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MS-13 member testifies at alleged associate's trial in Central Islip killing

Witness says defendant took part in restaurant beating. Jose Suarez is on trial in connection with the beating and a fatal shooting at a Central Islip deli.

Police investigate the shooting at El Campesino Deli

Police investigate the shooting at El Campesino Deli & Grocery at 133 Caleb's Path in Central Islip on Jan. 30, 2017. Photo Credit: File/Barry Sloan

An MS-13 gang member convicted of murder testified Tuesday against an alleged former gang associate accused of driving the getaway car after a fatal Central Islip shooting in what a prosecutor described as a crime to “gain status and earn respect from the MS-13.”

German Cruz, 20, who said he joined the FLS Freeport Locos clique of MS-13 about age 16 but has since renounced his membership, testified as a cooperating government witness after opening statements in the trial of Jose Suarez, 24, of Central Islip.

Suarez has pleaded not guilty of his alleged role in the Jan. 30, 2017, shooting death of Esteban Alvarado-Bonilla, a suspected rival gang member, at the El Campesino Deli in Central Islip. A female clerk was also shot, but survived. Suarez is also charged with the Dec. 18, 2016, beating of two men in a Brentwood restaurant who had allegedly disrespected MS-13 in a dispute over a woman.

From the witness stand in a Central Islip federal courtroom, Cruz identified Suarez as a gang associate and an assailant in the beating at the Super Taco restaurant.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Raymond Tierney, in his opening statement to the jury earlier, said the beating and the deli shooting were both examples of Suarez attempting to move up in the gang by committing “outrageous acts of violence, including murder.”

Cruz said that on the night of the beating he was hanging out at the restaurant with Suarez and several MS-13 members.

The assault on the uncle and his nephew started as a verbal confrontation between himself and the boyfriend of a waitress with whom he was dancing and the boyfriend’s uncle, Cruz said.

The boyfriend, Cruz said, spoke “harshly” to him and then the uncle approached.

“I introduced myself as a member of MS,” Cruz testified. “He said he didn’t care. MS was [expletive] and the real leaders of MS were in El Salvador.”

Cruz, under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Keilty, identified Suarez and his former fellow gang members as those in video surveillance, which was played for the jury, shown punching and kicking the uncle and assaulting the boyfriend.

Cruz pleaded guilty in May 2018 for his role in the June 2016 killing of Jose Peña-Hernandez, whose skeletal remains were found several months later on the grounds of Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center in Brentwood. He is awaiting sentencing for Peña-Hernandez’s killing.

Cruz testified that he was hoping for a “reduction in my sentence” in exchange for his testimony.

Suarez’s attorney, Raymond L. Colon, will cross-examine Cruz Wednesday morning.

Tierney, in his opening statement to the jury, described Suarez, whose nickname was “Chompiras,” as an associate of the gang who took the assignment to drive the “clique car” to the deli and to ferry the shooter away in order to elevate his status within the gang.

Mario Aguilar-Lopez, the shooter in the deli killing, pleaded guilty last year and is awaiting sentencing.

Alvarado-Bonilla, according to Tierney, was “marked for death because he was wearing a football jersey” with the number 18 — a symbol of the 18th Street Gang, a fierce rival of MS-13. Aguilar-Lopez fired five shots inside the deli, shooting the victim in the back of the head with a 9 mm handgun.

“This defendant was given the honor of driving the shooter to the execution,” said Tierney, pointing to Suarez. “As Mr. Alvarado-Bonilla gasped for his last breaths, this defendant was driving away from the shooting.”

Colon, in his opening statement to the jury, painted Suarez as an innocent man who simply hung out with the wrong crowd. Colon told the jury that because the government has alleged Suarez is a gang associate, they need to prove it. Colon stressed that simply hanging out with gang members doesn't make Suarez a gang associate.   

"Youthful ignorance and manipulation does not equate guilt," said Colon. "Just knowing somebody, socializing with them is not enough. ...He was foolish for associating with them, but he wasn't an associate or member."

Colon said on the night of the fight at Super Taco, his client just happened to be at the restaurant with a "bunch of drunk young men" when "an argument breaks out about who's going out with which waitresses." 

Colon described it as "guys trying to jockey for position," and insisted: "That's not gang-related." 

In the deli killing, Colon stressed, his client is not alleged to have even been inside the deli when the murder occurred.

"No one is saying he pulled the trigger or killed someone," said Colon, of Manhattan. 

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