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Jeff Sessions creates new federal task force to fight MS-13, other crime

Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a news conference

Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a news conference at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia in Washington on Monday. Credit: AP / Carolyn Kaster

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday named a veteran federal prosecutor on Long Island to advise a new task force targeting the MS-13 street gang and other transnational organized crime groups.

The move is the latest in the Department of Justice's broad assault on the street gang, which has been alleged to have killed at least 25 people on Long Island since 2016.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham, of the Eastern District of New York, will lead the task force's subcommittee on MS-13. 

In a news conference in Washington, Sessions recalled meeting Durham in his recent trips to Long Island to highlight the battle against MS-13, saying, “I’ve been there. I’ve met with John.  He is an experienced prosecutor. He’s played a significant role in leading the FBI’s Long Island Task Force, focusing on MS-13. They have arrested hundreds of MS-13 members....He knows the area -- maybe this group -- as much as anybody in America, maybe more.”

Durham, deputy chief of the U.S. Attorney's Long Island criminal division in Central Islip, is one of five federal prosecutors from across the country that Sessions named to advise the new transnational organized crime task force. In addition to MS-13, it will also target Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Sessions deemed those groups as the "top transnational organized crime threats" in the United States. 

Sessions said he has instructed the task force's subcommittees to provide “specific recommendations” within 90 days “on the best ways to prosecute these gangs and ultimately take them off of our streets,” according to his statement.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Central Islip, where Durham has worked for about 13 years according to his LinkedIn page, declined to comment.

Durham is the lead prosecutor in the case against the alleged MS-13 gang members charged in the Sept. 13, 2016, killings of Nisa Mickens, 15, and her friend, Kayla Cuevas, 16. Prosecutors have said the four young men indicted in the killings went “hunting for rival gang members to kill” when they inadvertently came across Cuevas, who “was involved in a series of disputes with members and associates of the MS-13” and her friend Mickens, and fatally beat them with baseball bats and machetes.

In addition to prosecuting that case, Durham, along with fellow prosecutors Raymond Tierney, Paul Scotti and Michael Keilty, also is prosecuting the MS-13 members accused of murdering four young men in a Central Islip park in 2017. 

The killings of the teens initiated an intensified crackdown on the gang by local and federal law enforcement authorities and attracted the attention of President Donald Trump, who has railed against the gang as he pushes an anti-illegal immigration agenda. 

Trump and Sessions both visited Long Island last year and vowed to go after the gang. Sessions' April 2017 visit came just two weeks after the bodies of the four teens were discovered in the Central Islip park. 

Last October, Sessions announced the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces would use the federal racketeering statute, or RICO, as well as tax and gun laws to take aim at MS-13. 

Durham has been prosecuting gang cases on Long Island for many years. Along with then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard P. Donoghue -- now the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York -- he prosecuted the leader of the gang’s Leeward clique operating in the Brentwood and Central Islip areas. In 2010, Wilver Lopez, 29, was sentenced to 35 years in federal prison for murdering a fellow gang member in 2004.

Since 2010, the office has prosecuted MS-13 members for 45 murders, officials have said.

Durham is also prosecuting former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota and Spota's chief deputy and key aide, Christopher McPartland, who are charged with taking part in a cover-up of an assault committed by former Suffolk police Chief James Burke. Spota and his co-defendant have pleaded not guilty and are set to go on trial in March. 

Durham also prosecuted Burke, who is currently serving a 46-month sentence for beating a suspect and orchestrating a cover-up. 

Durham, who began working for the Eastern District at its Brooklyn office in 2005, is the son of John H. Durham, the U.S. Attorney for Connecticut. 

After graduating from Holy Cross and the University of Connecticut Law School, Durham worked as an associate for several law firms and clerked for a federal appeals court judge, according to officials and his Linkedin page. He transferred to the Long Island office in 2006 and became one of the three deputy chiefs in 2011.

Since 2003  Durham’s office has successfully prosecuted hundreds of MS-13 members, including many clique leaders, for violent crimes including murders, attempted murders and assaults, working with the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force. The FBI task force also includes local police and agents from other federal law enforcement agencies, according to federal officials.

Durham’s selection was hailed by both law enforcement officials and even defense attorneys who represent MS-13 members.

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart released a statement saying: “I worked closely with Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham during my tenure as head of the Long Island Gang Task Force and his knowledge of MS-13 is unmatched. He has proven to be an invaluable partner of the Suffolk County Police Department in our long-term commitment to dismantle MS-13 .... He has a wealth of information on MS-13, as well as other gangs, and I am sure his expertise will prove useful in the nationwide crackdown on gang activity.”

Suffolk Legis. Robert Trotta, who worked with Durham when he was a Suffolk police officer said, “I couldn’t think of a better person in the entire planet ... He’s by far the most competent prosecutor I’ve met and worked with. He’s the entire package and we are lucky to have him.”

John Wallenstein, a Garden City attorney who has represented a number of MS-13 members and is the past president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said: “Durham is one of the most experienced prosecutors in the country when it comes to MS-13 and gang violence."

Praising Durham’s integrity, Wallenstein said: “I can talk to him and he will give you a straight answer … [though] I might not like it.” 

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