ALEXANDRIA – Prosecutors yesterday rested their case against four members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang charged with the murder of a gang member turned informant, 17-year-old Brenda Paz.
The government wrapped up its case after eliciting testimony from 47 witnesses over three weeks, including more than a dozen current or former members of the predominantly Hispanic gang, commonly called MS-13. They provided a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the gang, considered to be the largest and most violent gang in the country. The gang has a large and growing presence in Virginia.
With the prosecution case complete, defense lawyers took their turn. The jury must sort out four separate defense cases and decide the guilt and relative culpability of each defendant individually.
The final prosecution witness was Alexandria police detective Victor A. Ignacio, who read from a statement he took last year from one of the defendants, 26-year-old Ismael Cisneros.
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In the statement, Cisneros detailed how he and co-defendants Oscar Antonio Grande, 25, and Oscar Garcia-Orellana, 32, stabbed Paz to death on July 13, 2003, and dumped her body on a bank of the Shenandoah River’s North Fork. Her body was discovered four days later.
Paz died just four weeks after she voluntarily left the federal witness-protection program. Considered a prized witness with encyclopedic knowledge of MS-13, she had been assisting authorities in gang-related investigations in Virginia and several other states.
According to Cisneros’ statement, the three men drove Paz from a Fairfax County hotel early on the morning of July 13. The night before, members of the Centrales Locos Salvatrucha clique of MS-13 had met and decided that Paz must die because she was a “rat” – violating the gang’s brutally enforced rule that its members not help police, according to the statement.
The statement, however, did not clearly implicate the man authorities contend masterminded the plot to kill Paz from his Fairfax County jail cell, 21-year-old Denis Rivera. Rivera was awaiting trial on a 2003 gang-related murder case, and Paz was to be a principal witness against him. He was convicted anyway and is serving a life prison term.
If Rivera and his co-defendants are convicted in this case, they face the possibility of the death penalty. All four men have pleaded not guilty.
Rivera’s lawyers yesterday called just one witness in their defense case, as they tried to prove their assertion that someone other than their client is responsible for ordering Paz’s murder. Testimony in the case has shown that Paz had made numerous enemies and had been “green-lighted” – gang code for an order to kill – by as many as four other gang leaders. Early in the case, testimony showed that authorities had compiled a list of about a dozen people considered a threat to Paz.
Under questioning from defense lawyer Jerome Aquino, Arlington County police detective Rick Rodriguez said Rivera was an informant. Rivera had been assisting authorities as they investigated an alleged murder plot against Rodriguez in June 2003, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez also was the sole defense witness called by Cisneros’ lawyers, while Grande’s lawyers called no witnesses.
Lawyers for Garcia, however, called six witnesses, and their testimony undermined a key prosecution assertion – that Garcia was a confidant of Rivera who told Rivera by letter and phone that Paz was dead.
In charging Garcia, prosecutors quoted him as telling Rivera in a recorded phone call on July 31, 2003, that “I know your heart will be filled with joy” upon learning Paz had been killed.
But it apparently was not Garcia talking to Rivera, but another gang member, Jose Napoleon Hernandez, testimony showed. Garcia and Hernandez go by the same nickname, “Gato,” Spanish for cat.
Hernandez has been deported, the jury was told.
With the jury out of the courtroom, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald L. Walutes Jr. essentially conceded that it was not Garcia’s voice on the July 31 call.
Garcia’s lawyer, Frank Salvato, acknowledged in his opening statement that Garcia was present when Paz was killed but contended that he was unaware of the plot against her and was an unwilling participant in the slaying.
Contact Paul Bradley at (703) 548-8758 or [email protected]