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Judge declares mistrial in MS-13 gang trial

U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Bianco declared the mistrial Wednesday morning after a juror alleged jury misconduct. 

Suffolk police investigate a fatal shooting in 2017

Suffolk police investigate a fatal shooting in 2017 at a Central Islip deli. The judge in the trial of a defendant charged for his alleged role in the killing declared a mistrial in the case Wednesday.   Credit: Barry Sloan

A juror's allegation of intimidation led to a mistrial Wednesday in the case of an alleged MS-13 associate accused of driving the getaway car in the 2017 killing of a rival gang member in a Central Islip deli.

U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Bianco declared the mistrial in response to a defense motion after a juror alleged family members of the defendant had followed and photographed the juror Monday after court ended for the day.

Jose Suarez, 24, of Central Islip, was accused of driving the shooter to the El Campesino Deli & Grocery in Central Islip on Jan. 30, 2017, where he fatally shot Esteban Alvarado-Bonilla.

Bianco, in his Central Islip federal courtroom Wednesday, said he declared the mistrial "based upon there was a juror believing there was some type of tampering.” 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Raymond Tierney rose from the prosecution table to tell Bianco the government intended to retry the case.

“We are prepared to start Monday,” Tierney said.

Suarez's defense attorney Raymond L. Colon, of Manhattan, said the juror told other members of the panel that he thought Suarez's cousin and brother, who had attended the trial, had followed him Monday in a white vehicle and pulled alongside his vehicle and took photos. 

But Colon said the juror was mistaken. Investigators in the U.S. attorney's office interviewed the family members — who willingly turned over their cellphones — and checked nearby surveillance cameras before concluding there was no attempted intimidation, Colon said. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment.

Colon said he asked for the mistrial over concerns the other jurors could be influenced by what the juror told them.

Later Wednesday morning, the juror was brought to the courtroom.

“I did ultimately have to declare a mistrial based on the information you reported,” Bianco told the man, who had been seated as juror No. 2. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” he went on, “you reported the information."

The juror responded with an apology to the judge "but I feel I did what was right."

Colon said he's ready for a retrial.

"We’re prepared to try to this case again," Colon said, "and the moral of the story is that the judge protected the defendant’s right to a fair trial.”

Both sides decided on a tentative retrial date of April 15 because Colon has another case pending in Puerto Rico, and a retrial would require a new pool of 250 from which to select a juror.

In addition to the murder charge, Suarez, an alleged associate of MS-13's Brentwood-based Sailors clique, was charged with the assault of a female deli clerk who was shot but survived, and conspiracy to assault two men during a fight over a woman at a Brentwood taco restaurant in 2016. He was also charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana, which, according to prosecutors, funded MS-13's violence.

Suarez's four-week trial, during which three MS-13 gang members testified against their former associate, featured 22 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits including photos of gang graffiti and a list of gang members maintained by leadership, prosecutors said.

The gang members who testified detailed Suarez's alleged involvement in the El Campesino Deli and described in frank terms in the rules of MS-13 and its brutal tactics to gain respect, including killing any rival gang members or anyone who disrespects the gang.

Alvarado-Bonilla’s family could not be reached for comment.

Unlike many of the MS-13's recent slayings on Long Island, which authorities have said took place in wooded areas and involved machetes, bats and other killing tools, the fatal deli shooting was different. It took place in a relatively busy public place on a Monday morning and was caught on surveillance camera. Video evidence from homes and a gas station near the deli as well as from a nearby taco restaurant also were presented to the jury. 

Tierney and fellow Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Keilty, who relied on the videos as key evidence also put admitted MS-13 gang members, who had pleaded guilty to their own involvement in gang crimes and testified in hopes of receiving lighter prison sentences, on the stand to corroborate the videos.

According to trial testimony, the killing was ordered by brothers Alexi "Blasty" Saenz and Jairo "Funny" Saenz, who were then leaders of the Sailors clique. Mario Aguilar-Lopez, of Brentwood, an admitted MS-13 member, pleaded guilty to the killing in November and is awaiting sentencing.

The Saenz brothers have been indicted in several gang-related killings on Long Island, including the slayings of Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16, in September 2016. They have both pleaded not guilty. 

Colon had argued his client wasn't an associate or member of the gang, but rather just a "foolish" young man who hung out with members and couldn't separate himself from the gang because he knew too much and therefore would be subject to a beating, or even death.

Suarez’s mother, father and other family members attended the trial, but declined to comment to a reporter.

Colon, as part of his defense, had also challenged the cooperating witnesses, saying they lied on the stand and would later benefit from their testimony by getting to stay in the United States in the federal witness protection program, rather than being deported to their native Central American countries where they would be marked for death by testifying about MS-13. 

But prosecutors stressed that Suarez hung around with gang members for three years before participating in the killing and was aware of and involved in the gang's illegal activities. He participated in the murder, they said, to increase his standing in the gang.

With Joye Brown 

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