What to Know
- One of the four people found brutally killed in a Long Island park this week was a teen visiting from Florida, relatives say
- The bodies were severely cut up with machetes, and parts of their faces were unrecognizable, according to relatives
- The FBI has joined the investigation into the killings, which happened in a community that's been dealing with gang violence for years
A teenager visiting New York with family for spring break was among the four young people found brutally killed in a park in a Long Island neighborhood that has for years contended with a growing problem of gang violence.
Jefferson Villalobos was one of the victims found dead in Central Islip Recreation Village Park Wednesday night, his cousin Yensy Fuentes told News 4 Friday. He had been on vacation with his grandmother, and arrived from Pompano, Florida, last Friday, to visit family in Brentwood.
Villabolos, who would have turned 19 next month, had half his face missing, according to Fuentes. He was identified in part by a tattoo he had on his arm.
"My uncle, as soon as he saw it, he knew it was him," said Fuentes.
The tattoo was of two hands wrapped around a rosary with the inscription "In God's hands."
His cousin Michael Banegas, 20, was another victim. Banegas lived in Brentwood and was from Honduras, Fuentes said. He was suffocated with a plastic bag and his face was unrecognizable.
"I'm trying my hardest to stay strong. I haven't seen him yet, so this is all so unreal to me, and I can't really explain the feeling," Funetes said, taking a deep breath.
Their family was at the park Friday to leave flowers and crosses where their bodies were discovered. They wept as they sat on the ground and held each other.
Sixteen-year-old Justin Llivicura of East Patchogue and Jorge Tigre, 18, of Bellport, were identified by police and relatives as the other two victims. Llivicura went to the park with friends on Tuesday but had not been answering his phone since then, relatives said. The family filed a missing person report with police on Wednesday.
Another friend who was with the group at the park managed to escape, according to Fuentes. He told Villalobos' family he was hanging out with friends, then saw men come out from the trees with machetes.
"The gang members came out and told them to kneel down -- and then he was just able to run for his life," said Fuentes. "He was the only one that made it out."
The young man who escaped called Banegas' family immediately after he fled. The relatives went to the park but didn't know exactly where to look and felt spooked about going alone; that's when they called police.
Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said Friday the investigation is "very active" and that police planned to pursue the same strategies that led to the arrests of the 160 MS-13 gang members since last fall.
"Obviously we know the community is very on edge," he said. "We will be enhancing patrols in the area significantly and for an indefinite period of time."
The FBI, meanwhile, has joined the probe into the grisly discoveries of young men, who appeared to have been killed with a sharp-edged instrument, in a manner consistent with the modus operandi of the violent MS-13 gang, Sini said.
Authorities are offering a $25,000 cash reward for information in the case. Sini says police won't ask any tipsters about their immigration status and said people calling with information will remain anonymous and could even receive immigration benefits for providing information to law enforcement.
The discovery of the bodies comes about a month after the arrest of eight MS-13 gang members in connection with the September killings of two teenage girls in nearby Brentwood.
Gang violence has been a problem in Central Islip, Brentwood and other Long Island communities for more than a decade, but Suffolk County police and the FBI began pouring resources into a crackdown after the killings of the girls, along with two other Brentwood High School students involved in separate killings, sparked outrage. Brentwood and Central Islip are neighboring communities comprised of large populations of working class Hispanic and other minorities, located about 2.5 miles apart.
The gang problem is so systemic in Suffolk County that outreach groups like Strong Youth Start are working with kids in middle school to show them there are alternatives to life with the gangs.
"It's easy to recruit in schools," said Luis Amador, who works with Strong Youth. "A lot of these kids, when they come to this country, they don't have support system."
Amador says more programming is needed to keep teens busy and "give them a reason to get better."
Sini said Friday, "MS-13, part of their trademark throughout the country, is to prey on recent immigrants. There's a host of factors as to why MS-13 would prey on immigrant families, but it boils down to the fact that MS-13, they are individuals who prey on the vulnerable. They engage in acts of violence, they engage in acts of savagery."
Republican Rep. Peter King told News 4 Friday he plans on contacting President Donald trump for help in the fight against MS-13. Trump has vowed to crack down on undocumented immigrants who commit crimes.
"I'm sure President Trump would want to get involved but first I want to make sure it's done in conjunction with local officials," said King, who wants to "eradicate MS-13, and allow hard-working people to go to work and let their kids go to school."
The MS-13 gang, also called Mara Salvatrucha, is believed to have been founded as a neighborhood street gang in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s by immigrants fleeing a civil war in El Salvador. It grew after some members were deported to El Salvador, helping to turn that country into one of the most violent places in the world. It's now a major international criminal enterprise with tens of thousands of members in several Central American countries and many U.S. states.
Prosecutors said Kayla Cuevas, 16, was targeted last summer by a group of four gang members, including two juveniles, because she had been feuding with MS-13 members at school and on social media. The posse, which had been roving in a car looking for gang enemies, attacked when they came across her walking with Nisa Mickens, 15, in the street. The inseparable best friends were attacked with a machete and baseball bats, officials said.