Murder victims Jefferson Villalobos, 18, of Florida, Michael Lopez, 18,...

Murder victims Jefferson Villalobos, 18, of Florida, Michael Lopez, 18, of Brentwood, Jorge Tigre and Justin Llivicura, 16, of Bellport.  Credit: Family handouts

An admitted MS-13 gang member who confessed to participating in the 2017 MS-13 machete killings of four young men in a Central Islip park described in open court on Wednesday how he struck the victims with a chisel and machete as they screamed and he later burned one of their shoes to destroy potential evidence.

“I decided to do that with the chisel, like around the neck area, so he threw himself to the ground,” said Sergio Vladimir Segovia-Pineda, 23, of Central Islip, who said he’s since left MS-13 after agreeing to cooperate with federal authorities. “That victim started asking us not to do anything to him, that he was not involved at all.”

Segovia-Pineda testified Wednesday in federal court in Central Islip at the trial of Leniz Escobar, 22, who federal prosecutors said was a “dedicated associate” of MS-13 and the girlfriend of a high-ranking member, and lured the young men to their deaths to gain respect from the gang. She has pleaded not guilty to murder and racketeering in connection with the killings.

Killed in the April 11, 2017 attack were Jorge Tigre, 18; Michael Lopez, 20; Jefferson Villalobos, 18; and Justin Llivicura, 16. Elmer Alexander Artiaga-Ruiz, now 22, testified earlier this week about his escape from the attack.

Segovia-Pineda, who pleaded guilty on July 5, 2017, to federal charges in connection with the killings, entered into a cooperation agreement with the government in hopes of receiving a lesser sentence, he testified. Segovia-Pineda, who said he’s hopeful he would receive time-served while facing a maximum sentence of life in prison, acknowledged federal prosecutors had not made any guarantees and his sentence will be up to a judge.

Other gang members and associates have also pleaded guilty in the murders, including Josue Portillo, who went by the name “Sparky” and was 15 years old at the time of the killings.

Segovia-Pineda, dressed in a green jail uniform, identified the 14 MS-13 gang members or associates — including himself — who participated in the planning of the attack and/or the killings as Assistant U.S. Attorney Justina Geraci displayed photos of their faces on screens in the 10th floor courtroom. Segovia-Pineda said if he were to be deported back to his native El Salvador, he would be killed for informing on MS-13.

Prosecutors have alleged that Escobar bragged about her role in the killings, but painted herself as a victim of the attack to law enforcement and destroyed evidence by disposing of a bloody sweatshirt she wore during the killings and tossing her cellphone from a moving vehicle on Southern State Parkway while being followed by police.

One of Escobar’s defense attorneys is expected to cross-examine Segovia-Pineda Thursday.

Hours before the killings, according to Segovia-Pineda, he and other gang members were hanging out inside of a small hut they had constructed inside the park, and smoking marijuana. Omar Villalta, a member of the gang who had achieved the rank of “homeboy” because he had killed people, told the group the killing of the young men was going to happen now, said Segovia-Pineda.

Villalta, known as “Anticristo,” had a backpack filled with knives, blades and machetes, and instructed everyone to arm themselves and if there weren’t enough weapons to “use tree limbs,” said Segovia-Pineda. The victims were killed because they were perceived to be rival gang members, he said.

Anticristo instructed the MS-13 gang members and associates that they each had to “touch the bodies,” meaning strike them with machetes “because that way, with MS, you get credit for the four bodies,” said Segovia-Pineda, who said he hacked at the victims with an approximately two-foot long machete with a rough black handle.

Escobar and her friend Keyli Gomez were “crouching down by the victims,” said Segovia-Pineda who added they were “just watching” and didn’t try to run.

When someone asked if they were going to kill the girls too, a gang member he identified as Armando Mayen, whose nickname was “Asael,” said “no, the chicks are with us,” according to Segovia-Pineda.

Members of the gang dragged the victims' bodies deeper into the woods, Segovia-Pineda said, in an effort to thwart law enforcement detection. He later burned one of the victims' red sneakers that he had touched.

The murders of the four young men were set into motion in the autumn of 2016, when Segovia-Pineda said “Asael” showed him photos on his cellphone of young men, who included Artiaga-Ruiz, making gang signs associated with MS-13 and the rival 18th Street gang.

Segovia-Pineda said they were thought to be members of the 18th Street gang. The leader of MS-13’s Leeward clique, who went by the name “Problematico,” told Mayen that even if they weren’t “chavalas,” or enemies of MS-13, “it was still disrespectful and they had to be killed,” according to Segovia-Pineda.

 “I said, ‘if the homeboy says they have to be killed, then we have to do it,'” said Segovia-Pineda. 

Federal prosecutors have said the victims were not gang members, but simply teenagers trying to look cool. Artiaga-Ruiz testified that he posted the photos on social media to gain favorable attention of women.

A few months later, according to Segovia-Pineda, while he and other gang members hung out inside a vacant house, “Asael” said there was a plan to “take out” the guys in the photos.

“They had already spoken to Leniz and she said she would convince the victims to bring them out,” said Segovia-Pineda, who described Escobar as carrying herself like she was “part of the gang … like a homegirl and stuff.”

About a week later, while smoking marijuana in the park with Escobar, she said to Segovia-Pineda and some of the other gang members that “we did not have the [expletive] to kill.”

When Segovia-Pineda and Asael were alone, he said they couldn’t retaliate against her because of her boyfriend’s status in the gang, “but we’re going to show her. We’re going to demonstrate to her that we do have the [expletive] and courage to kill.”

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