Is SCPD Playing Politics By Leaving FBI’s LI Gang Task Force?

Turf War

Turf War

Vanessa Argueta couldn’t find a babysitter for her 2-year-old son, Diego Torres, so when Adalberto Guzman, Rene Mejia and Heriberto Martinez picked her up for dinner to smooth out bad feelings about a breakup with one of their friends, she brought the tike along.

It wasn’t the typical split, however. The 19-year-old mother’s ex was a member of the international street gang La Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13, and the trio—nicknamed Gringo, Zorro and Boxer, respectively—were all members. After the relationship ended, they believed Argueta—who also allegedly had ties to rival gangs the Latin Kings and the 18th Street Gang—told their enemies where to find him, according to federal court documents.

A passerby discovered the mother and toddler’s slain bodies in an industrial park near the corner of Connetquot Avenue and Windsor Place in a wooded area behind a Raymour & Flanigan furniture store in Central Islip the next morning.

Both were shot execution-style: Argueta in the head and chest; her toddler twice in the head.

Even the most seasoned Suffolk County police detectives who arrived at the gruesome scene Feb. 5, 2010 were revulsed.

“Shut up, Torres,” the gunmen allegedly told the screaming child who had just witnessed his mother’s murder, states Guzman’s alleged confession in the documents. Guzman was caught joking about his role in the slayings on wiretapped phone conversations, documents show. The 18-year-old even took the slain child’s Dora The Explorer ball as a souvenir, later giving it as a gift to a friend’s daughter, say court papers.

The case is just one of dozens that MS-13 and other gang members have been charged with carrying out in Suffolk County due to the work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Long Island Gang Task Force (LIGTF)—a collaborative investigative unit that includes the FBI, Nassau County police, Nassau Sheriff’s Department, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, Suffolk County Probation Department, and until recently, the Press has learned, the Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD).

The partnership has been heralded by everyone from national and local lawmakers to community advocates, law enforcement and anti-gang experts alike, and since its creation in 2002 has resulted in the arrest and conviction of more than 200 MS-13 gang members, including the leaders of several of the gang’s cliques on LI. Supporters stress the longer prison terms applicable to perpetrators and broader reach afforded to prosecutors under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as the RICO Act, which essentially enables prosecutors to attack gangs the same way they would the mob.

Vanessa Argueta, 19, and her 2-year-old son Diego Torres, who were murdered by MS-13 in Central Islip.

“It’s a win-win partnership, but it’s important that it continue,” U.S. Congressman Peter King (R-Seaford), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, tells the Press. His House colleague Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills) has also been a staunch supporter of the joint task force.

“Without a doubt, these federal task forces—you can’t speak enough about the benefits of them for tackling the gang problem,” adds Ronnie Hampton, president of the East Coast Gang Investigators Association, a 2,200-member law enforcement nonprofit that focuses on anti-gang training and awareness.

In Suffolk, where MS-13 hold strong concentrations in Brentwood, Central Islip, Bay Shore and Huntington, among other communities, the membership of Suffolk County police in the federal task force has been especially successful. Its inclusion has or will soon lead to arrests and prosecutions in no less than a dozen MS-13-related homicides, including several exceptionally gruesome slayings—just since the department joined the task force in 2009 following a Press story noting its absence. All of those cases had remained cold until SCPD joined the FBI-led coalition.

Currently, the work of the SCPD’s three detectives assigned to the task force is helping fuel the largest MS-13 prosecutorial takedown in the country, by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York—ranging from multiple murders and attempted murders to assaults with dangerous weapons, armed robberies and firearms and conspiracy charges.

“For years, members of the MS-13 street gang have terrorized communities across Long Island,” Loretta E. Lynch, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, stated last month announcing a 50-count second superseding indictment charging 11 members. “As charged in this new indictment, the defendants cut a swath of terror and wanton violence victimizing innocent citizens across Suffolk County. This office and the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force will continue to prioritize combating gang violence on Long Island.”

Both Lynch’s office and the FBI have routinely given public praise to SCPD’s role in the gang busting—sometimes even listing the police department first in press release headlines touting major busts.

Apparently, those praises are not enough.

A Press investigation has learned that SCPD’s all-so crucial three-person team on the LIGTF, were recently unceremoniously informed that they would be pulled from its ranks—allegedly mid-confession of a homicide suspect wanted for a cold-blooded slaying.

SCPD Deputy Inspector Kevin Fallon, the department’s chief spokesman, tells the Press the retreat has to do with dollars and cents.

“This more has to do with reduction of personnel levels and the unprecedented fiscal crisis that we have,” he says. “We’re looking kind of at every position and personnel commitment to see if people are being used in the most effective and efficient way possible.”

That reasoning was reiterated by Suffolk County Police Chief of Department James Burke.

“The Suffolk county police department has and will continue to work closely with our federal partners,” he says, noting as proof of that relationship the recent disruption of an alleged plot to kill a federal prosecutor and judge. “We are in the process of reassessing all of our task force commitments. Given these difficult fiscal times we hope that we could work together in creative ways including having federal resources assigned to various Suffolk county police commands.”

Yet multiple law enforcement sources with direct knowledge of the situation who wish to remain anonymous for this story due to the sensitivity of the subject matter allege SCPD’s withdrawal is actually about police and district attorney’s office brass’ egos, coupled with a deep-seeded animosity for their federal partners receiving what they perceive to be all the credit and glory for the busts.

In other words: a turf war.

They dispute the department’s official line, pointing out that members of the federal task force are privy to federal grants and other substantial funding sources that come along with their inclusion in the partnership, such as asset forfeiture funds—monies derived from seized criminal property. These are funds that go directly toward law enforcement initiatives, are not included in budgets and go a long way, especially in tough economic times.

Besides, they charge, there are many other federal-Suffolk County partnerships in operation that are not being slashed—yet SCPD’s total contribution was just three detectives: Robert Trotter, William Maldonado and John Oliva, according to sources.

Legis. Rick Montano (D-Central Islip)—who’s been dealing with the reality of gangs within his district on a daily basis, is currently running for state Senate and is also a former prosecutor—doesn’t believe the SCPD’s official line, either (Montano says Burke told him it was a “budget issue” when the legislator called the police commissioner’s office after learning of the move from the Press).

“I don’t buy it. I don’t accept that,” he tells the Press, adding that this is the first he’s heard of the retreat. “If it’s a budget item, it should be discussed with the legislature.”

So while politicians, veteran police officials, community groups and anti-gang specialists scratch their collective heads about the dismantling of what was a wildly effective initiative against gangs and gang violence by any measure, vicious thugs such as MS-13 continue to rape, rob, assault, maim and kill innocent Suffolk residents.

Lynch’s office and the FBI declined to comment for this story through their representatives. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone did not respond to requests for comment.

Emily Constant, chief assistant Suffolk district attorney, tells the Press:

“The district attorney’s office was not consulted nor did we offer advice to the Suffolk County Police Department when the department made its decision to leave the task force. This office has an excellent working relationship with federal law enforcement and has worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office on joint initiatives including the filing of charges against health professionals and others involved in prescription drug trafficking.

“The decision by the SCPD to withdraw form the gang task force for economic reasons should not impair the successful working relationship we’ve had for over 10 years with the FBI, the Eastern District of the U.S. Attorney’s Office or any other federal law enforcement agency.

“Anonymous allegations suggesting this office played any role in the police department’s decision are complete fiction.”