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  • Fri, June 30, 2017 8:37 AM | NYGIA (Administrator)

    A college football player thought he and a friend were going to meet up with two women. Instead, they were abducted and tortured for 40 hours -- all because of a teammate.

    Niko Kollias watched his blood swirl down the bathtub drain. There was so much. And it was coming from so many places. His head. Both of his legs. And the gaping cuts where they had sliced the webbing between his toes.

    Even more blood was coating the clothing iron sitting on the sink. He didn't know where they'd put the hedge clippers; he was just glad they were gone. He could still see the roll of duct tape nearby, covered with the bloody fingerprints they'd left behind when they taped his hands and feet together before slamming the rebar and heavy metal pipes down onto him, over and over again. His khaki pants and ripped University of Rochester Football T-shirt sat crumpled in the corner, the blue and yellow of his college colors turning brown as his blood began to oxidize in the fabric.

    Kollias wanted to take off his ACL brace, the one he'd been wearing after knee surgery for a recent football injury. He wanted to clean it and his skin underneath. But he worried that if he pulled the brace apart, his leg might actually fall off. His femur was shattered; he'd felt it explode after they shot him there when he tried to run. He didn't realize they'd also shot him in the calf of his other leg. He could no longer feel that leg and couldn't see it because so much blood kept pouring into his eyes from his scalp, over which they had smashed a long, fluorescent lightbulb. It was only then, when the blood just wouldn't stop from that last blow, that they halted their attack and threw him in the shower.

    He could hear the men in the room next door, laughing, smoking weed and maybe still wearing those terrifying plastic masks.

    But who were they? Kollias didn't know. He could see only their eyes through the masks when they attacked him. He couldn't even see their mouths move as they screamed for revenge. As he sat in the folding chair they'd put into the grimy shower, Kollias, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound University of Rochester senior defensive end, realized he had no idea where he was, who the men were or even what they wanted from him. All he knew was that they had shot and then beaten him for more than three hours.

    As he sat there in the shower watching his blood pour down the drain, Kollias had no idea that it was all connected to his football team. And he had no way of knowing that the torture had only just begun.

    video

    Kollias' horrifying ordeal at 22 Harvest Street

    Watch E:60's full-length feature on former University of Rochester defensive end Niko Kollias at 9 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN.Rochester Police Department

    When Nicholas Kollias arrived on campus three years earlier, in 2012, he had two great passions: piano and football. The University of Rochester fit both perfectly. Its Division III football team wanted him for its defense, and, even better, he was also accepted into classes at the renowned Eastman School of Music. "I was so happy," he remembers. After his piano audition, "I thought I would never make the cut in a million years," he says. It was "definitely a huge deal."

    Kollias, a Chicago native, played mostly special teams for the Yellowjackets, a middling squad that typically hovered around .500. But in his junior year, the school recruited Isaiah E. Smith, a talented freshman linebacker from the Bronx. "He had the size; he had the speed; and he just changed the game for our team," Kollias says. Smith grew up in a tough situation -- housing was unstable -- but developed into a good student at Park East High School, earning MVP honors in three straight seasons. In his first year at Rochester, the team went 5-4 and Smith made 80 tackles, most on the team. "He was literally our star defensive player," Kollias says.

    Off the field, though, Kollias avoided Smith. He says he didn't like how Smith bragged about being able to get marijuana for students. "He had a reputation for wanting to be the drug dealer on campus," Kollias says. "That's really what he took pride in more than his exceptional athletics, which was shocking to me."

    Another former Rochester player tells Outside the Lines that he bought marijuana from Smith several times. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because he had committed a crime by purchasing the drugs, the former player says Smith told him "he had connections in New York City" and could "get whatever I needed. As much as I would need." Although all of their transactions went "smoothly" because of their football connection, the player says Smith developed a reputation for ripping other students off. "I heard stories that he knew how to work his way over on people. Would just take people's money and not give them anything back. It was small money, but he was one of the best football players on the team, and he could definitely be intimidating."

    Rochester Police Chief Michael Ciminelli confirms that Smith "was involved in drug dealing." But neither Rochester football coach Scott Greene nor the school's administration would comment on the matter. Smith also declined to be interviewed; his attorney says his client is "not a drug dealer."

    Kollias says he believes the Rochester coaching staff knew Smith was tangled up with drugs but chose to look the other way. Other players had faced harsh consequences when they violated rules, Kollias says. "Things happen, like drunk driving," he explains. "And when those things happened, usually the players were all kicked off of the team."

    "The kids who were the better athletes were definitely on a longer leash," the other teammate says. "He was one of the best players on the team. He wasn't going to get kicked off the team.

    On the afternoon of Nov. 28, 2015, two weeks after the Yellowjackets' final game of the season, security cameras captured Smith jogging across a footbridge that connected the campus to Brooks Crossing, a student apartment complex owned by the university. The cameras showed Smith meeting up with three men near the apartment building. After a brief conversation, the three men moved away from Smith, to the building's nearby steps. At 2:45, multiple cameras showed Smith standing outside the building's door, talking animatedly on his phone. Smith then waved at the three men on the steps, drawing their attention to a black sedan rolling into the parking lot. After parking, four young men got out of the car. According to prosecutors, they carried with them 4 pounds of marijuana.

    Police say Smith then led the four men with the weed into the apartment building. Smith didn't live there, but he knew the building well: Two of his football teammates lived in a seventh-floor apartment. Prosecutors say that they were away on Thanksgiving break but that Smith knew they kept a spare key hidden in a fire extinguisher box. Smith used it to lead the men into the room. They thought they were about to make a deal. Instead, the three men Smith had waved at came crashing through the apartment door, according to police reports, spraying the drug suppliers with pepper spray and hitting them in the head with a hammer before taking off with the 4 pounds of marijuana.

    To help sell the ruse, the three attackers -- who have never been identified -- struck Smith, too, but only lightly, never hitting him with the hammer. The surveillance cameras show some of the hammer victims walking out of the building using their shirts to stanch the bleeding from their heads. Pretending he was also a victim, Smith, who was uninjured, went with the wounded men to the hospital.

    After receiving a report of assault, police sent an officer to the hospital. According to the police report, when the officer started questioning Smith, his story unraveled quickly. Smith asked the officer whether "anything which he may say" would "impact his status as a student at the University of Rochester." When the officer told Smith "he would pass onto the University 'the level of cooperation' [Smith] exhibited," Smith folded. He wrote out a statement, admitting that he broke into the seventh-floor apartment because "my friend who lived there wasn't home," that he "didn't have permission to be there" and that he "let the three guys in to the apartment that was not mine because we were going to set up the drug dealers." Using Smith's own words and the surveillance video, police collected enough evidence to charge him with burglary, robbery and assault.

    Smith was taken to jail but did not spend much time there. According to documents obtained by Outside the Lines, Rochester assistant football coach Dan Kyle signed a $15,000 bond to bail Smith out.

    Kollias came to Rochester from Chicago, where he dreamed of playing both football and the piano. Robby Klein for ESPN

    When Kollias returned to campus after Thanksgiving, he had no idea Smith had been arrested. The football season was over, and Smith was back on campus by the time classes resumed. Kollias does remember university President Joel Seligman sending an email to students. "He was just telling the student body kind of very vaguely of an incident that occurred on school campus property," Kollias says.

    Kollias considered one of the football players living in the apartment to be one of his closest friends on the team, close enough for that teammate to confide to Kollias that the "incident" occurred in his apartment but that "he didn't know exactly what happened." When the player had returned to campus, he told his friends, his room was blocked off with yellow police tape. Once inside, he found blood on the walls and his furniture in disarray. The player declined requests for interviews and, as a crime victim, requested that he remain anonymous.

    Kollias says university staff quickly "reorganized the place" until "you couldn't find a speck of blood" anywhere in the apartment. But the university did not move the students or, Kollias says, explain to them exactly what had happened in their apartment.

    While Kollias and his friends were left wondering, about 5 miles away, 19-year-old Elliot Rivera began to make plans. He had learned that his cousin had been attacked with a hammer in a drug deal that went bad. Crashing at his buddy Lydell Strickland's house at the time, Rivera shared the few details he knew with his 26-year-old roommate: All of the attackers were African-American men; it went down in the seventh-floor student apartment; and it involved a University of Rochester football player.

    Rivera promised revenge.

    Isaiah Smith excelled on the football field -- but also found himself in legal trouble. William Snyder for ESPN

    Kollias says Dec. 4, 2015, seemed like a pretty typical Friday night. He and his friend from the football team, the one who lived in the seventh-floor apartment, were hanging out at their frat house. They were playing beer pong, Kollias recalls, when his teammate told him, "I have these two girls that want to meet up with us."

    In a series of text messages, the teammate and a woman named Samantha Hughes agreed to meet up around 1 a.m. Hughes had reached out earlier that week on Facebook, when she tried to "friend" both of the football players living in the seventh-floor apartment. Her profile picture on Facebook showed a 19-year-old woman with big eyelashes, large hoop earrings and rose tattoos on both shoulders.

    "He's like, 'Let's go. Let's go be with these girls,'" Kollias says. "And it didn't seem like that bad of an idea. Just want to meet new people, and [I] never really think of girls as, like, evil or mean."

    Kollias says Hughes pulled up in a blue Dodge Dart with her friend, 20-year-old Leah Gigliotti, sitting in the passenger seat. Gigliotti was high on cocaine; Hughes was high on weed and drunk on Remy. When Kollias and his teammate got into the back seat, Hughes passed back the liquor and shifted into drive.

    Kollias remembers going over a bridge. "I noticed that the neighborhood started getting kind of bad," he says. "And that's when I started getting nervous." But within minutes, they pulled into the driveway of a two-story house. The girls led the two football players through a side door. "I just remember the first thing that I smelled was urine and feces, and it was totally disgusting," Kollias says. "I sat down on this leather couch and just the next thing I know is five to 10 masked men just come out with bats and pipes and knives and guns."

    The lights went out, and Kollias says he sprinted for the door. He made it about halfway across the room before he felt his left leg shatter. "I just knew my femur was broken in half, and it was the same leg that I had tore my ACL on and it was not good. I still got up somehow onto one leg and got to the door, and I just remember looking out and seeing two girls on the outside holding the door closed."

    Hughes, it turns out, was the girlfriend of Rivera, the man who had promised revenge. Rivera had actually tapped out many of the text messages sent from Hughes' phone to Kollias' teammate, luring him into the meetup. Gigliotti, who had been hanging out with her friend Hughes, got roped in after the teammate sent a picture of Kollias that night, telling Hughes, "I'm with my boy."

    With their captives unable to escape, Kollias says, the men in masks "dragged us into the bathroom, leaned us up against the walls and duct-taped our hands and legs together, binding us. They emptied our pockets -- cellphones, wallets and car keys."

    The attackers recorded some of their assault on a cellphone. The first image on the video is a thin man in a red sweatshirt and a plastic American flag mask. Prosecutors say this is Rivera. He had previously lived for a brief time in the house, but now it was inhabited by a few of his friends. In the video, Rivera is holding a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle and standing over Kollias' teammate lying facedown in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor.

    Crouching in front of Rivera is a man with distinctive dreadlocks, wearing both a camouflage shirt and pants and a black and white plastic skull mask. Prosecutors say this is Lydell Strickland. He wasn't related to any of the men injured in the hammer attack but helped Rivera plan the retaliation. Strickland is holding orange hedge clippers when he asks the camera, "You recording, homie?" Soon after, he says, "This is what n---as going to do when they wanna take 4 pounds from a n---a. This right here." He then jabs Kollias' teammate in the head with the hedge clippers.

    The camera pans to the right, revealing Kollias on the bathroom floor. Blood from the gunshot wounds to his legs completely saturates his khaki pants. When Kollias pleads, "Please, I'll do anything," he's hit in the head with the long fluorescent lightbulb. As his attackers continue to hit Kollias with their improvised weapons, Strickland tells the camera, "Look at your boy. He got nothing to do with this; he started running."

    The video is only 30 seconds long. The players would be physically, sexually and psychologically tortured for at least 40 hours, according to prosecutors. Hughes and Gigliotti would later say Rivera told them it was Strickland who ordered the sexual assaults.

    About three hours into the attack, Kollias says they threw him in the shower. "I was completely naked and just sitting in a chair and getting all this blood off me. I was just covered in so much blood." The men knew that Kollias, who is white, was not involved in the drug robbery, but they still seemed to have plans for him. For now, those plans required him to stay alive. Kollias says the men then gave him a crutch so he could hobble into a small, dirty bedroom with a blue inflatable mattress. "That's when they started feeding us and giving us food and water" and even medicine. Kollias thinks it was aspirin. He knows it didn't do anything for his pain. "I was pushing myself through to not give up and not close my eyes because I didn't want to die."

    Kollias and his teammate's captors used several household items to torture them, including this iron. Rochester Police Department.

    When neither Kollias nor his teammate came home that morning, their respective roommates reported them missing. Campus police immediately took the reports seriously. Both players had reputations for quickly responding to text messages and phone calls. Police were especially concerned that their phones were off and their Find My iPhone apps disabled.

    The University of Rochester denied Outside the Lines' request to interview campus police. But prosecutors say the campus officers did not immediately connect Smith's drug heist to the missing men. Instead, it was the teammate still living in the seventh-floor apartment, the one who didn't take the bait, who found the first critical clue linking the two crimes. He showed campus police the Facebook friend request he'd previously ignored from Samantha Hughes. When officers then scoured her Facebook page, they discovered Hughes was friends with one of the men injured in the hammer attack. Campus police reached out to Hughes, asking to meet up with her and ask her a few questions. After huddling with Rivera and Strickland about what to do, she agreed to a meeting that Saturday evening at a nearby Dunkin' Donuts. Not wanting to go alone, she brought Leah Gigliotti with her.

    Hughes acknowledged to police that she had been with Kollias. She said they had been together at a party but that she'd left when she became sick from drinking too much. When pressed for an address, Hughes told the officers that she couldn't remember but offered to drive around with them to see whether she recognized the house. The cops took her up on the offer, but she led them to the opposite side of the river -- far away from where Kollias and his teammate were actually being held.

    Campus police let the women go.

    That same day, Kollias says the masked men put a gun to his head and demanded he call his bank. In recordings obtained by Outside the Lines, Kollias asks a Charles Schwab customer service agent to help him transfer money to his checking account. When the agent responds that no money can be moved over the weekend, Kollias replies in a calm and steady voice, "I really need the money now." But the agent cannot help.

    "My life was more important than any amount of money," Kollias now says. "I just wanted to survive."

    In another call, Kollias asks, "There is no way I could get the $1,500 just transferred over to the debit card for withdrawal?" When the customer service agent tells Kollias they can't move money until Monday, he responds, "OK. Um, that's fine, I guess. I'll just call back on Monday." The customer service agent, unable to see the gun next to Kollias' head, tells him, "Have a great weekend."

    As the evening wore on, tension was mounting among his captors. "We kind of got into a little argument about, like, why they weren't letting them go," Hughes later testified. Both Hughes and Gigliotti said Strickland took Rivera's plan for revenge beyond their expectations. Hughes and Gigliotti said that, at this point, even Rivera wanted to "ditch" Strickland.

    After returning from their meeting with campus police, the two women grew increasingly worried about what they'd gotten themselves into. They'd later say that, originally, they thought Rivera and Strickland were just going to rough up the football players. Strickland particularly frightened them. "He called us b----es," Hughes testified, adding that she became "scared of people that I loved getting in trouble, and I was scared for the safety of my family and myself."

    Gigliotti put it more simply: "When you are high and drunk, you really don't care." She testified that she had only one real concern, that "Lydell was going to kill us if we told the police anything."

    Clockwise from top left: Lydell Strickland, Samantha Hughes, Leah Gigliotti and Elliot Rivera Rochester Police Department

    By Saturday night, campus police had turned over their investigation to the Rochester PD, a bigger force with more resources. City investigators spotted strange activity in Kollias' bank account -- thousands of dollars were being withdrawn from ATMs. Surveillance video from an ATM less than a mile from where Kollias was being held would later show Gigliotti's blue Dodge Dart pulling up to the machine. In her testimony, Gigliotti said that she and Hughes were in the front seat, Strickland in the back. When he rolled down the car window to use Kollias' card, Strickland was wearing the same black and white skull mask he wore in the cellphone video. But then Strickland pulled the mask off, giving the ATM cameras a clear view of his face.

    Strickland withdrew thousands of dollars before he went on a shopping spree that weekend, which included a $799 leather jacket, Timberland boots and a $27.99 pair of jeans from Marshalls.

    Police Chief Michael Ciminelli, a Rochester native with 12 years of experience with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, says he believes not being able to transfer money on the weekend might have saved Kollias' life. "There's no doubt the absolute intent was, once they got the money from that account, these kids would have been killed," Ciminelli says. "They certainly had no reason to keep them alive after that. And every reason to not keep them alive, frankly. It was now a race against time."

    That night, the seventh-floor roommate who had ignored Hughes' Facebook messages reached out to Isaiah Smith, asking him whether he knew anything about what had happened to their teammates. Ciminelli says Smith then contacted his former drug suppliers and "offered them $15,000 to release" his teammates. "But they said, 'We don't want money; we want blood.'"

    Detectives told Ciminelli about Smith's communications in the very early hours of Sunday morning. "Clearly this was an unusual situation that needed an immediate response," he says. He put all of the officers investigating the kidnapping and the hammer attack into the same room to share what they knew while simultaneously mobilizing his SWAT team. He also ordered anyone related to either crime to be pulled in for questioning, including Smith, Hughes and Gigliotti.

    Smith didn't know much. But Hughes and Gigliotti were now facing police for the second time in as many days, and, after nearly 14 hours of interrogation, the two women started to crack. "As we are searching for these kids, there were hours and hours of lies, untruths, misleading statements," Ciminelli says. "Until finally, towards the end, we started getting some details which led us to 22 Harvest Street."

    On Sunday morning, the masked men cranked up the music before entering the room where Kollias was being held. "Just came in extremely angry," Kollias remembers. "They start saying that I had been lying to them, and the cards weren't working anymore, and they couldn't get any more money. That's when they said they were going to kill us.

    "They started shooting everywhere and putting the gun into our mouths and up to my skin and just shooting and pulling away at the last second. There were bullet casings flying everywhere. I'm not wearing a T-shirt, and all these casings are extremely hot, and we're just flailing and they're yelling at us to stay still."

    Kollias remembers grabbing his teammate's hand and holding it. "I was pretty much fine with dying at that point."

    Prosecutors say as many as nine people came and went from the house that weekend, some to drink and watch football, others to buy drugs. A few even went out to buy Kollias and his teammate food Sunday afternoon. But no one tried to help them escape. "I'm in very bad shape at this point. And I didn't know how much longer I could go," Kollias says.

    Their captors had boarded up the windows, making it impossible to tell whether it was light out, but Kollias kept track of time by listening to the football games he could hear through the walls. "I can hear them watching the NFL games in the background," he says. Then, sometime after kickoff for Sunday night's game, a massive explosion rocked the house. "The entire house had shaken, and there was this huge flash of light," Kollias says. "I thought they were burning down the house."

    The SWAT team had arrived.

    Prosecutors allowed Outside the Lines to review sections of a recording from an officer's body camera. After blasting through the side door, about a dozen SWAT members rushed into the house. The officers quickly arrested at least two people who were watching over the football players. They found Kollias and his teammate in the bedroom, untied but badly injured. Kollias was unable to walk. Stepping over glass shattered in the explosion, SWAT members combed 22 Harvest, finding the plastic masks, the impromptu household items used during the bathroom attack and the bleach used to clean Kollias' blood. Other officers also found the rifle, hidden in the attic. They did not find, however, Strickland or Rivera. By this time, Rivera had bailed, leaving his friend who lived in the house to watch over the captives. And Strickland, who'd gone on his shopping spree, was holed up in a hotel. Both were arrested in the following days.

    In the minutes after the raid, Ciminelli caught a look at Kollias and his teammate. "The one thing that stood out to me is the almost blank stare they both had on their faces," Ciminelli said. "I've been around a long time. I've seen a lot of things. This one is really in a class by itself in terms of the level of physical and psychological torture. It was as bad as a horror movie."

    The side entrance of 22 Harvest St. after the Rochester police SWAT team blew the door off. Rochester Police Department

    Nine people went to prison for the kidnapping and torture of Kollias and his teammate. Three were sentenced for watching over the captives and acting as lookouts. Samantha Hughes and Leah Gigliotti pleaded guilty and testified against the others. They were each sentenced to more than a dozen years in prison. Three of the four men in the cellphone video recording of the torture, including Elliot Rivera, also pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 35 years in prison. During Lydell Strickland's trial in December 2016, prosecutors described him as the "ringleader" and "mastermind" of the plot. He laughed when a judge sentenced him to 155 years in prison.

    Three months later, in March, Isaiah Smith faced a judge for his role in orchestrating the drug robbery that started it all. Smith had already left school soon after his arrest, though the university will not say whether he withdrew or was expelled. At Smith's sentencing hearing, Judge Melchor E. Castro told the former linebacker, "I suppose you couldn't realize what events you set up when you did this." As the judge sentenced Smith to 13½ years in prison, he said, "This is all your fault."

    Kollias says he believes none of this would have happened if the university had cracked down on Smith's earlier drug activities -- and if the Division III coaches he played for weren't so blinded by Smith's football talent. Kollias is especially outraged by how Dan Kyle, the assistant coach, bailed Smith out of jail. Kyle, head coach Scott Greene and university President Joel Seligman all declined repeated requests for an interview. Instead, a university spokeswoman emailed a statement. "Isaiah Smith was a student in good standing up until his arrest," she wrote, explaining that the university, as a Division III school, is not required to drug test its players. She added: "No member of the administration, nor any coaches or University athletics staff members asked Dan Kyle to sign for Smith's release. This was an unusual occurrence."

    Kyle no longer works at the university.

    "I had three or four blood transfusions," Kollias says. "They put a titanium rod through my femur, attaching it with screws in my knee and hip. They surgically removed glass from my eardrum and scalp and skull." Rochester Police Department

    Kollias is finally starting to sleep again. "Nighttime and being alone are definitely harder things for me," he says. He often finds himself looking over his shoulder in his hometown of Chicago, where he is working in finance. As he was already a senior at the time of the attack, the University of Rochester allowed him to graduate without returning to campus.

    "I had three or four blood transfusions," Kollias says. "They put a titanium rod through my femur, attaching it with screws in my knee and hip. They surgically removed glass from my eardrum and scalp and skull."

    Determined to rehab his mind and his body, Kollias recently ran his first road race since the attack. Once a college athlete, he now struggles to finish 3.5 miles. His leg flies out at an odd angle with every step; his gait has a deep dip that wasn't there before.

    He says the leg always hurts -- all the way from his knee to his hip -- but the pain is worth it. "I try and exercise as much as I can to keep my mind off the negative thoughts," Kollias says. "That's what really helps me cope with the negative energy, along with playing the piano."

    Even though his football career is now over, Kollias still has the piano. He just released his first recording on iTunes. One of his favorite pieces is Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." It soothes him. As his fingers move over each key, his body visibly relaxes as he's transported away from the memories of what happened inside 22 Harvest Street. "I made the conscious decision to live, survive and overcome the challenge I was faced with," Kollias says. "And that's exactly what I did."

  • Thu, June 29, 2017 2:22 PM | NYGIA (Administrator)

    CANTON — The fourth former SUNY Canton student charged in the 2015 beating of a food delivery man appeared in court Monday after being on the lam for about a year.

    Derek L. Castillo, of Manhattan, pleaded not guilty to first-degree and second-degree robbery, second-degree assault and second-degree gang assault.

    The indictment charges that at about 12:15 a.m., on Sept. 24 in the village of Canton, Mr. Castillo and Edward S. Garcia, 21, of Manhattan, forcibly stole property from William R. LaPlant and, in the course of committing the crime, caused Mr. LaPlant serious physical injury.

    The gang assault charge arises out of there being two or more other people present when they allegedly caused physical injury to Mr. LaPlant.

    Also charged were Gerome G. Phillips, 19, and Arcenio Vazquez, 19, both of the Bronx.

    On June 12, Mr. Garcia, Mr. Phillips, and Mr. Vazquez, were all sentenced to six months in the St. Lawrence County jail and five years of probation. Mr. Phillips and Mr. Vazquez were each sentenced for their pleas of second-degree robbery and Mr. Garcia was sentenced for his guilty plea to second-degree attempted robbery, each with a plea deal with the district attorney’s office.

    As a part of Mr. Vazquez’s June 23 and Mr. Phillips’ June 30 pleas, the remaining indictment charging them with another count of second-degree robbery and one count of second-degree gang assault was satisfied.

    County Court Judge Derek P. Champagne also granted Mr. Phillips and Mr. Vazquez youthful offender status, which will seal the records in the case.

    During his appearance in court Monday, Mr. Castillo’s attorney, Edward F. Narrow, of Dumas & Narrow P.C., told the court that while his client was wanted on two outstanding warrants related to the charges against him, he had not previously appeared in court because he was unaware of the warrants and believed the court wasn’t going to hear his case until after his co-defendants were sentenced, since he had agreed to testify to the grand jury against them.

    A bench warrant was issued for Mr. Castillo on July 19 after he failed to make court appearances. He turned himself in to police Monday once he learned of the warrants, Mr. Narrow said.

    Additionally, Mr. Narrow had previously sought to have a special prosecutor handle the case due to what he thought was a conflict with District Attorney Mary E. Rain. Judge Champagne denied the motion, stating it was premature, since Mr. Castillo was not able to be located.

    On April 19, 2016, St. Lawrence County Public Defender Steven G. Ballan filed a written complaint with the Committee on Professional Standards, Albany, alleging Ms. Rain disclosed testimony given by Mr. Castillo.

    In the complaint, Mr. Ballan included a copy of the email Ms. Rain sent April 14 to then Assistant Public Defender Daniel C. Ramsey, who represented Mr. Garcia.

    The email from Ms. Rain stated: “Mr. Narrow’s client has testified in GJ (grand jury) implicating each and every person in this planned robbery. In addition to that we have clear video footage of all four near the scene of the crime, together with one carrying the pizza boxes. The ‘alibi witness’ testified in GJ (grand jury) that he was not with these defendants that night.”

    On April 25, the Monday after the complaint by Mr. Ballan was filed, county legislators adopted a lengthy resolution that criticized Ms. Rain’s job performance and asked the state to intervene.

    In court Monday, Judge Champagne said he would be willing to resolve Mr. Castillo’s case similarly to his codefendants with a five-year probation sentence that could include a maximum of six months in St. Lawrence County jail.

    Mr. Castillo was remanded to St. Lawrence County jail on $10,000 cash and $20,000 bond and the bench warrants were vacated.

  • Thu, June 29, 2017 2:20 PM | NYGIA (Administrator)

    Three young Latino immigrants say they stand wrongly accused as MS-13 members and were suspended from Bellport High School for wearing banned clothing with Chicago Bulls insignia or throwing hand signs associated with the gang.

    Peter Brill, a criminal defense lawyer with offices on Long Island and New York City who is fighting the suspensions, said the disciplinary actions were partly based on misleading information from the Suffolk County Police Department.

    The allegations, denied by the South Country school district, come amid widespread concerns over MS-13’s violent acts, including the killing of four young Hispanic men — two of whom attended Bellport High — whose bodies were found in a Central Islip park in April. The suspensions were ordered between mid-April and early May and extend until November.

    “It appears that the South Country school district has engaged in a pattern of discrimination against students who have come to this country in a refugee or undocumented status,” Brill said.

    The students and their parents spoke to Newsday under condition of anonymity, saying they are afraid of the gangs, but also of being deported because they have been linked to them.

    South Country schools superintendent Joseph Giani issued a statement saying he couldn’t discuss “any specific student situation” due to federal law, but said, “in general, the district vigorously denies any such allegations.”

    Giani added that the district and its board of education are “committed to providing an educational environment that promotes respect, dignity and equality.” However, he said district policy provides for “a range of possible disciplinary responses, and the district has a zero tolerance for gang-related behavior.”

    A police spokesman said he could not comment on specific cases, but he defended the department’s collaboration with schools.

    “The Suffolk County Police Department at times provides information regarding possible indications of public-safety issues, such as gang activity or drug use, to school districts, so that those districts are familiar with possible warning signs,” said Assistant Commissioner Justin Meyers. “What school districts do with that information is up to them.”

    According to letters sent by the district to the teens’ parents, the students got out-of-school suspensions for violating the dress code and engaging in prohibited behavior.

    A 15-year-old Guatemalan immigrant attending ninth grade was suspended for “wearing clothing containing the Chicago Bulls symbols/logo” that the district correspondence says is “associated with gang membership.” A 16-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, also in ninth grade, was suspended for “engaging in gang-related behavior” and “throwing signs in the hallways.” An 18-year-old Salvadoran immigrant in 10th grade was suspended for “suspected gang affiliation” and “showing gang signs.”

    MS-13 gang members use a variety of hand shapes, including one where pointed fingers resemble “devil horns,” similar to the bull horns found in the logo of the Chicago-based NBA franchise.

    A fourth immigrant, 20, who dropped out of the school last year, is also represented by the law firm. Brill said the names of all four were included on a list of alleged gang members and associates that the lawyer said came from the Suffolk police.

    Meyers said he could not comment on the authenticity of the list without knowing the names of the students.

    “At no time are we saying that MS-13 is not a serious threat,” Brill said. “At no time are we saying that MS-13 members should not be prosecuted. But what we have here is school misconduct, minor school misconduct at best and possibly constitutionally-protected activity like free speech, being demonized.”

    The suspensions, he said, raise concerns about “what type of information is flowing back and forth between the district and the police department.”

    During a recent interview with Newsday, Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said the department is “being extremely aggressive” in looking for gang members but is very careful, using “multiple indicators” before giving anyone that designation.

    “Merely because someone tells us someone is a gang member, that is not enough,” Sini said. “We have very strict protocols, based on best practices articulated by the FBI, before we identify someone as a gang member.”

    The accusations illustrate the difficulties faced by institutions such as police and school districts, feeling the pressure to counter the spread of what’s proved to be a ferocious gang while having to guard against violating civil rights.

    The MS-13 gang, also known as mara salvatrucha, is said to have originated among Salvadorans in the Los Angeles prisons, spreading to Central America and growing into a transnational crime syndicate with tentacles on Long Island.

    The South Country Central School District’s Code of Conduct anticipated the gang threat, specifying prohibited items in its dress code, such as “medals, medallions, jewelry with gang symbols,” “the wearing of any item that contains language or symbols promoting or endorsing violence” and “wearing any combination of clothing which law enforcement agencies currently consider gang-related.

    Schools across the country have had to adopt similar policies, remaining vigilant for trends and sharing information with law enforcement, said Sgt. Julie Spry, of the Los Angeles School Police Department, whose force guards a system with more than 734,000 students.

    In Los Angeles, “the school district has bulletins that identify school conduct and student behavior” associated with gangs, Spry said. “There are schools where you can’t wear a certain color hat and in others where you can wear any hat you want” depending on the nature of local gangs.

    Educators have to take measures before gangs spread, said Elliott Duchon, superintendent of the Jurupa Unified School District, a suburban area about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

    “We generally do not allow any professional sports teams” to be represented in clothes, because their colors, initials or symbols come to stand for gangs, Duchon said. “They are kind of ‘mad-dogging,’” or intimidating, “ . . . and if you have two gangs in school and they wear their colors, then that’s ripe for a fight.”

    In the South Country district, which is comprised of Brookhaven, Bellport and East Patchogue, the young men and their relatives say they were labeled gang members without any warnings on what to avoid, disputing one of the suspension notices saying the students had been warned about the clothing.

    “I came over here [to the United States]because of this problem of gangs, because back in El Salvador I was threatened, that if I didn’t join them they were going to beat me,” said the 10th-grader, who arrived less than a year ago and holds two jobs, working in construction during the day and at a restaurant at night.

    He was accused of making gang signs with his fingers while putting on a baseball cap, but he said he was only adjusting it. He had worn a Chicago Bulls jacket that he and his father say belonged to his dad. They say they didn’t know what it meant.

    “Right now, I feel very saddened. If I am thrown out and deported, I would be in danger,” the student said.

    A 15-year-old said he was wearing a Chicago Bulls T-shirt that belonged to his stepfather because he couldn’t find clean clothes that day. “They told me that meant I was in a gang,” he said.

    The 16-year-old said he wasn’t flashing gang signs but making an obscene gesture at another student during a school-hallway argument. “We’re being unjustly accused.”

    The students, who were all enrolled in the English as a New Language program, and their parents say they have been left out of school since their suspensions instead of being offered alternative instruction.

    New York State Department of Education officials said only that they are “reaching out to the district in this matter” but could not elaborate further.

    Irma Solis, Suffolk County Chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the suspensions raise red flags about schools and police collaboration, arguing the code of conduct “is very vague . . . and it pretty much gives schools and the [police school resource]officers and the security guards the discretion to pick and choose who is in violation.”

  • Mon, June 26, 2017 10:23 AM | NYGIA (Administrator)

    An admitted MS-13 street gang member from Freeport was sentenced Thursday to 40 years in federal prison for killing two other gang members in a two-week span five years ago.

    Melvin Marquez-Sanchez pleaded guilty to murder and racketeering charges last year at Central Islip federal court for the Aug. 25, 2012 murder of Douglas Martinez in Brentwood, the Sept. 8, 2012 murder of Jose Vallejo in Hempstead as well as a conspiracy to kill a rival gang member in Maryland in early 2013.

    “This defendant killed two young men here on Long Island, before fleeing to Maryland, where he sought to continue the murderous agenda of the MS-13,” said Bridget Rohde, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

    Prosecutors said the 22-year-old, who is not a citizen, shot Martinez multiple times at point-blank range with a .38 caliber revolver, killing him. The gang targeted the victim, a fellow MS-13 gang member, for not committing violence against rival gang members, not sending enough money to gang leaders in El Salvador and because he was suspected of being an informant, authorities said. Marquez-Sanchez is one of seven MS-13 members charged in connection with the Martinez murder.

    Two weeks after that slaying, Marquez-Sanchez and several other MS-13 members killed Vallejo, a suspected rival gang member who was selling drugs in Kennedy Park in Hempstead, which the MS-13 considered to be its turf, according to investigators. The gang lured the victim to the park under the guise of buying marijuana from him when Marquez-Sanchez shot Vallejo multiple times with the same .38 caliber revolver and another MS-13 member attacked Vallejo with a machete, slashing his throat and face, prosecutors said. Four other MS-13 members were also charged in the Vallejo murder.

    After committing those two murders, Marquez-Sanchez fled to Maryland, where he and other members of MS-13 conspired to kill a suspected member of the rival 18th Street gang, authorities said. Marquez-Sanchez and others set out to kill their target, but were unable to locate him. His co-conspirators eventually did murder that victim after Marquez-Sanchez was arrested on March 12, 2013.

  • Mon, June 26, 2017 10:17 AM | NYGIA (Administrator)

    ALBANY, NY (WRGB)-- "To make a statement on the streets in the gang world, the more vicious you are the more respect to get."

    Gang prevention specialist Ron Barrett says MS-13 is as vicious as they come.

    "They're prone to using machetes to cut limbs off if they have to to make a statement."

    The Rensselaer County Sheriff says "MS-13 is one of the most violent gangs police encounter" and that it's only a matter of time before they permeate the Capital Region.

    The gang has been making headlines downstate and on Long Island for brutal slayings - but Barrett says it originated in Los Angeles back in the early '80s when members came to the U-S from El Salvador during its Civil War.

    He says unlike other notorious gangs, MS-13 stays mostly under the radar - and members can be hard to identify.

    "That's one of the biggest issues. You used to be able to pick out a gang member just driving down the street because of the way they dress," said Barrett.

    But Barrett says you'll know when the gang is present in a community by its graffiti - which he says is used for intimidation and recruitment.

    "They're literally going to mark the walls, mark buildings, they're going to show you they're there," he said.

    Barrett says MS-13 is a different breed of gang - an animal that's a constant fight for law enforcement to tame.

    "Any other gangs, you've got to work with intervention, prevention, and suppression all in one."

    But with MS-13, Barrett says suppression - by getting members off the streets and behind bars - is the only effective response. And for this gang - even that isn't necessarily a punishment.

    "Jail gives them better living conditions than they had back in their own country. You know when they're getting locked up they're getting three meals a day, a place to sleep, and healthcare!," he said.

    Barrett says parents here don't have too much to fear about their children getting involved with MS-13 - because he says the gang has a strict code of admitting only people from their own ethnicity.

    But he does still encourage parents to be proactive in speaking with their kids.

  • Mon, June 19, 2017 2:53 PM | NYGIA (Administrator)

     RIVERHEAD, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — With the arrest of dozens of alleged MS-13 gang members on Long Island yesterday, many are asking; how do we keep people out of gangs to begin with?

    One anti-gang program in the jails is being expanded to convert gang members in hopes they can influence others once they get out.

    CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff got an exclusive look behind prison bars inside the Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead where a group of present and former gang members meets weekly trying to figure out how to put their fractured lives back together.

    “I joined the gang at 14, I’ve been shot three times, and I’ve been shot five times altogether,” Terrone Newsome said.

    Newsome, 20, of Central Islip said now he just wants to stay alive.

    Keia Armstrong, 21, of Amityville joined up with gangs and also got shot.

    “Hanging around a crowd of people that was out there hanging around being a follower, wanting to be somebody I wasn’t.” Armstrong said.

    Facing hard times for their crimes, inmates said they’re ready to turn their backs on the gangs, but wonder if there is any place for them to go once they get out. Their counselor said there has to be.

    “We hire people, we help people get jobs, and that’s what’s gotta happen — school-wide, community-wide,”Council of Unity, anti-gang counselor Bob Desena said.

    In communities like Hempstead that have been terrorized by gangs, you’ll get mixed reaction as to whether gang members should even be helped.

    “The major problem is it starts in the family, and I do believe they need education and help,” Natalie Vaughn said.

    Others favor the toughened law enforcement crackdown that led to the bust of 41 gang members of Thursday.

    “If they’re killing people, sure, they have to pay for what they’ve done,” Cindy Perry said.

    The inmates agree, they’ll have to serve their time, but said the gang intervention counseling has changed them. They regularly counsel young children visiting the jail on special school trips.

    “I just want to help the kids, I don’t want them to follow us, or follow people who join gangs because they still have a future,” Adriana Sanchez said.

    It’s a future they hope never involves closing prison gates.

    There are plans now to expand the program to the Yaphank Jail in Suffolk County.

  • Wed, June 07, 2017 9:48 AM | NYGIA (Administrator)

    BUSHWICK — A Bloods gang member was shot to death while sitting in his car at Broadway and Hart Street Friday evening, police said.

    Terrell Ortiz, 26, of Bushwick, was sitting in his white Nissan Altima on Hart Street Friday just before 7 p.m. when a black Nissan Maxima drove past his car, pulled a U-turn and parked, according to police who reviewed surveillance footage of the incident.

    One of the suspects got out of the car and walked towards Ortiz's vehicle before heading back to his own car, when he and another man started walking back toward the victim, police said. The suspects then split up as they neared the vehicle, with one of the men dressed in a red sweatshirt firing multiple shots at Ortiz, police said.

    Police got wind of the shooting using ShotSpotter, which detects gunfire, and rushed to the scene to find Ortiz with multiple gunshot wounds to the torso. 

    He was rushed to Woodhull Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

    Police said Ortiz was a known member of the Bloods gang and had several prior arrests that were sealed, as well as two open cases. He was arrested in the past for weapons possession and for a traffic violation, the NYPD added.

    No one had been arrested as of Monday morning, police said.

    Anyone with information in regards to this incident can call the NYPD's Crime Stoppers Hotline at 1-800-577-TIPS (8477).

  • Wed, May 03, 2017 11:03 AM | NYGIA (Administrator)

    After news broke that two Bellport High School students were among the four victims found dead after a brutal MS-13 attack, the community was put on edge. Shock and fear led to dozens of questions, which were heard and answered at a panel Q&A last week at Bellport Middle School.

    Over 100 people filled the auditorium and submitted their questions and concerns on cards read by moderator Dr. Joseph Giani, superintendent of South Country School District. The large panel included town, county and state officials, but the discussion was dominated by police commissioner Timothy Sini, Suffolk County probation officer Jill Porter and Bellport High School principal Tim Hogan.

    A top concern was safety at school. In response to the Central Islip incident, the district added two security guards to the high school and two full-time school resource officers from the Suffolk County Police Department, Hogan said, adding that school security guards would be participating in a gang awareness training session led by Porter later this month. 

    As students returned from spring break last week, a crisis team staffed with psychologists, social workers from the Family Service League and ENL teachers was ready, Hogan said. “It’s a difficult thing to manage because some kids are clearly upset and willing to use that type of service and others are not ready to do that yet,” he said. “I’ve asked the staff — who know our kids better than anybody — to be vigilant in monitoring students in the weeks and months ahead.”

    Gang activity is something Hogan said the district has been monitoring closely since two students were attacked in the woods last August. Several gang awareness assemblies with bilingual police officers had already been held, with similar programs in the works, Hogan said. 

    In November, the school district hired a bilingual social worker to work with those populations at the middle and high school levels.

    Parents also wondered how the school would deal with suspected gang activity at school. “Any students found with any gang-related clothing, comments or symbols will receive an out-of-school suspension,” he said. Beyond that, a superintendent’s hearing would determine if the student should be placed on home instruction for the rest of the school year. To date, Hogan said, five students will remain out of school for the rest of the year, but he could not discuss whether the infractions were gang-related.

    “How can I protect my son?” one parent asked. Porter’s advice was: “Be in your kid’s ear. If you’re not in your kids ear, someone else is.”

    Sini fielded questions about gangs in general: how prevalent they are in the area and what is being done to keep communities safe. According to Sini, there are several hundred known members of MS-13 in Suffolk County. As for their presence in North Bellport, “It doesn’t come close to numbers we see in Brentwood, Central Islip or Huntington Station,” he said. 

    Sini laid out two main objectives with respect to MS-13. The first, he said, was to solve all crimes, particularly homicides, committed by gang members. The second, more long-term goal, is to eradicate the gang entirely. In the meantime, patrols by both Suffolk County and state officers have been increased in vulnerable areas. 

    At a similar forum held in Central Islip last week, Sini addressed the crowd directly. “There’s someone in this room who has information about these murders,” he said. In Bellport last week, he explained that the gang preys on new, undocumented individuals. “Often, those with the most critical information are those individuals,” he said. “Our officers do not inquire into your immigration status if you come as a victim or witness to a crime,” he said, adding that cooperating with law enforcement could also lead to immigration benefits.

    “There aren’t many [Suffolk County] communities that aren’t touched by gangs,” said Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco in an interview earlier this week. “The federal government has a big role to play in this,” he added, calling for tougher border security, though disagreeing with the President’s call for an expensive border wall. “A combination of barriers and technology—drones, for instance—would not only stop gang members, but human traffickers and heroin coming in as well,” he said. “It would help local law enforcement agencies all over the country.”

    Both President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions weighed in on the proliferation of MS-13. In a tweet, Trump said: “The weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. allowed bad MS-13 gangs to form in cities across U.S. We are removing them fast!”

    After citing the Central Islip quadruple homicide, Sessions issued this warning: “If you are a gang member, we will find you.” He did not announce specific steps law enforcement would take, instead criticizing sanctuary cities for their policies. 

    “The reason why Jeff Sessions said that is because we called him,” Sini said. “There’s no doubt that in Suffolk County in the past, the police department did not work with the Feds. We will continue to target known gang members and suppress crime locally while working with federal law enforcement partners.”

    That was one of many guarantees made last Wednesday evening. Government officials, including County Executive Steve Bellone, Suffolk County Legis. Kate Browning and Rob Calarco, Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine and Councilman Michael Loguercio, all emphasized their commitment to work together to come up with solutions. Many acknowledged that the issue is multifaceted. “Is this a drug issue? Yes, it is. Is it a crime issue? Yes, it is. Is this an immigration issue? Yes, it is. A socioeconomic issue? Yes. It’s a complex problem with no simple solution,” said Assemb. Dean Murray (R,C,I-East Patchogue). “Unfortunately, like many nationwide problems, the solution must come from the local level,” said Calarco. 

    Porter disagreed. “The issue we are having here with MS-13 is really not an immigration status issue that dictates gang involvement,” she said. “If you want to decrease gang membership, embrace these children. Understand that they are being pushed away and labeled as a problem by the community.”

    Porter noted that in many Central and South American countries, government, police and even schools are rife with corruption. “Gangs run their country. Here, you don’t have to be in a gang — you can be anything you want to be in this country,” she said, emphasizing the importance of education. “There are all of these frightening things, but this is the side that people aren’t talking about. This is not a white, black or brown issue. This is a community issue. We’re not three separate areas, we’re one school community and we have to start acting like it,” she said, to the loudest applause of the evening. She also noted that she was trying to work with local community organizations to set up similar meetings and forums at churches to more successfully get these messages across to the Spanish-speaking community. “Look around you, there are mostly white faces here tonight. There’s a disconnect, and somehow we have to fix that.”

  • Wed, May 03, 2017 11:01 AM | NYGIA (Administrator)

    With gang involvement behind two Binghamton homicides within the past week, the city's law enforcement announced Monday that police are boosting their presence around neighborhoods and committing more resources to pursuing investigative leads.

    An April 22 shooting on Orton Avenue and another Friday night on Fayette Street  resulted in fatalities. At a news conference Monday in City Hall, Binghamton Police Chief Joseph Zikuski said these crimes are not the result of a "gang war" in the city, though investigators believe gang activity plays a role in both cases.

    The two homicides are believed to be related incidents, officials say, not random acts of violence. Motives remain unclear in both, Zikuski said, later adding there are no indications of a dispute over "turf or drugs" among gang members.

    "The Binghamton Police Department nor the mayor is gonna tolerate these thugs shooting up our streets," Zikuski said Monday. "If they have some beef, this isn't the way to settle it."

    Jihad T. Ray, 26, has been charged with a felony count of second-degree murder in the Orton Avenue shooting, which killed 22-year-old Brandon D. Hernandez, of Binghamton, around 4:55 a.m. outside an after-hours club near the intersection with Main Street.

    Jihad T. Ray

    Jihad T. Ray (Photo: BROOME COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE PHOTO)

    On Monday, Zikuski said police learned Ray is a former member of the MacBallers, a subset of the Bloods street gang, but he got "thrown out" at some point. Fourteen members of the MacBallers from the Binghamton area were prosecuted in federal court after police raids in March 2014.

    Zikuski said police are looking for multiple suspects, including one shooter, in the most recent killing, which happened Friday night at 10 Fayette St., just several blocks from NYSEG Stadium, where a Rumble Ponies home game was being played at the time.

    Tyquan C. Gumbs, 24, was shot multiple times around 8:30 p.m. Friday, and police say his body was found at the rear of the Fayette Street property. A description of the suspects has not been released.

    As a result of both shootings, Zikuski said, police are not ruling out future acts of violence.

    "This is one side against the other ... so we're going to prepare for another shooting, if it takes place," he said.

    "People that live in the neighborhoods that this activity takes place in should have some concern," he added, "but (for) the average citizen ... this is not isolated, this is not random. These are some people that know each other."

    Regarding gang activities, Zikuski said, Binghamton is unique and less predictable than larger cities where rival gangs feud over territory. Here, he said, "it's all about money."

    One of the biggest challenges in handling these kinds of crimes are uncooperative witnesses, according to Zikuski. In both shootings, he said, there are numerous witnesses who have been reluctant to come forward.

    Binghamton residents should be vigilant about any suspicious activity in their neighborhoods, officials said Monday.

    Police cracking down

    At Monday's news conference, Mayor Richard David announced several efforts that are being rolled out by the police department in the wake of both homicides.

    Patrol officers will have an increased presence in city neighborhoods, with overtime shifts to cover hours with a higher volume of reported calls for service.

    The mayor's office also said the police department's Community Response and SWAT teams also will be keeping a tighter watch on "hot spot" crime areas to minimize response times to reported incidents, should they arise.

    David said these efforts take effect immediately, then added, "Violent criminals are not welcome in the City of Binghamton."

    How to help investigators

    Anyone with information about the recent homicides is asked to call the Binghamton Police Detective Bureau at 607-772-7080. Tipsters can remain anonymous.

     

  • Wed, May 03, 2017 10:59 AM | NYGIA (Administrator)

     Late at night, when helicopters thrum overhead and spotlights beam down onto lawns, many people here know exactly what's going on.

    "You just think, 'Oh, God, whose child is it now?'" said Stephanie Spezia, a longtime resident of this suburb in the heart of Long Island that's caught in the grip of a violent street gang with Central American ties, MS-13.

    MS-13 has been blamed for a trail of 11 corpses of mostly young people discovered in woods and vacant lots in Brentwood and neighboring Central Islip since the start of the school year.

    The bloodshed in the blue-collar towns has gotten the attention of President Donald Trump, who says it's the result of lax immigration policies that let too many criminal "scum" slip through.

    Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday gave a speech about the violence to law enforcement officials near a park where the bodies of four young men were found this month bearing MS-13's hallmarks: repeated slashes from a blade that left them nearly unrecognizable.

    Some parents say they're afraid to let their children go to school. Teens say any perceived slight to a gang member, especially a refusal to join, can mean death.

    After one high school warned parents not to let their kids wear anything gang-affiliated, gang members started deciding on a daily basis what colors were off-limits, leaving students to guess what not to wear.

    "Kids are losing their childhoods," said Jennifer Suarez, whose 15-year-old niece was beaten and hacked to death last year. "You can see the stress on their faces as they get ready. It's like, you know, they're suiting up for battle."

    So how does a street gang with ties to Central America gain such an aggressive foothold in the suburbs of Long Island?

    MS-13, or the Mara Salvatrucha, is believed by federal prosecutors to have thousands of members across the U.S., primarily immigrants from Central America. It has a stronghold in Los Angeles, where it emerged in the 1980s as a neighborhood street gang.

    But its true rise began after members were deported back to El Salvador in the 1990s. There, the gang thrived and spread to Honduras. MS-13 and rival groups there now control entire towns, rape girls and young women, massacre students, bus drivers and merchants who refuse to pay extortion and kill competitors.

    That violence has prompted a migration of people trying to escape, especially children, who have streamed north because of a U.S. policy allowing people under 18 who arrive without parents to stay in the country temporarily with relatives or friends.

    Since the fall of 2013, the U.S. has placed 165,000 unaccompanied minors. Long Island has been a frequent landing spot. Suffolk County, which includes Brentwood and Central Islip, has gotten 4,500. Neighboring Nassau County has received 3,800.

    Sessions, speaking at a courthouse in Central Islip, said he believes gang members used this system to come north, too.

    "Bad guys know how the system works, and they have exploited it," he said.

    He later met with parents of some of the teenagers killed.

    In a recent roundup of 13 MS-13 gang suspects accused of murder and other crimes, seven had entered as unaccompanied minors.

    MS-13 is recruiting the unaccompanied children, Suffolk County police Commissioner Timothy Sini said. The youngsters, he said, "don't have an established social network, at least many of them don't, and MS-13 is providing that network."

    All told, nearly 200 MS-13 gang suspects have been rounded up since September. Among the tactics Sini has employed have been stepped-up patrols, renewed cooperation with an FBI task force and helicopter sweeps of wooded areas where gang members gather.

    Trump, a Republican, has promised to eradicate the gang in the U.S. through strict enforcement of immigration law.

    "We are putting MS-13 in jail and getting them the hell out of our country," he told The Associated Press. "They are a bad group, and somebody said they are as bad as al-Qaida, which is a hell of a reference. ... We are out in Long Island cleaning out the MS-13 scum."

    He spoke again about the gang on Friday in an address to the National Rifle Association.

    The tough talk has made some residents fearful of law enforcement and the gang. They say it's not about immigration politics but about making a community safer.

    Residents of Brentwood and Central Islip, with a combined population of about 100,000, say the area of modest ranch homes, warehouses and strip malls has always been a diverse, welcoming place for immigrants trying to make better lives for their children.

    Some longtime residents say law enforcement bears some of the responsibility for the gang's rise because it ignored the burgeoning problem for years.

    Parents say 4,200-student Brentwood High School lacks the means to help children who are often left alone after school because their parents work long hours. There are few social workers and guidance counselors, they say, and not enough security guards or cameras.

    "They can't walk the halls without fear," said Evelyn Rodriguez, the mother of 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas, who was found beaten to death last fall.

    In the months leading up to Kayla's death, she was involved in disputes with members and associates of MS-13, prosecutors said. Rodriguez said her daughter stood her ground and ended up dead.

    Kayla and her 15-year-old friend Nisa Mickens were walking on a street near their homes when men with baseball bats and a machete attacked them.

    Nisa was found dead on a residential tree-lined street a day before her 16th birthday. Kayla, who lived a block away, was discovered in a wooded backyard nearby.

    "People, they missed the opportunity to know a really great person," said Nisa's father, Rob Mickens, who's running for the school board to help push for change. "They would have loved to know her."

    Bertha Ullaguari said she noticed her 18-year-old son, Jorge Tigre, going from a good student on track to graduate from Bellport High to someone too afraid to go to school.

    Then she got two truancy letters. When she pressed her son, he refused to tell her what was going on.

    "Some bad things happened there," Ullaguari said, her voice trembling.

    She had heard he had his tires slashed. There were rumors of gangs.

    And then, about two weeks ago while she was driving with her daughter, they got a mysterious call. A girl on the line said Jorge was dead along with three others in a park.

    "We nearly killed ourselves from the shock," said Ullaguari, an Ecuadorean immigrant.

    The bodies of Jorge and the three others were found cut, their torsos exposed and hands bound, steps from a playground.

    "It could happen to anybody's child, anywhere," Evelyn Rodriguez said. "We all need to be aware of this, and we need stand together. Because I don't want it to be your child."

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