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Alleged MS-13 gang member pleads not guilty to murder charge

Court records say defendant Jose Lopez told police he took part in both the victim's machete killing and burial in the woods.

Jose Lopez, center, leaves Nassau Police headquarters in

Jose Lopez, center, leaves Nassau Police headquarters in Mineola on June 15. Photo Credit: Newsday

A man accused of taking part in a Roosevelt man’s suspected gang slaying told police MS-13 members lured the victim into the woods, before repeatedly hitting him with machetes and burying him in a pre-dug grave, court records say.

But in court Thursday, Jose Daniel Lopez, 19, of Roosevelt, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree murder charge after his indictment in the September 2016 killing of Josue Amaya Leonor, 19, also of Roosevelt.

Prosecutor Jared Rosenblatt said Lopez admitted to being part of the gang’s Hollywood clique, and told police he struck the victim three or four times with a machete as part of the deadly attack that also involved others.

After the slaying, branches and leaves were spread over the victim's body in the hole and one attacker took the machetes and shovels they’d used and put them in a white nylon bag, the prosecutor added. Law enforcement officials unearthed Amaya Leonor's remains May 30 in a wooded area of Roosevelt Preserve nearly two years after he disappeared. 

Acting State Supreme Court Justice Felice Muraca remanded Lopez back to Nassau’s jail on Thursday without setting bail.

Nassau police on Thursday night said they have charged another Roosevelt man, Kevin G. Lopez-Morales, 20, with second-degree murder in connection with the May 30 discovery of human remains in the Roosevelt Preserve. Police could not immediately confirm that Amaya Leonor was the victim.

Police also charged Lopez-Morales with second-degree murder in the July 2017 machete slaying of Angel Soler, 15. He is the fifth man charged in connection with the killing of Soler, whose remains were discovered in October 2017, also in a wooded area of Roosevelt.

Jose Daniel Lopez's court-appointed lawyer, Jeffrey Groder, didn’t make a bail application Thursday and said his client already had an immigration hold at the jail. He added after court that his client had been in the country four years and was not here legally.

The Mineola defense attorney also said authorities at this point had “no physical evidence” connecting his client to the case and he cast some doubt on the statement authorities said Lopez gave police.

"They do have a statement that he allegedly gave to the police. That will be the subject of a hearing later on to see if it's valid," Groder said.

Court records say Lopez told police that MS-13 members believed Amaya Leonor was part of the rival 18th Street gang after seeing a Facebook photo and that a plan was soon hatched to kill him.

Gang members told the victim they had a “marijuana cultivation” in the woods as they led him to the spot where they attacked him, Lopez reportedly said.

He also said the gang threw dirt on top of Amaya Leonor’s body to help bury it before leaving the scene, according to the statement.

Lopez, who is from El Salvador, also reportedly told police he “got completely out” of MS-13 after the slaying.

He shook his head "no" twice Thursday when a reporter asked as court officers led him away if he had killed the victim and if he was a member of MS-13.

Nassau police arrested Lopez on June 14, alleging he and others caused the victim’s machete-inflicted death.

Police said then that Amaya Leonor became “an enemy of MS-13” who was “marked for death” after posting social media photos of himself and new friends whom MS-13 considered rivals.

Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said in a prepared statement Thursday, before police announced a second arrest in the case, that “additional arrests are expected soon” in Amaya Leonor’s slaying.

Other alleged members of MS-13’s Hollywood clique are facing murder charges in the July 2017 slaying of Angel Soler, 15, whose body authorities recovered last fall in a wooded area of Roosevelt nearly three months after he went missing.

Amaya Leonor's sister said in a previous interview with Newsday that her brother had told her not long before he went missing that he had felt threatened at school, but didn’t have enemies and didn’t mention any gangs.

-- With Deon J. Hampton

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