Giving Up a New Life for a Gang Death
When she was arrested in Arlington in June 2002, only a few months after her arrival, she was with her boyfriend, Denis Rivera, one of the highest-ranking MS-13 members in Northern Virginia, law enforcement officials said. Rivera is now charged in the Daingerfield Island slaying and has a history of violent crime in the region, according to court records.
The Arlington courts immediately appointed Hunter her guardian because she was a juvenile and had no relatives in the area. Fairfax police soon picked her up on a warrant charging that she was an accessory to a shooting that involved Rivera.
Hunter was nice to her. The Fairfax detectives were nice. And she started talking.
"She finally had people who were listening, people who cared about her," Hunter said. "Personal loyalty was everything to her. There were police officers who were good to her, and for that she was being good to them. She had never had a legitimate adult be supportive of her before. The gang is about the gang and the leaders who, through their bravado and brutality, control it."
Even investigators were surprised by the level of Paz's cooperation. "I said, 'Why are you doing all this?' " one investigator said. " 'These are your people, the people you adore. This is your family.' She said she felt it's a way out. It's a way to start turning the corner. She would say, 'Well, there's only two ways out of the gang for me. Either I help you put these people away and I don't have anyone to hang out with and I'm forced to find new friends. Or they kill me.' "
Paz had plenty of information to share. Detectives from across Northern Virginia came to speak to her. Soon, members of a regional gang task force, including an FBI agent, began questioning her. She helped the federal agents and she helped detectives from other states where MS-13 is prevalent.
Last September, Patton said, he and a detective flew to Virginia to see Paz.
She had been in Grand Prairie the night the 21-year-old was shot, and she told them how the man was threatened at gunpoint and was made to pull his pants down. Paz described how gang members cleaned their fingerprints off the victim's car, and she said one gang member took the victim's shoes. Her statement helped prosecutors secure guilty pleas in the case.
"She had a memory like you couldn't believe," Patton said. "It caused you to wonder if she hadn't embellished a little, but the details that mattered to us were confirmed."
On the streets, word spread that Paz had betrayed MS-13. Authorities learned of threats against her. Eventually, she was "green-lighted" by gang leaders, code for an order to kill, according to law enforcement authorities.
Hunter and an FBI agent worked to protect Paz, and in November, she was released from juvenile detention in Fairfax and went into what law enforcement authorities called a safe house. But Paz had trouble adjusting to the rules and missed her social life. So she left.
"She had walked away for a party with some MS members," Patton said.
One investigator said she was playing both sides. "She was still hanging with the gang," he said. "Here she was, trying to portray to us that she was trying to change her life, but when we turn our eyes, she was still hanging. She went back. She never really left it. That's the part that angered me. She appeared to be trying, but was she really trying? The answer is no."
As the winter wore on, gang detectives learned that the danger to Paz was increasing. Local and federal authorities, along with Hunter, tried to find her. Finally, she recognized the danger and contacted them.
With the help of Hunter and the FBI agent from the regional task force, Paz entered the Witness Protection Program in March, law enforcement officials said. Now she had a new name. She was moved to a new location. She told friends and investigators that she was pregnant -- and very happy and excited about it. She was taking classes and wanted to go to college.
But something, maybe the rules, maybe the loneliness, made her walk away.
Hunter said Paz called him after she left the program. He said she knew she was in danger, but she thought she could handle the threat. She'd always been able to get out of trouble before.
"She believed up until the time she died that she could talk her way out of it," Hunter said.
Staff writers Patricia Davis, Tom Jackman and Elaine Rivera and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company