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Brentwood killings investigated by task force as gang crime

Suffolk County police investigators probe a wooded area

Suffolk County police investigators probe a wooded area in Brentwood where a body was discovered on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016. Credit: James Carbone

Young members of a street gang composed of recent arrivals to Long Island may be responsible for as many as six killings and possibly others in the Brentwood area, sources familiar with the investigation said.

The same group is suspected of being involved in the disappearance and possible slayings of two to three other people reported missing in the Brentwood area in the last few months, the sources said.

The newcomers from Central America — in their teens or early 20s — are described by several sources as an “extremely violent group of about a dozen members of the MS-13 street gang.”

The sources familiar with the federal investigation say the new arrivals have been raised in the extreme brutality of gangs in Central America. Members of MS-13 are expected to attack members of rival gangs and avenge any perceived slight against the gang, the sources said.

“They are steeped in the gang culture there,” said a source familiar with the investigation. “And many of the older gang members have been imprisoned in the last several years, leaving room” for others to join.

The killings of two teenage girls who were beaten to death with bats and machetes in September seem to match the violent pattern, according to law enforcement officials. The teens were found dead hours after one of them had a dispute with MS-13 gang members at Brentwood High School’s Ross Center, the sources said.

Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said the injuries to Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16, “were some of the worst wounds I’ve ever seen.” The Suffolk medical examiner ruled the deaths “homicide by assault,” he said.

Mickens’ body was found Sept. 13 near a wooded area by Ray Court, and the body of Cuevas, who had gotten into a dispute with MS-13 members, was found nearby the next day.

The homicides triggered a manhunt with scores of investigators and other resources that led to the discovery of more bodies.

Now, sources say four more people are believed to have been killed by MS-13 members. They are: Oscar Acosta, 19, whose body was found in an industrial area by the Long Island Rail Road tracks on Sept. 16; Miguel Garcia Moran, 15, whose skeletal remains were found in the same area on Sept. 21; Dewann A.S. Stacks, 34, who was found mortally wounded on Oct. 13 on American Boulevard and died at the scene; and Jose Pena-Hernandez, 18, whose body was unearthed on Oct. 17 in a wooded area of the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood.

Other people reported missing recently in the Brentwood area may also have been the victims of gang violence, the sources said.

The MS-13 newcomers suspected in the killings can easily find shelter on Long Island when they arrive, the sources said. If they didn’t have relatives or family friends to take them in, there is the MS-13 culture to help them settle, the sources said.

Esquina, the Spanish word for corner, or street corner, is the gang’s custom of taking in or setting up new arrivals to an area, the sources said.

The sources stressed that the suspects are a tiny fraction of the almost 3,000 children under 18 who have entered the United States illegally and settled on Long Island since 2015, according to federal statistics as of June 2016. And that number only includes children under 18 whose relatives or sponsors have requested asylum or special juvenile immigration status.

The overall flow of Central American youth into the United States and onto Long Island has been propelled by the violence between gangs and governments, according to the sources.

The federal investigation into the recent Brentwood killings, in cooperation with Suffolk police, is being spearheaded by the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force, which includes investigators from a number of local law enforcement agencies.

Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District working with the task force have convicted several hundred MS-13 gang members on Long Island since 2002.

Among the cases that resulted in recent convictions are the 2010 slayings of 19-year-old Vanessa Argueta and her 2-year-old son, Diego Torres.

The Argueta-Torres case also illustrates the difficulty of dealing with MS-13 and other gangs.

It took the FBI task force several years to penetrate, through informants, the local cliques involved in those killings. A similar tactic is being used in the Brentwood killings, the sources said.

The MS-13 ranks are often refilled in several years after successful prosecutions by “the brothers” of those who have been convicted, not necessarily relatives, but younger gang members, sources familiar with the probe said.

The pace of new gang arrivals depends on the rise and fall of the level of both the economy and violence in Central America, as well as places in now smaller-sized gang cliques, or chapters, in the United States, the sources said.

This is what has happened recently with the local leadership and membership of MS-13 having been decimated by federal convictions, leaving openings for younger Central American members, the sources said.

About a half-dozen known members of MS-13 have been arrested recently on a variety of federal charges in the hopes of also getting information from them on the Brentwood killings, the sources said. They are not believed to have been involved in the actual killings, the sources said.

Those arrested were known to have been involved in illegal activity but were being watched to see if they could lead to more significant criminal activity, the sources said.

Many of the suspects in the recent Brentwood-area killings are believed to have fled back to Central America, as did the killers in the Argueta-Torres case, the sources said.

Eventually, the three killers in the Argueta-Torres deaths were apprehended: in the case of one, Juan Garcia, after he was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list and a reward of $100,000 was offered for information leading to his capture; in the case of the other two convicted in the killings, after they returned to the United States.

“These cases take time . . . it’s not like on television,” said one source familiar with the case.

Even with the resources of the FBI and the federal government, the investigation and convictions took several years, the sources stressed.

Recent Brentwood homicides

Nisa Mickens, 15, found Sept. 13 in a wooded area near Ray Court.

Kayla Cuevas, 16, found Sept. 14 near Ray Court, also near where Mickens’ body was found.

Oscar Acosta, 19, found Sept. 16 in a wooded, industrial area — west of Emjay Boulevard, east of Sagtikos Parkway and north of the Long Island Rail Road tracks.

Miguel Garcia Moran, 15, found Sept. 21 in the same area near the LIRR tracks where Acosta’s remains were found.

Dewann A.S. Stacks, 34, found Oct. 13 on American Boulevard. Stacks had been walking along American Boulevard south of Second Avenue when he was assaulted, police said.

Jose Pena-Hernandez, 18, whose body was unearthed on Oct. 17 in a wooded area of the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood.

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