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Lawyers clash at start of retrial of alleged MS-13 gang member charged in deli killing

Police investigate the shooting at a deli on

Police investigate the shooting at a deli on Caleb's Path in Central Islip Jan. 30, 2017. An alleged MS-13 gang associate is accused of driving the getaway car in the 2017 killing of a rival gang member. Credit: Barry Sloan

A federal prosecutor and a defense attorney clashed in opening statements Thursday at the start of the retrial of a Central Islip man accused of being the getaway driver in an MS-13 street gang killing.

Eastern District prosecutor Raymond Tierney said that the defendant, Jose Suarez, an MS-13 associate, played a willing and key role in the killing of Esteban Alvarado-Bonilla, a suspected member of the rival 18th Street gang. Suarez drove the shooter to and from the scene of the killing, a deli in Central Islip, “for no other reason than to gain status in the MS-13,” Tierney said.

Alvarado-Bonilla was wearing a No.18 football jersey, that of NFL football star Peyton Manning and one commonly worn by 18th Street members, when he was shot in the back of the head by an MS-13 member in January 2017 at El Campesino Deli, Tierney said.

Suarez is also accused of participating in the brutal beating of two men who were believed to have disrespected the MS-13 in December 2016 outside a Brentwood restaurant and bar, said Tierney, who is prosecuting the case along with Michael Keilty.

But Suarez’s defense attorney, Raymond Colon of Manhattan, said that his client was not affiliated with the gang and was being prosecuted because he “foolishly hung out” with MS-13 members, and was being set up by MS-13 members who were cooperating in hopes of getting lesser sentences. Colon called the MS-13 members who have turned government informant against his client and other members of the gang “punks, creeps, a wolf pack.” 

A mistrial was declared in Suarez’s initial trial in April after a juror said he had been followed by members of Suarez’s family.

Though an investigation showed there was no attempt at intimidation, U.S. District Judge Joseph Bianco declared the mistrial because the juror had believed “there was some type of tampering.”

Like the first trial, the retrial is expected to lend insight into the operations of MS-13, through the testimony of the now cooperating gang members. One of the government’s first witnesses after the openings, German Cruz, identified Suarez as part of MS-13, and testified about how the gang consulted with higher leadership in El Salvador, and sent back money to them earned in drug dealing on Long Island.

The gang’s extremely violent conduct has focused national attention on MS-13, including the brutal murders in September 2016 of two Brentwood High School girls, and led President Donald Trump and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to vow to crush the gang.

Two of the leaders of the Brentwood Sailors clique of MS-13, Alexi Saenz and his brother, Jairo Saenz, who were also allegedly involved in the killing in the deli, are also charged in the murder of the two girls, Kayla Cuevas, then 16, and Nisa Mickens, 15.

The brothers are separately awaiting a determination on whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty if they are convicted of the deli murder, the murders of the two girls, and three other killings of men they thought belonged to rival gangs. They have pleaded not guilty.

The Saenz brothers are among about a dozen accused MS-13 gang members facing potential federal death penalties for killings on Long Island.

Suarez himself faces up to life in prison if convicted of a role in the deli killings. The government does not reveal why it declines to seek a death penalty. But Suarez allegedly had a lesser role in killings than others still facing possible death penalties for their roles.

Colon says Suarez has turned down a plea deal that could have resulted in a sentence of as little as 13 years in prison.

Suarez is charged with conspiracy to murder rival gang members; the murder of Alvarado-Bonilla; the assault on a clerk in the deli, who was hit by a bullet that went through Alvarado-Bonilla; and conspiracy to take part in another assault that led to “serious bodily injury.”

The last charge involved an attack in December 2016 at Super Taco restaurant in Brentwood.  

The government dropped charges against Suarez of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana, which he faced in the first trial. 

Suarez’s first trial lasted four weeks and involved hundreds of exhibits and almost two dozen witnesses.

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