ALEXANDRIA — The eldest of four members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang on trial in the killing of 17-year-old Brenda Paz asserted his innocence yesterday, claiming he was an unwilling and unwitting witness to her death.
Testifying in his own defense, Oscar Garcia-Orellana, 32, said he saw two of his co-defendants stab Paz in a secluded grove next to the Shenandoah River’s North Fork on the morning of July 13, 2003.
But he insisted that he never harmed Paz and was duped into accompanying his fellow gang members on the fatal trip.
“The truth is I did not kill Miss Paz,” Garcia said. “I did not touch Miss Paz. I didn’t help anyone kill Miss Paz. I didn’t even know her.”
His testimony came on the 15th day of the trial of Garcia and three other members of Mara Salvatrucha, considered the country’s largest and most violent criminal gang, commonly called MS-13.
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Clad in an oversized blue sport coat and striped tie, he spoke through an interpreter in a soft but firm voice, and spent the entire day on the witness stand.
Garcia was mostly composed, but he showed some flashes of emotion, particularly when Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Giles asked him to point out the men he claimed killed Paz — Ismael Cisneros, 26, and Oscar Antonio Grande, 25.
“This is real difficult,” he said. “I can’t do it.” In a barely audible voice, he then said the names of his fellow defendants aloud. He added that he never encountered the accused mastermind of the Paz murder plot, Denis Rivera, 21, until they were arraigned in the same courthouse last year.
Rivera is charged with ordering the murder of Paz, who was to have been a principal witness against him in a 2003 gang-related murder. Paz was killed about four weeks after voluntarily leaving the federal witness-protection program, where she had been assisting authorities in numerous gang-related investigations.
Testimony has shown that MS-13 members killed Paz because she had broken the gang’s ruthlessly enforced code of silence by cooperating with police.
The plan to kill Paz was cemented during a meeting of the Centrales clique of MS-13 at a Fairfax County hotel the night before she died. Garcia testified that he did not attend that meeting — contradicting earlier testimony in the case that he was there — and was unaware of the plot.
But Garcia said he did show up at the hotel later that night. He partied with about 20 MS-13 members, drinking beer and smoking pot and eventually falling asleep on the hotel floor.
Early the next morning, Garcia said, Cisneros nudged him awake and told him that he and some other gang members were driving a friend to his home in Harrisonburg and then were going fishing.
“He asked if I wanted to go, and I said OK,” Garcia said.
Five people — Garcia, Cisneros, Grande, Paz and a gang member called “Mousy” — piled into a sport utility vehicle and headed west along Interstate 66. They stopped for a drive-through breakfast. Mousy was dropped off at the mobile-home park in Harrisonburg where he lived.
The remaining gang members drove off. They soon pulled into a parking lot south of Mount Jackson, grabbed some fishing poles and walked down a path toward the Meems Bottom covered bridge over the Shenandoah River, he said.
Garcia said he walked to the edge of the river and began throwing pebbles into it. As jurors watched in rapt attention, some leaning forward in their seats, others scribbling notes, Garcia explained what happened next.
“I heard a scream,” he said. “I turned to my left and saw Miss Brenda was being stabbed. I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know why it was happening. We were all gang members, and we were all friends. I thought they’d do something to me, so I ran.”
Near the parking lot, Cisneros and Grande confronted him. “They came toward me and asked why I ran away and why I was such a [coward],” Garcia said.
When asked why he didn’t help Paz, Garcia said, “I wasn’t brave enough. Besides, if I had tried to help her, there might have been two bodies.”
His account differs sharply from the prosecution theory. Prosecutors claim Garcia wrapped a rope around Paz’s neck while Cisneros and Grande stabbed her.
Garcia said he joined MS-13 in his native El Salvador. He moved to Virginia in 1998 and started hanging around local gang members a couple of years later.
While aggressive questioning by prosecutor Giles undermined Garcia’s credibility, he largely stuck to his account of what happened to Paz.
“I am not guilty,” he said. “I did not kill Miss Paz.”
Garcia will return to the witness stand today when lawyers for the other defendants get their chance to question him.
Contact Paul Bradley at (703) 548-8758 or [email protected]