ALEXANDRIA – The trial of four gang members charged with killing Brenda Paz shifted focus Wednesday from her involvement in the Mara Salvatrucha gang to her violent death, allegedly at the hands of her one-time compatriots.
Through police testimony and bloody crime-scene photos, prosecutors outlined for the jury how Paz’s body was found on the bank of the Shenandoah River by a couple of fishermen in July 2003.
A forensic pathologist testified that the 17-year-old Paz had been stabbed at least 16 times. Her throat had been slashed. She was 16 weeks pregnant with a baby boy at the time she died.
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And for the first time, authorities revealed that Paz’s killers apparently left their signature behind, spray-painting a bridge, two trash cans and a picnic table near the crime scene with gang-related graffiti.
The developments came on the third day of the trial of four members of Mara Salvatrucha. Also called MS-13, the gang is considered to be the largest and most violent gang in the country, with a growing presence in Virginia.
On trial are Denis Rivera, 21; Oscar Antonio Grande, 21; Ismael Juarez Cisneros, 25; and Oscar Alexander Garcia-Orellana, 31. Each is named in a five-count indictment charging him with plotting and carrying out Paz’s murder to prevent her from testifying against Rivera, her former boyfriend, in a 2003 murder case. Each defendant could get the death penalty if convicted. Each has pleaded not guilty.
The trial has provided a glimpse into the subculture of the gang, made up primarily of young Hispanic men and women, many of them runaways with no families. Jurors have heard how female gang members panhandle at shopping malls, using the money they collect to rent hotel rooms and pay for raucous beer and marijuana parties.
Prosecutors contend that Paz was trying to leave the gang life by cooperating with police, helping them in gang-related investigations in Virginia and several other states. For her betrayal, prosecutors allege, she was killed in a plan masterminded by Rivera from his jail cell.
The lack of her testimony against Rivera did not save him. He was convicted in the murder about which she was to testify, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Paz’s body was found July 17, 2003, four days after she was killed and about a month after she voluntarily left the federal witness-protection program.
Maj. Scott Proctor of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office was the first officer on the scene of the killing. He testified that Paz’s body, lying on its back, was found wedged behind a large rock near the steep bank of the river’s North Fork. Her white shirt had turned red with her blood, he said. Some jurors turned away when gruesome crime-scene photos were shown on a large screen.
The crime scene was south of the town of Mount Jackson, about 100 yards from the Meem’s Bottom covered bridge, a top tourist attraction in Shenandoah County.
“The body was badly decomposed,” Proctor said.
Shenandoah County sheriff’s investigator Paul Ryman testified that detectives found little physical evidence at the crime scene. A footprint found in some mud came from a shoe Paz was wearing, he said. An impression of a hand found in mud nearby also came from Paz, he said.
But investigators did find evidence strongly suggesting gang involvement, he said. A concrete pillar supporting the bridge was marked with the letters “VL” in blue spray paint, he said. Prosecutors believe the markings are gang shorthand for the Spanish “vida loco,” or “crazy life,” a common phrase used by MS-13 members. Authorities had not previously disclosed the presence of the graffiti, fearing that publicizing it would undermine their investigation.
Similar markings were left on a pair of trash cans in a parking lot near where Paz’s body was found, one can marked with “V” and the other with “L.” The lot is near the head of a trail leading to the river’s edge, and prosecutors believe that’s where Paz’s killers parked on the day she died.
In addition, Ryman said, the number “13” was spray-painted on the bench of a picnic table located adjacent to the same parking lot.
Testimony in the case will wrap up for the week today.
Prosecutors expect to eventually call more than 70 witnesses, including numerous MS-13 members who will testify in return for immunity from prosecution or special visas allowing them to remain in the country.
Paul Bradley is a staff writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.