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MS-13 leader pleads guilty in case involving 8 murders, including deaths of 2 girls on Long Island

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y.
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Elizabeth Mickens leaves federal court, Wednesday, July 10, 2024, in Central Islip, N.Y. Mickens attended the arraignment for MS-13 gang member Alexi Saenz who pleaded guilty to racketeering and firearms charges in a case involving eight murders, including the 2016 killing of Mickens' daughter, Nisa, who was hacked and beaten to death in her suburban neighborhood on Long Island. (AP Photo/Phil Marcelo)

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (AP) — A leader of an MS-13 gang clique in New York pleaded guilty Wednesday to racketeering and firearms charges in a case involving eight murders, including the 2016 killings of two high school girls who were hacked and beaten to death as they strolled through their leafy, suburban neighborhood on Long Island.

Alexi Saenz entered the plea in federal court in Central Islip and faces 40 to 70 years in prison. Prosecutors previously withdrew their intent to seek the death penalty in his case.

The 29-year-old will be sentenced Jan. 31.

During the hearing, Saenz spoke sparingly through a Spanish interpreter as the judge asked him a series of yes and no questions about the plea deal and the crimes he was admitting to.

Saenz said in a statement read out by his lawyer that he had ordered or approved the killings of rival gang members and other people who had disrespected or feuded with members of his clique.

Among those were the killings of 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.

Saenz said he wasn’t present when the teens were killed but had phone conversations with other gang members about the attack beforehand.

He also admitted to providing cocaine and marijuana to gang members to sell on the streets — the proceeds of which went toward buying firearms, more drugs and providing contributions to the wider MS-13 gang.

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

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

“He’s an animal. He’s inhumane,” Freddy Cuevas said of Saenz. “Hopefully justice will be served soon and we can put this all 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 my daughter to be at peace,” 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 is never going to be at peace. At the end of the day, she is going to be happy because it will all be over.”

The girls' deaths led to questions about whether police had been aggressive enough in confronting what was then a serious threat of gangs developing inside area high schools.

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

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 Cuevas’ 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 operating 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-command in the local gang.

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Follow Philip Marcelo at twitter.com/philmarcelo.

Philip Marcelo, The Associated Press