Suffolk County Police Lt. Thomas Zagajeski hits the streets with a clear mission: “We want to know everybody who’s a gang member in this community.”
It’s been nearly four months since the murders of 15-year-old Nisa Mickens and 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas, and Zagajeski, the commanding officer of the Suffolk County gang unit, is patrolling the streets.
“So right over here we see a marked car. They’re keeping an eye on this area. This is a known MS-13 hangout,” Zagajeski said.
Police believe the deaths of five teens are connected to the MS-13 gang. Along with Mickens and Cuevas, the bodies of Jose Pena-Hernandez , 18, Oscar Acosta, 19, and Miguel Garcia-Moran, 15, were also found throughout Brentwood over a six-week period in September and October of last year.
Zagajeski says increased patrols around gang hot-spots have been crucial as police work to curb the gang's influence.
If police see a young teen out during the school day and suspect he has gang ties based on clothing or tattoos, they will interview him to see who he associates with and to gather any intelligence.
The increased presence is most visible outside Brentwood High School, where Zagajeski says gang members prey on students.
“There’s a lot of MS-13 that try to weave their way into the mix of dismissal, to try to approach kids and try to recruit them,” Zagajeski said.
One woman who was nearly roped into a gang talked about the violence she witnessed.
"The worst thing is probably when they have a problem with someone and they automatically don’t even think of much,” she said. “(They) just go for their weapons and go shoot the closest place they could find to where this person can be.”
Zagajeski said his team has been focused on individual gang members. Officers are assigned to a few members to track. Each day, they see where they are and who they’re talking with.
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini said 90 MS-13 gang members have been arrested since the death of Mickens and Cuevas. Seven of them are facing federal RICO charges. There’s been no announcement of murder charges yet.
Sini said that the investigation into the teens’ deaths is still very active and that he’s optimistic that police will be successful in finding those responsible.
“It would be impossible for them not to feel the pressure, we have so much on them right now,” he said.