The federal government will seek the death penalty against the alleged leader of an MS-13 gang chapter indicted three years ago on charges of murder and other crimes in connection with the gruesome slayings of seven people, including two teenage best friends, in Long Island's crime-plagued town of Brentwood, officials said Wednesday.
Alexi Saenz was one of five people allegedly connected to the notorious El Salvadorian MS-13 gang who was indicted in the 2016 deaths of best friends Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas a year later. He was 22 years old at the time.
Saenz was arrested amid joint raids by the FBI and Suffolk police on charges including murder, conspiracy, racketeering and other crimes in the deaths of the friends and five others over a period of years. The feds want him sentenced to death if convicted of any of them.
An attorney for Saenz did not return a request for comment.
Mickens' brutally beaten body was found on a tree-lined street in Brentwood Sept. 13, 2016, a day before her 16th birthday. A day later, the beaten body of Cuevas, her lifelong friend, was discovered in the wooded backyard of a nearby home. Investigators had suspected the young girls -- best friends with a passion for basketball -- were victims of gang violence. Though several MS-13 gang members were previously arrested in connection with the probe, none had been charged with the killings until March 2017.
Federal officials said at the time of the indictments that four gang members had been looking for a rival gang member to attack or kill when they spotted the girls. They recognized Cuevas from a prior altercation with MS-13 members, called their "leader" (allegedly Saenz) and got approval to kill her and her friend, officials said.
The girls died by "swinging baseball bats and machetes," federal officials said, adding Cuevas ran for her life.
Cuevas' father said Wednesday that he was grateful the attorney general and President Trump, who has called members of the gang "evil" and "deranged," have sought the death penalty in the case, which he encouraged when they met after the killings.
"There's no way, no reason my daughter and her friend should have lost their lives," Freddy Cuevas said from his Brentwood home. "This is going to send a very strong message the government isn't playing around."
While Mickens' mother agreed with the sentiment, her father said that another death wouldn't give him closure.
"In my personal opinion about the death penalty, I don't think we should be doing God's work," Robert Mickens said. He added that it would be enough to see Saenz get a life sentence, and for the government to continue its fight against MS-13.
"I believe in the justice system, that they already have lived up to their word to getting these criminals off the streets, which they have been doing. And I truly believe that they're going to prosecute them the right way, and they're going to spend the rest of their lives behind bars," Mickens said.
Mickens' mother said that the case will be back in federal court in September.
The bodies of Mickens and Cuevas were found during a terrifying six-week period for the community, during which police also discovered the remains of Oscar Acosta, 19, Miguel Garcia-Moran, 15, and 18-year-old Jose Pena-Hernandez. All five were students at Brentwood High School. Acosta and Garcia-Moran had been missing for several months before their bodies were found near Long Island Rail Road tracks Sept. 26. Pena-Hernandez, who was found dead in early October, was a known MS-13 member, officials said.
According to federal officials, gang members believed he was cooperating with law enforcement and lured him to a wooded area near Pilgrim Psychiatric Center and repeatedly stabbed him until he died.
The deaths of Acosta and Garcia-Moran were not covered by the 2017 indictments, though investigators have said they believe they too were felled by gangs. Their killings remain unsolved. In addition to the Mickens, Cuevas and Pena-Hernandez cases, the 2017 indictment includes murder charges in the 2013 deaths of Derrick Mayes and Keenan Russell, the 2014 killing of Jose Lainez-Murcia and the 2015 slaying of Jonathan Cardona-Hernandez.
Gang violence has been a problem in Brentwood and some surrounding Long Island towns for more than a decade, but Suffolk County police and the FBI began pouring resources into a crackdown after the killings of the high school girls sparked outrage.
Some people complained that police, school officials and others were not doing enough to stem the violence. Since then, police have arrested or re-arrested more than 120 MS-13 members on a variety of charges as part of a larger takedown, though none had been charged with the students' killings. Many of the suspects were in the state and federal systems already.
The 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, helping to turn that country into one of the most violent places in the world.
It is now a major international criminal enterprise with tens of thousands of members in several Central American countries and many U.S. states, including a heavy presence on Long Island, where its members have been blamed for at least 30 killings since 2010, in Queens and in parts of northern New Jersey.