An admitted MS-13 associate who lured four young men to their machete deaths in a Central Islip park in 2017 testified against her alleged co-conspirator and once-“close friend” Wednesday, saying they set up the victims to be killed by MS-13 members after showing gang members photos of one of the would-be victims flashing “disrespectful” gang signs.
Keyli Gomez, 21, of Central Islip, testifying under a cooperation agreement with federal prosecutors, said she and Leniz Escobar met with gang members in the parking lot of a deli about a week before the murders and showed them the pictures of Elmer Alexander Artiaga-Ruiz — the lone survivor of the attack — that Gomez hoped would result in her gaining “respect and trust” from MS-13.
“She helped the gang by taking out the boys for them to be killed,” said Gomez, referring to Escobar. Gomez, who was 16 at the time of the killings and is currently incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, appeared nervous as she testified, biting her lower lip at times.
It was Escobar’s idea, according to Gomez, to show the photos to the gang members. That resulted in a plan hatched by the group to kill Artiaga-Ruiz, perceived to be a member of the rival 18th Street gang. Escobar was “mad” about the photos and said “they were going to take that as a disrespect to the gang.”
Gomez, who has pleaded guilty to her role in the killings and her attempted cover-up of the crime and who is awaiting sentencing, also described how she impeded the investigation into the killings.
“I deleted messages from my phone and I helped Leniz to hide a sweatshirt … because it had blood from the victim,” said Gomez, who said she was arrested in North Carolina months after the murders.
Federal prosecutors have said Escobar, a “devoted” associate of the gang who was dating a high-ranking member, also hoped, like Gomez, to gain respect from MS-13 by sharing the photos and luring the boys to the park under the guise of smoking marijuana. Prosecutors have said Artiaga-Ruiz was not a gang member, but posted the photos to look cool.
Escobar, whose name on one social media platform was “la diablita” or “the little devil,” has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and racketeering in connection with the April 11, 2017 deaths of Jorge Tigre, 18; Michael Lopez, 20; Jefferson Villalobos, 18; and Justin Llivicura, 16. Artiaga-Ruiz previously testified that he escaped the attack by running and jumping a fence.
Gomez, who said she moved to Central Islip from her native El Salvador when she was 12 with her father, testified that she met Escobar about three to four months before the killings, but the pair spoke every day and hung out often. Gomez testified that she looked up to Escobar because members of MS-13 “respected and trusted her.” While she was friends with some MS-13 members, including Josue Portillo, who has pleaded guilty to his role in the killings, she said she didn’t enjoy the same level of trust from the gang that Escobar did.
Asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Farrell about Escobar’s demeanor when they hung out with MS-13 gang members, Gomez answered, “um, excited, energized.”
“She used to speak like them,” Gomez said of Escobar.
Gomez said she introduced Escobar to Artiaga-Ruiz, who she referred to as “Alex” about a month before the murders.
“Leniz told me to keep my eyes peeled for Alex … like there was something suspicious about him,” said Gomez, who said the two would nevertheless flirt with each other.
Gomez testified after another cooperating witness, David Antonio Gaitan-Rivera, 23, an admitted MS-13 gang member who pleaded guilty to two gang murders. Gaitan-Rivera, who was not involved in the Central Islip park killings, testified he was close to Escobar and was physical with her in a “sexual way” while her boyfriend — Jeffrey Amador, a high-ranking MS-13 gang member known as “Cruel” — was incarcerated.
“She and Keyli were crying and screaming and pretending that they didn’t know what was going on there” as the victims were struck with bats and machetes, Gaitan-Rivera said.
Some of one of the victims' blood “had splattered on her face and mouth,” Gaitan-Rivera said of Escobar, adding that she told him “the blood that had gotten on her lips, she had licked it.”