize how selfish it was for me to be consumed by soccer, girls and marijuana offered by MS-13."

Portillo pledged to "learn a trade or skill in prison that will enable me to help others after my deportation to El Salvador." 

But Bianco cited MS-13's long record of brutality, saying "This court has seen approximately 50 murders committed by the gang over the past 10 years. There is no question how dangerous [MS-13] is to the community."

Federal prosecutors had said Portillo was the "driving force" behind the killings. They successfully argued that because of Portillo's history of incorrigibility with authorities, school and family, and his central role in the murders, he should be treated as an adult, not as a juvenile. 

Lourdes Benegas, the mother of one of the victims, Michael Lopez Benegas, also addressed the judge in Spanish, saying: “When I came to this country I fulfilled a dream [to] have my children in this country," according to the English translation.

Her son's killer "took away this dream. He took away the strongest child …. Three years ago we were a happy family and he destroyed everything, everything, because today we are not the same. My children are not happy. [Portillo] does not know the harm he has inflicted on us — my dreams are gone.”

Bianco also ordered Portillo to pay $24,000 in funeral expenses to be divided among three of the victims' families. 

Eastern District United States Attorney Richard Donoghue said afterward in a statement: “Portillo and his co-defendants slaughtered four young men ln behalf of MS-13…Nothing can bring back the young lives lost, and no sentenced imposed by the court can truly bring justice in this situation, but the Eastern District and our partners in the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force will continue to work relentlessly to eliminate the scourge of MS-13 violence.”

The murders of the four young men, shortly after the murders of two Brentwood High School teenage girls — Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens — also attributed to other MS-13 members, set off a national furor with President Donald Trump and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowing to crush the gang.

Six of those arrested by the FBI ‘s Long Island Gang Task Force for taking part in the park murders were originally identified as juveniles. But another then-15-year-old male and a then-17-year-old female gang associate also have been subsequently charged as adults because of their previous history and role in the killings.   

Juveniles treated as adults in the federal system, however, cannot face a death penalty as can people who were adults at the time of their alleged crime.

 Federal prosecutors have yet to determine if about a dozen members of MS-13 arrested as adults for murders, including several allegedly involved in the park killings, will face a death penalty if convicted.

In addition to Michael Lopez Benegas, 20, of Brentwood, the three other victims were identified by police as Justin Llivicura, 16, of East Patchogue; Jorge Tigre, 18, of, Bellport; and Jefferson Villalobos, 18, of Pompano Beach, Florida .

In pleading guilty in August to racketeering in the murder of the four, Portillo said that he "and another MS-13 member personally murdered Michael Lopez [Benegas] by stabbing him with knives."    

In arguing that Portillo should get a 60-year sentence, federal prosecutors had stressed his prime role in the crime, writing in court papers that he “was the driving force behind the April 11 murders and he played a central role in planning and carrying out the murders … devising the plan to kill the victims, who were suspected of being rival gang members, by using female MS-13 associates to lure them into an isolated wooded area … recruiting other MS-13 members and associates to commit the murders; coordinating the attack … and physically participating in the murders by striking the victims with a machete.“

The impetus for the murders began several months before when Portillo “had an altercation with Witness-1 and several of the other victims,“ the prosecutors wrote. The person identified only as Witness-1 was the fifth intended victim lured into the park, but who escaped.

Portillo and other MS-13 members “suspected” that the five “were members of the rival 18th Street gang and had represented themselves to be MS-13 members, when, in fact, they were not,” the prosecutors wrote.

Family members of the victims have denied that they were involved in gang activity.

After the sentencing, Ryan said he would appeal. Durham and Eastern District prosecutors Paul Scotti and Justina Geraci declined to comment.

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