MS-13 pleads guilty in 8-murder case – NBC New York

A leader of an MS-13 gang clique in New York pleaded guilty Wednesday to racketeering in a case involving eight murders, including the 2016 slayings of two high school girls who were hacked and beaten while walking through their leafy suburban Long Island neighborhood.

Alexi Saenz, 29, said little as he entered the plea in federal court in Central Islip. His lawyer read a statement in which Saenz admitted to ordering or approving the killing of perceived rivals and people who had disrespected or quarreled with members of his clique.

Those victims were Kayla Cuevas, 16, and Nisa Mickens, 15, lifelong friends and classmates at Brentwood High School who were killed with a machete and a baseball bat by a group of young men and teenage boys who had followed them in a car.

The high school students’ deaths focused the nation’s attention on MS-13 gang violence under President Donald Trump’s administration.

The Republican had called for the death penalty for Saenz and others arrested in the killings and blamed the violence and gang growth on lax immigration policies when he made several visits to Long Island. Cueva’s mother Evelyn Rodriguez was a guest at Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address.

The girls’ deaths also led to questions about whether Long Island police had been aggressive enough in confronting what was then a serious gang threat developing in area high schools.

For months in 2016, Hispanic children and young men had been quietly disappearing in Brentwood, a working-class community 40 miles (64.37 kilometers) east of New York City. After Kayla and Nisa were killed, police discovered the bodies of three other youths in Brentwood, ages 15, 18 and 19, who had gone missing months earlier.

Saenz said he was not present when Kayla and Nisa were killed but had phone conversations with other gang members about the attack beforehand.

U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Breon Peace, whose office prosecuted the case, said Wednesday that Saenz’s hands are “soaked in blood.”

As part of his guilty plea, Saenz admitted to playing a role in six other murders and three attempted murders.

His victim was Javier Castillo, 15, of Central Islip, who befriended members of the gang, drove 30 miles away to Freeport and was then fatally attacked with a machete in an isolated swamp. His buried body was discovered a year later in 2017.

Another victim, Oscar Acosta, 19, was found dead in a wooded area near some railroad tracks days after Kayla and Nisa died. He had disappeared almost five months earlier when he left his home in Brentwood to play football.

Older victims were Esteban Alvarado-Bonilla, 29, who was killed by a gunman inside a Central Islip deli in early 2017; Dewann Stacks, 34, who was ambushed and beaten to death while walking along a road in Brentwood near a wooded area sometimes used as a hangout for gangs; Marcus Bohannon, 27, who was shot in 2016; and Michael Johnson, who was beaten and stabbed to death in Brentwood in 2016.

Prosecutors previously withdrew their intention to seek the death penalty in the case. Saenz faces 40 to 70 years in prison when convicted.

Saenz’s lawyers and his supporters declined to comment after the hearing.

Kayla’s father, Freddy Cuevas, said outside court that he was disappointed that the death penalty was taken off the table.

“He’s an animal. He’s inhumane,” Freddy Cuevas said of Saenz. “Hopefully justice will be served soon and we can put all of this behind us as far as the families are concerned.”

Nisa’s mother, Elizabeth Alvarado, expressed relief that she and other families of the victims would not have to go through the trauma of a trial.

“All I want is for my daughter to be alone,” she said through tears as she wore a black shirt with her daughter’s name on the back. “The more time we have out, she will never be alone. At the end of the day, she will be happy because it will be over.”

In a crackdown that followed the killings, police and federal agents arrested dozens of suspected members of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a transnational criminal organization believed to have been founded as a neighborhood street gang in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s by people fleeing civil war in El Salvador.

Kayla Cueva’s mother, Rodriguez, became an anti-gang activist after her daughter’s death but was herself killed in 2018. Rodriguez was fatally struck by a car during a dispute over a memorial marking the second anniversary of her daughter’s death. The driver, Annmarie Drago, pleaded guilty in 2024 to negligent homicide.

Prosecutors said Saenz, also known as “Blasty” and “Big Homie,” was the leader of an MS-13 clique that operated in Brentwood and Central Islip, known as Sailors Locos Salvatruchas Westside. Charges are still pending against his brother, Jairo Saenz, who prosecutors say was second in the local gang.

Alexi Saenz also admitted to arson, firearms offenses and drug trafficking – the proceeds of which went to buy firearms, more drugs and make contributions to the wider MS-13 gang.

His sentencing was scheduled for January 31.

George Johnson, father of victim Michael Johnson, said he saw no remorse or emotion from Saenz in court.

“He should die in there,” Johnson said, referring to Saenz, who has been in federal custody since his arrest in 2017. “This just seemed like something he wanted to get over and done with.”

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