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Ex-Nassau employee charged with smuggling contraband to teen suspect in MS-13 killings

Elena Santana leaves Nassau County District Court in

Elena Santana leaves Nassau County District Court in Hempstead on Tuesday. Credit: Newsday

A former Nassau County Juvenile Detention Center employee is facing criminal charges after authorities say she smuggled an ice cream container with a cellphone apparently hidden inside to a teenage girl accused of taking part in two MS-13 gang killings.

A lawyer for Elena Santana, 25, of Massapequa, said Tuesday after his client pleaded not guilty at her Hempstead District Court arraignment that she was being used "as a scapegoat" because of the Westbury facility’s lax security.

Court records show police arrested Santana, who had been a youth group worker aide at the detention center, on misdemeanor charges of official misconduct and promoting prison contraband in December.

Santana’s arrest came after other employees found a cellphone with a charger and ear buds hidden behind a garbage pail and inside a feminine hygiene disposal bag on Aug. 20, 2020, in a room that girls use at the facility, according to a deposition from facility director LaQueta Robbins-Kennedy.

The director said the alleged MS-13 member was the facility’s only female detainee then.

Prosecutors previously said the Far Rockaway teenager, who was 13 when indicted and pleaded not guilty, teamed with five other alleged MS-13 members in December 2018 to kill a 23-year-old in a Far Rockaway park and a 17-year-old behind a Nassau community center.

The girl lured the victims to their executions after contact through social media and text messages, with the promise of sex and drugs in at least one of the slayings, according to authorities.

Santana admitted at a staff meeting on Aug. 21 that she "possibly" knew how the phone got into the possession of the young double murder defendant, Robbins-Kennedy also said in the deposition.

She said Santana "in sum and substance … admitted to bringing in a Turkey Hill half gallon ice cream container" and giving it to the teenager "after allegedly checking its contents."

However, Santana’s attorney, James Pascarella, also said in an interview Tuesday that his client denies bringing in the phone.

"I think it’s disgraceful that they arrested her. I think that the Nassau County juvenile facility is run poorly. They have lax standards there and they’re using her as a scapegoat and blaming her for contraband that came in," he added.

Pascarella also said items people brought into the facility "weren’t always checked" and that "there’s food constantly brought into that facility by outside people."

The county’s website describes the center as "a 48 bed secure facility designed to house juvenile offenders who have criminal cases pending in Family, County, or District Courts." It's supervised by the county Probation Department and certified by the state Office of Children and Family Services.

Citing the pending criminal case, Nassau County spokesman Michael Fricchione on Tuesday declined to address the allegation by Santana's lawyer about lax security, or otherwise comment on her arrest other than to say she no longer worked for the county. Prosecutors also declined to comment.

Santana's arrest paperwork alleges she got the ice cream container from a family member of a juvenile detainee on Aug. 14, 2020, before sneaking it inside to the detainee — who later was found in possession of an unauthorized cellphone. It accuses Santana of bringing in an unauthorized item and "performing a personal favor" for a detainee outside her assigned duties.

Robbins-Kennedy's deposition said security video from the day in question showed Santana left the lobby and went into the parking lot where a vehicle was seen, before she returned inside two minutes later with a bag. Three minutes after that, video showed Santana walking to the teenager’s room while appearing to be "concealing something under her fleece."

After going partly inside, Santana left "no longer concealing anything within her fleece," according to the deposition.

Santana resigned from her Probation Department job, where she worked since late 2018, in September, court records say.

Attorney Russell Rothberg, who represents the teenage defendant, said Tuesday he hadn’t been aware of Santana’s arrest and his client wasn’t facing contraband charges.

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