ALEXANDRIA — A key witness in the trial of four gang members charged in the killing of 17-year-old Brenda Paz said yesterday he now fears for his own life for violating the gang’s brutally enforced code of silence.
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Joel Hermeregildo Reyes-Mattos testified that he has grave reservations about returning to the federal penitentiary where he is serving a 30-year prison term because several gang members are locked up there too.
“I could pay with my own life if I go back there,” said Reyes, himself a longtime member of Mara Salvatrucha, commonly called MS-13. “That is the risk I have to take every day I am locked up.”
“You never know what is going to be done. MS-13 is very big. It has a lot of members. Some people take things lightly, and some don’t.”
During several hours on the witness stand over two days, Reyes, who goes by the gang nickname “Sharkey,” provided testimony implicating the defendants, whom he described as close friends. Reyes said he attended an MS-13 meeting on July 12, 2003, where a plan to kill Paz was cemented.
Paz, an MS-13 member who had voluntarily left the federal witness-protection program about a month earlier, was killed the next day, stabbed more than a dozen times.
Paz was 17 weeks pregnant when she was murdered, and Reyes testified yesterday that gang members briefly considered sparing her life until she gave birth. That idea was ultimately rejected, he said.
Pregnancy did not mitigate the fact that Paz had broken a central rule of MS-13, Reyes said. Paz was a “rat,” and MS-13 members in Texas, Los Angeles and El Salvador had give her a “green light,” gang code for an order to kill, he said.
Paz was helping authorities in gang-related investigations in Virginia and several other states.
Reyes, speaking through an interpreter, said he agreed to testify in hopes his prison term will be reduced. His agreement with prosecutors calls for him to be deported to his native Peru once he is released from prison. He pleaded guilty last year to two gun- and drug-related charges.
Defense lawyers have suggested that Reyes embellished his account of what happened to Paz to earn his freedom, but he made it clear he was testifying reluctantly.
“If it were up to me, I wouldn’t be here,” he said through an interpreter. “Contrary to what some people think, it is not easy. They were my friends, and it is tearing me up inside. I will have to deal with it for the rest of my life.”
On trial are Denis “Conejo” Rivera, 21; Oscar Antonio “Pantera” Grande, 25; Ismael “Arana” Cisneros, 26; and Oscar “Gato” Garcia Orellana, 32. Each has pleaded not guilty to a five-count indictment, and each could get the death penalty if convicted.
The trial, now entering its fourth week, has provided a chilling glimpse into the inner workings of MS-13, considered the largest and most violent gang in the country, with an established and growing presence in Virginia.
Time and again, the jury has been told that MS-13 mandates death for those in its ranks who cooperate with police. Yet more than a dozen current and former gang members and their associates have testified in the case, some of whom say they now fear for their lives.
Some of the most powerful evidence in the trial came from one of the defendants. Alexandria police detective Victor A. Ignacio testified yesterday that Cisneros made a detailed confession last June. During two long interviews, Cisneros provided a crucial piece of the puzzle that led to the charges against Cisneros and his three co-defendants, Ignacio said.
But Cisneros’ statements might also have helped Rivera, who is charged with masterminding the plot from his jail cell, where he was awaiting trial on a 2003 gang-related killing. Paz was to have been a principal witness against Rivera. Rivera was convicted even without Paz’s testimony and is serving a life term.
In his statement, Cisneros said he did not believe Rivera knew of the plot against Paz.
“I think the guy had nothing to do with this,” he said.
Prosecutors so far have called nearly 50 witnesses and are expected to complete their case on Monday. The defendants will then each present their own cases.
Contact Paul Bradley at (703) 548-8758 or [email protected]