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Chased out of the Nassau woods, MS-13 gang looks for new homes, officials say

Nassau County police and federal investigators at the

Nassau County police and federal investigators at the Massapequa Preserve on May 25. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Members of the MS-13 street gang, forced out of wooded areas in Nassau County where they plotted killings and sometimes buried bodies, are using abandoned buildings and empty foreclosed homes to avoid law enforcement, police said.

Investigators have been hot on their trail, working with local governments to force them out in communities such as Westbury and New Cassel.

Nassau police Det. Sgt. Michael Marino, the commanding officer of the department’s Gang Investigations Squad, said the county's dwindling gang members are no longer holding their membership meetings in wooded areas like the Massapequa Preserve, where the bodies of some of the gang’s victims have been found buried, including a 2016 victim whose body was discovered there in May.

“The pressure’s on,” Marino said of his 14-person detective squad.

The preserve is now equipped with surveillance cameras and an intensified police presence, so the MS-13 gang members are instead opting to gather in abandoned buildings, including foreclosed homes, which police have worked with local governments to get boarded up to stop the practice, Marino said.

Police recently worked with officials in the Town of North Hempstead “to remove and prevent MS-13 from occupying a vacant home” in New Cassel, Marino said, because building department inspectors “were fearful of gang presence,” Marino said.

Gang graffiti was found on the home, Marino said, and the location was placed under surveillance. The operation resulted in arrests and the residence was secured, he said.

Officials said the gang used the Massapequa and Roosevelt preserves, as well as other heavily wooded areas in the county to kill, maim and bury their victims during an especially violent spate in 2015 and 2016, when a dozen people were killed by the gang in Nassau.

The killings have slowed, with just one murder attributed to the gang in 2018. Recruitment is also at record lows, officials said.

Almost 300 MS-13 gang members are operating in Nassau, but the gang is struggling to recruit new members even as it continues to carry out crimes such as assaults and extortion, authorities said.

Marino said the gang has 284 active members in the county, down from about five years ago when there were 1,000. In 2018, the number was 270, he said.

The gang’s numbers this year place it third among gangs in the county, with the roughly 1,000 members of the Bloods and the 400 Crips, Marino said.

The crimes committed by MS-13 gang members are assaults, including a recent case where an accused gang member put garden hose rings on his knuckles to inflict more damage on an enemy, Marino said. Likely underreported are shakedowns of local Latino-owned businesses, he said, because the owners may be too afraid to report it to police.

Nassau attributed one homicide to MS-13 last year. Before that, the county experienced a 22-month stretch without the gang committing a homicide.

But in 2016 and 2017, as Suffolk County received national attention from President Trump and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, when the gang was accused of committing a series of high-profile killings of teenagers, Nassau had its own very similar problem. While Nassau’s gang issue received considerably less attention, there were a dozen killings allegedly committed by the gang in that time span.

Recently, detectives were finally able to close that chapter. Bryan Steven Cho Lemus, 18, of Uniondale — a suspected MS-13 victim — was found May 24 by police in a shallow grave in the Massapequa Preserve. Two alleged MS-13 victims were charged in Lemus’ murder last month.

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said detectives don’t believe there are more MS-13 victims buried in the two preserves where other victims were found.. Ryder said detectives worked tirelessly, hiking through thick vegetation and digging using heavy machinery and shovels about a dozen times to find Lemus' body .

“They’re violent animals that go out, they take their own from their own communities," an impassioned Ryder said recently. "They hack them, stab them, decapitate them, cut their limbs off and bury them in shallow graves. They do that for a reason. They do that because they want them to be found so they can show what they did. They don’t bury them where we can’t find them.”

Of the dozen victims during that two-year time period beginning in 2015, the remains of seven victims were buried in wooded areas, including the 432-acre Massapequa Preserve and other popular recreational areas, alarming residents. Some county legislators said they heard from frightened constituents, and in August 2017, police said they would add surveillance cameras to the preserve.

“On any given day, you have a total influx of police officers,” said Det Lt. Richard LeBrun, a department spokesman, outlining the stepped up security measures.

The body of Julio Cesar Gonzales-Espantzay, 19, of Valley Stream, was found in the Massapequa Preserve, near Seaview and Ocean avenues on March 23, 2017, by a man walking his dog.

At least one alleged MS-13 gang member charged in his killing is also charged with the murder of Lemus, whose body was found in close proximity to victim Gonzales-Espantzay. . 

Three Freeport High School students — Angel Soler, 16; Kerin Pineda, 20; and Josué David Amaya Leonor, 19 — were among the MS-13 victims whose remains were later found in wooded areas.

The body of Soler, missing since July 2017, was found Oct. 19, 2017, in woods along the Roosevelt-Baldwin border, while the remains of Pineda, reported missing in May 2016, were recovered eight days later in woods along the Merrick-Freeport border.

Leonor, also known as Joshua Aguilar, had disappeared in September 2016. His remains were found on May 30, 2018, buried in woods at the Roosevelt Preserve.

“Finding that body, Angel Soler, I had talked to him” before he was killed, Marino said. “Most of those kids, I knew and spoke to. It really bothered me. It’s difficult.”

Claudia Erazo, the sister of Amaya Leonor,  said she believes her brother was targeted by the gang because of his friends.

“But they were both good kids. They liked to play ‘futbol’ and wear red shirts when they played, you know, soccer uniforms,” said Erazo, of Baldwin. “Take selfies, post on Facebook … just normal, teenager stuff. I guess the ‘Maras’ interpreted things differently.”

With Daysi Calavia-Robertson

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