Potomac News Online | N.Va. trial to shed light on MS-13


ALEXANDRIA — The view from the scene of the crime was a bucolic vista worthy of a tourist brochure. A wooden covered bridge crossed a meandering river amid the sun-splashed mountains of the Shenandoah Valley.

The crime scene itself stood in grisly, shocking contrast. On July 17, 2003, a fisherman and his son found the body of a young woman under a briar patch on the west bank of the Shenandoah River.

Her tattoo-covered body had multiple stab wounds. Her throat had been so deeply slashed that her head was nearly severed.

The woman was Brenda Paz, a Honduran-born member of the violent Mara Salvatrucha street gang, commonly known as MS-13. Just a month earlier, she had voluntarily left the federal witness-protection program.

Authorities said the 17-year-old was cooperating with investigations into the gang in at least six states.

Tomorrow morning, four alleged members of MS-13 will go on trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, charged with planning and carrying out Paz’s execution-style slaying. If found guilty, they could face the death penalty.

Each of the four defendants has pleaded not guilty to a five-count indict- ment charging them with conspiring and carrying out the slaying to prevent her from testifying in a murder case against one of them.

The trial marks the first time federal prosecutors have sought the death penalty in connection with a gang-related crime. It is expected to provide a rare glimpse into the inner workings of MS-13, considered to be the fastest-growing and most violent street gang in America, with a menacing presence in at least 30 states and well-established in Virginia.

Prosecutors are setting out to prove that Paz, who was 17 weeks pregnant at the time she died, was a victim of the gang’s ruthlessly enforced code of silence. But some of the most compelling evidence is expected to come from the defendants themselves, contained in statements to police, in intercepted letters and in recorded phone conversations. Additional powerful evidence will come from cooperating witnesses, including other gang members.

At the center of the case is 20-year-old Denis Rivera, the leader of a MS-13 “clique” in Northern Virginia who is accused of masterminding the killing from his Fairfax County jail cell and “green-lighting” Paz — gang code for ordering the killing of a gang member.

Case rooted in 2001 killing

The case has its roots in another gang-related slaying. On Sept. 16, 2001, 20-year-old Joaquim Diaz was stabbed to death on Daingerfield Island, a federal park on the Potomac River outside Alexandria. Authorities said Diaz, whose throat was slashed, was killed because he was a “chavala” — a member of a rival gang.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the killing was little-noted around Northern Virginia. But gang investigators said it was evidence of a disturbing pattern of escalating violence on the part of the young members of MS-13.

Rivera, who had a long criminal record, was among those who were charged with Diaz’ slaying and indicted for murder in April 2003. He was scheduled to stand trial, and Paz was to be a principal witness against him.

Investigation points to jail plot

From inside jail, authorities charge, by using phone calls and letters laced with gang code, Rivera orchestrated the killing of Paz, who used to be his girlfriend and spoke with him frequently while he was behind bars and when she was in witness protection.

Rivera, nicknamed “Conejo,” Spanish for rabbit, is quoted in court papers as saying during a phone call recorded by authorities after Paz died that her death should serve as a grim lesson to talkative gang members “you rat and that’s it.”

The other defendants — Oscar Antonio Grande, 21, and Oscar Alexander Garcia-Orellana, 31, both of Fairfax, and Ismael Juarez Cisneros, 25, of Vienna are charged with carrying out the plot, gathering evidence that confirmed her betrayal and then stabbing her to death.

According to court papers and interviews with sources close to the case, this is what investigators believe happened:

On July 12, 2003, MS-13 leaders gathered in a third-floor room at the Holiday Inn Fair Oaks. It was a mandatory MS-13 meeting — called a “mass” — where the problem of Brenda Paz and the upcoming trial of Rivera commanded center stage. It was the last of several meetings where killing her was discussed.

During that meeting, a MS-13 member identified in court papers only as “Crusty” spoke to the group. He said he had seen Paz’s diary and it was full of notations — dates, times, names of police officers — detailing the cases in which she was helping police. In short order, the group agreed. Paz was fully green-lighted.

Invited to go fishing

The next day, Grande borrowed a white sport utility vehicle from a friend, according to court papers. Paz was invited to join Grande, Garcia-Orellana and Cisneros, all her trusted friends, for a day of fishing on the scenic Shenandoah River about 90 miles west of Fairfax. Fishing poles were loaded and the group headed west, Grande at the wheel. It was about a two-hour drive. They stopped along the way for burgers.

Unknown to Paz, in addition to fishing gear, the men were also carrying knives and a length of rope, according to court documents.

After arriving at the river near Mount Jackson in Shenandoah County, the group hopped from the truck and walked single file through the woods to a secluded spot on the riverbank. Court documents said Paz was third in the line. Because she was pregnant, her friends helped her navigate the rocky terrain.

On the riverbank, a rope was wrapped around Paz’s neck from behind, according to court papers. She screamed. The hidden knives came out. She was stabbed repeatedly. Before she died, she was told she was being killed because she was a “rat,” prosecutors allege. Her assailants tried to decapitate her, but the knives were too dull to do the job.

Rivera still convicted

The three men made their way back to the SUV and tossed the knives out of its window as they sped back to Fairfax. They stopped at a gas station where they changed out of bloody clothes, discarded them and changed into clean ones they had brought along.

After dropping off one of the men, the others headed to the Fair Oaks Mall, where a meeting had been planned the night before. But a security guard chased the group out of mall. The group headed back to the Holiday Inn, where the MS-13 members gathered there learned that the deed had been done. Soon after, by phone and by mail, Rivera learned Paz was dead. Her body went unidentified for several weeks.

Ultimately, Paz’s death did not save Rivera. His trial was delayed until November 2003. Paz’s court-appointed guardian was allowed to testify in her place, and on Nov. 20, 2003, Rivera and two co-defendants were convicted of murder. The following February, each was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Contact Paul Bradley at (703) 548-8758 or [email protected]


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