Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens were walking through their hometown of Brentwood on a Tuesday night last September after leaving Cuevas’ home when four alleged gang members riding in a car spotted them on Stahley Street.
Inside were two 19-year-olds and a pair of juveniles who allegedly belonged to the notorious MS-13 gang and had been whipping around Brentwood searching for rival gang members who’d apparently wronged them. After recognizing Cuevas, who the gang had already marked for death because of a pre-existing feud that had recently escalated over social media and at school, they allegedly reported their discovery to two of the gang’s leaders, who gave the go-ahead to end their lives.
Armed with a machete and baseball bats, they exited the car and brutally beat Mickens.
Cuevas ran for her life, slipping into a nearby fenced-in backyard as her attackers pursued her on foot. She was trapped.
Like her best friend, Cuevas was beaten unconscious and left to die.
Mickens’ body was discovered first. The next day, police came across Cuevas’ body up against a fence. The spot on Stahley Street where Mickens was found was almost instantly turned into a makeshift memorial honoring the fallen teens, festooned with flowers and items representing the lives they lived. Someone left birthday balloons for Mickens, who was a day away from turning 16.
“I’m supposed to have a Sweet 16 dance with my daughter,” Mickens’ distraught father Rob said as friends, families and strangers alike gathered to pay respects two days after her brutal murder. “They took that away.”
Nearby, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini wrapped up a press conference at which he called the slayings an “act of savagery” and appealed to the community for help catching the assailants.
The childhood best friends had been beaten to death, Sini said. But the extent of their injuries would not be revealed until later. Mickens’ cause of death was “significant sharp force trauma to the face and blunt force trauma to the head,” federal prosecutors said this week. Cuevas succumbed after sustaining “significant blunt force trauma to the head and body and lacerations.”
“These are some of the worst wounds I’ve seen,” Sini said at the time.
When they were done, the attackers hopped back inside their car and escaped into the night, fleeing to the Central Islip home of their alleged leaders to return the murder weapons, according to authorities.
Charged in their alleged roles in the murders of Mickens and Cuevas were Selvin Chavez, Enrique Portillo, both 19 and from Brentwood, and two juveniles who were not identified.
That the friends were killed together was especially heartbreaking given their close relationship. Last Christmas they each purchased individually engraved dog tags that read “Ride” and “Die”—an indicator of how tight their bond was.
Law enforcement officials on Thursday announced a sweeping indictment charging 13 members of the notorious MS-13 gang with seven murders, including those of Cuevas and Mickens on Sept. 13, and Jose Pena-Hernandez on June 3. The superseding indictment absorbed a previous indictment from a year ago that charged several members with four other murders. The new 41-count indictment charges various members with a total of seven murders since 2013, attempted murders, racketeering, assaults, conspiracy to distribute marijuana, and firearms and conspiracy charges.
The investigation into Cuevas and Mickens’ untimely deaths launched in September. Since then, more than 125 alleged MS-13 gang members have been arrested for various crimes as part of multi-agency crackdown on gang activity. In response to the murders, police flooded the streets, said they planned to introduce new license plate reading technology to track vehicles in Brentwood, Central Islip, and Bay Shore, and developed a list of known gang members.
The investigation was a collaborative effort by the Long Island Gang Task Force, which encompasses federal, state and local agencies, including Nassau and Suffolk police.
In a show of force, about a dozen members of the task force stood behind Robert Capers, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, during Thursday’s announcement, many appearing stone-faced. This was law enforcement fulfilling a promise they said they made to Brentwood residents and the surrounding community five months ago: that the tragic murder cases of two teens would not go cold.
What hardened investigators said they uncovered in pursuit of justice was a particularly disturbing level of violence and brutality—a sadistic criminal underground justice system that made corpses of young people for their perceived infractions, however minor.
“For far too long on Long Island MS-13 has been meting out its own version of the death penalty against members of their own gang who violate their so-called rules—against rival gang members…and anyone else who they decide they want to seek revenge against,” Capers said.
In an effort to blunt MS-13’s growth at the beginning of the century, the FBI created the MS-13 National Gang Task force in 2004 that would be based out of its headquarters in Washington, D.C. In 2008, the FBI released an MS-13 threat assessment, which indicated that the gang’s ranks included upwards of 10,000 members in at least 42 states.
“They perpetrate violence—from assaults to homicides, using firearms, machetes, or blunt objects—to intimidate rival gangs, law enforcement, and the general public,” the threat assessment read. “They often target middle and high school students for recruitment. And they form tenuous alliances…and sometimes vicious rivalries…with other criminal groups, depending on their needs at the time.”
The group originated in Los Angeles but splintered into “cliques” as they migrated east, the FBI said. Although they fall under the MS-13 umbrella, two cliques were allegedly involved in last year’s murders: Freeport Locos Salvatruchas and the Sailors Locos Salvatruchas Westside, the latter of which was allegedly connected to the deaths of Cuevas and Mickens.
In the case of Cuevas and Pena, their transgressions amounted to a death sentence. Mickens met the same fate despite having no bad blood with the gang, officials said.
Federal authorities on Thursday declined to provide details about the feud between Ceuvas and the gang. But whatever it was, the gang wanted retribution. Authorities attributed Mickens’ death to a case of being “in the wrong place at the wrong time”—by her best friend’s side, like she had for years.
“Mickens never had a chance,” Capers said at a press conference Thursday.
Three months prior, Pena, an MS-13 member himself, was also killed. After leaving school, Pena was lured into a vehicle and was driven to the abandoned Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center, an apparent gang hangout. When he exited the car, Pena was confronted by people he once considered friends. They turned on him, taking turns stabbing and slashing his body with a machete.
Like Cuevas, Pena’s fate was pre-determined. Prior to the encounter, gang members had convened a meeting in which the topic of discussion was Pena, who was accused of being a government informant and violating other gang rules, authorities said. His death warrant was sealed. Pena died on June 3. He was reported missing on June 13. His decomposed body wasn’t discovered until Oct. 17 in a wooded area outside the abandoned complex.
The Cuevas and Mickens killings came seven months into Sini’s tenure as police commissioner. With the community on edge, the teens’ deaths marked Sini’s first test as a leader of a department whose culture he was trying to change after the arrest of ex-Chief of Department James Burke, who was sentenced to 46 months in prison for beating a heroin addict chained to the floor of a police precinct because he’d unknowingly stolen the police chief’s duffel bag containing his gun, ammo, porn and sex toys. Burke also ordered subordinates throughout the department to then cover it up. A 2012 Press investigation uncovered that SCPD detectives were unceremoniously pulled from the all-important and extremely successful joint Long Island Gang Task Force under Burke’s command.
After assuming the position, Sini decided to bring the FBI closer into the Long Island Serial Killer investigation and gang probes.
Meanwhile, a community already plagued by gang violence in recent years recoiled at yet another wave of violence.
Stephanie Spezia, 52, a Brentwood resident and member of the community group, Uplift Brentwood, said last year’s slayings were different than others in the past.
“I don’t think that people in the community actually felt the impact of the gang stuff because it was always somebody else,” she said, adding that the girls were “stolen off the streets.”
Their deaths sparked unfounded rumors amid a palpable fear that the community was in the clutches of the gangs. Some parents didn’t want to send their kids to school, she said. Others grew concerned when they heard helicopters whirring overhead.
“It was mass hysteria and it was fueled by social media and it was fueled by ignorance and it was fueled by fear,” Spezia said.
Marcos Maldonado, 35, an Uplift Brentwood member, said Thursday’s indictment and the arrests of some of the alleged perpetrators brought “relief and happiness.”
“Brentwood was always a melting pot. Brentwood always welcomed cultures of all kinds, people of all types in order to have a better community,” he said. “That was one of the things that was always celebrated about Brentwood.”
He doesn’t want that mosaic to be a casualty of the violence.
Spezia, who’s lived in Brentwood since 1974, said the neighborhood she remembered became unrecognizable. She wanted to make a difference. So nearly every day since the September murders, she’d carry around Crime Stoppers posters requesting anyone with knowledge of the incident to contact police.
Hearing about how the murders were handed out rattled her.
“Why would you do that to a child?” she said. “And it just goes to show how deliberate and just how angry these folks are…and I think it goes past angry. They have no empathy…to be able to do that to someone, to make this child unrecognizable, that’s just horrible.”
At Brentwood High School in the days following the girls’ tragic deaths, school officials alerted parents that police would increase their presence around the school and new metal detectors would be used to ensure no weapons entered the building.
“The next few weeks will be a difficult period for all of us,” Brentwood Union Free School District Superintendent Dr. Levi McIntyre wrote to parents. “Although individual response to this news may be different, please know that the District stands unified in its effort to provide a nurturing and safe environment for all our students.”
Standing just feet away from where her daughter was struck down, Mickens’ mother, Elizabeth Alvarado, seemed to channel the grief of an entire community.
“How many more lives do they need to take?” her voice cracked. “How much more blood do they really need to have on the street? I mean, my daughter’s blood is on the street, it’s stained right there.
“When is it going to finish?”
For Brentwood residents like Spezia and Maldonado, the road to change begins with the community.
“The police can only do what they can do, they can only enforce,” Spezia said.
It’s important for residents to realize “they do have a voice,” she added. “That they do have a responsibility as well to use their voice.”
She and others use theirs to keep Cuevas’ and Mickens’ spirit alive.