ALEXANDRIA — On the night members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang decided that 17-year-old Brenda Paz must die for being a snitch, her boyfriend was the first to volunteer, a federal jury was told yesterday.
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Oscar Antonio Grande, who goes by the gang nickname “Pantera,” told the group gathered inside a Fairfax County hotel room on July 12, 2003, that his close relationship with Paz made him the best candidate to enforce the death decree, according to a fellow gang member who was in the room.
“We were talking about the time to put it on her,” said Joel Hermeregildo Reyes-Mattos, 24, testifying in the 11th day of the trial of four men charged with killing Paz.
Speaking through a translator, he added: “Pantera said she trusted him most, and that he would go, and he asked for volunteers.”
The first to say he would join Grande was Ismael “Arana” Cisneros, Reyes testified. The next morning, Paz, who had voluntarily left the federal witness-protection program four weeks earlier, was dead, brutally stabbed to death, her body dumped on a bank of the Shenandoah River. She was 17 weeks pregnant when she died. Grande was not the father.
Along with Denis “Conejo” Rivera, 21, and Oscar “Gato” Garcia Orellana, 32; Grande, 25, and Cisneros, 26, are on trial in U.S. District Court on charges they planned and carried out Paz’s murder to silence her.
Paz, herself a member of Mara Salvatrucha, also called MS-13, was helping law enforcement in dozens of gang investigations in Virginia and elsewhere.
But her cover had been blown when gang members found her diary in June 2003. It included extensive notations about police officers she met and cases on which she was working. Gang members also discovered business cards of police officers and lawyers.
Paz’s reputation for being an informant had been cemented, jurors were told. In 2002, a senior gang member from Texas, Juan Ramon “Junior” Flores, had directed MS-13 members to kill Paz. He complained in a letter mailed to a Virginia gang leader that Paz, his former girlfriend, had helped police convict him of murder, for which he received a life prison term.
The ruthlessly enforced code of the gang was clear, Reyes testified: Members who co-operated with police must be killed.
“You cannot betray your homeboys,” Reyes said. “You cannot break the rules, because if you do, you can pay with your life.”
Each defendant has pleaded not guilty, and each could get the death penalty if convicted.
Reyes said members of the Centrales Locos Salvatrucha clique of MS-13 had discussed killing Paz numerous times. A few weeks before she died, Paz accompanied a group of gang members and their girlfriends to a beach near Annapolis, Md. While the women stood a few feet away, the men talked about murdering Paz, Reyes testified.
“They said they had found a diary,” Reyes said of his fellow gang members, who included Grande and Cisneros. “We were deciding when to murder her.”
A few weeks later, in the Fairfax hotel room, Paz was again the main topic. While male members of the group conducted their meeting, Paz and several other women waited outside in the parking lot, Reyes testified.
“We were talking about killing Smiley,” Reyes said, using Paz’s nickname. “Assassinating her.”
After a night of drinking beer and smoking marijuana, about 20 people fell asleep inside the room. Reyes said when he awoke the next morning, Paz, Grande, Cisneros and Garcia were gone.
Later that same day, Reyes, Grande and several other gang members had gathered in another hotel room. Reyes said Grande took him aside.
“He told me he had put it on her, and the fewer people who knew about it the better,” Reyes testified.
About a week later, Cisneros confessed his role, Reyes said.
“He felt bad. He liked her,” Reyes said of Cisneros. “But as he said, the MS rules are the rules, and you can’t do anything about it.”
Garcia also admitted his role while the pair were drinking beer in a Northern Virginia park, Reyes said.
Reyes was the latest in a string of current and former gang members who are testing the MS-13 code of silence by testifying in the case. For cooperating, most are receiving rewards such as immunity from prosecution and special visas allowing them to stay in the country.
Reyes said he hopes his testimony will lead to a reduction in a 30-year prison term he received after pleading guilty to drug and gun charges. That admission led to an aggressive cross-examination by Grande’s lawyer, David Baugh, who suggested Reyes is fabricating his story to get out of prison. Reyes shot Baugh angry glares as the lawyer pressed him for details about his story. But Reyes largely stuck to his account.
Prosecutors expect to wrap up their case today, after which defense lawyers for each defendant will present their arguments.
Contact Paul Bradley at (703) 548-8758 or [email protected]