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MS-13 gang member pleads guilty in two killings; one in Nassau and one in Queens

The reputed leader of a startup faction of the MS-13 gang admitted Friday to murdering two people, one in Nassau and one in Queens, as part of what prosecutors have said was an effort to gain rank in the criminal organization while establishing a new branch in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway areas.

Yonathan Sanchez, 23, pleaded guilty in Nassau County Court to two murder charges in a deal that Acting State Supreme Court Justice Tammy S. Robbins said would send him to prison for 34 years to life.

The El Salvador native admitted to using a .22-caliber revolver to shoot and kill a 23-year-old man in Bayswater Point State Park in Far Rockaway on Dec. 15, 2018, and to fatally shooting a 17-year-old less than three days later behind a Lawrence community center.

Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said at the time of Sanchez's April 2019 indictment, which also named five other alleged MS-13 gang members, that a 13-year-old girl acted as a lure before the killings — drawing the victims to the location of their executions after contact through social media and text messages.

Sanchez, known on the street as Turbo, "executed two young men at close range because they were perceived enemies of the gang," the district attorney said in a statement Friday. She added that her office would continue to combat MS-13 until it "is eliminated."

One of the other alleged gang members, a male who was 15 at the time of his arrest, pleaded guilty in February to a murder charge connected to the Nassau slaying and is expected to be sentenced to 8 1/2 years to life in prison, authorities said Friday. Four other defendants are awaiting trial, including the teen girl. They all pleaded not guilty.

While five of the defendants first had faced charges in Queens, authorities decided last year to prosecute all six defendants in Nassau. The law allows authorities to prosecute defendants in either county if the alleged crimes happened within 500 yards of the border.

In the Queens killing, Sanchez emerged from bushes and shot Far Rockaway man Ian Cruz in the head four times after the teenage girl set up to meet the male acquaintance in the park to supposedly share drugs and have sex, according to prosecutors.

In the Nassau slaying, Sanchez shot Harold Sermeno, 17, and another defendant cut his neck with a machete after the 13-year-old smoked marijuana and drank alcohol with the victim, Singas' office said.

The ambush of the Far Rockaway teenager happened behind the Five Towns Community Center, where police recovered his body on Dec. 18, 2018.

The suspects targeted the victims because of what they perceived as their slights against MS-13, according to authorities.

Sanchez's attorney, Michael Horn, said Friday his client didn't contest being part of MS-13, but there were "different law enforcement opinions about the level of his authority" in the gang — some putting Sanchez at a lower level.

"I see him as a kid who's had nothing but terrible things happen to him his entire life. And he got involved with people who were worse than he is and he did things that were terrible ... And he understands that he shouldn't have done that," the Astoria attorney added.

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