There was nothing spontaneous about the brutal, midmorning slaying of Brenda Paz, prosecutors said yesterday. Over several months, the stabbing death of the federal witness was meticulously plotted from an Alexandria jail cell, and when it came time to execute the plan, July 13, 2003, it was calculated and precise, they said.
"They put a rope around her neck, and they held her back while two of them stabbed and stabbed and stabbed," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald L. Walutes said of the four suspected gang members on trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria in the slaying of Paz, who was 17 and pregnant.
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During opening statements, Walutes painted the defendants -- Denis Rivera, 20, of Alexandria; Oscar A. Grande, 21, of Fairfax; Ismael J. Cisneros, 25, of Vienna; and Oscar Garcia-Orellana, 31, of Fairfax -- as violent members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang, who "together formed the kill team."
Each is charged with killing a federal witness, tampering with a witness and retaliating against a witness. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for each.
But defense attorneys said they will attack the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses over what is expected to be a three-week trial. They told the jury that many people wanted Paz dead and questioned why the government didn't do more to protect her. All four defendants have pleaded not guilty.
Paz, who had left the federal witness protection program about a month before her tattoo-covered body was discovered on the banks of the Shenandoah River, was killed simply because she was cooperating with authorities, Walutes said. Her death, he said, was to serve as a warning that "witnesses must die."
Suspicions that Paz, who for several years was a member of the gang, also known as MS-13, was talking to detectives were confirmed when Joaquin Grande-Chavez, brother of defendant Oscar Grande, found and read Paz's diary, Walutes said. The diary contained police business cards and details about her dealings with authorities.
Grande-Chavez recently was jailed on a material witness warrant after he disappeared for several weeks. He is expected to testify against his brother.
Oscar Grande read the diary and said, " 'So it's true. She's a snitch,' " Walutes said.
And so Rivera, from a jail cell where he awaited trial on charges of killing an 18-year-old suspected gang rival, "green-lighted" Paz -- gang code for authorizing a killing, Walutes said. Paz had cooperated with detectives in at least six states against MS-13 and was scheduled to be a witness in the murder case against Rivera, federal officials have said.
Paz, a runaway from California, was lured to the Shenandoah River by Grande, Garcia-Orellana and Cisneros on the pretense that they were taking her fishing, Walutes said, but then they stabbed her repeatedly and told her they were killing her because she had cooperated with law enforcement.
Her body was found on the banks of the river four days later by a fisherman and his son.
Walutes said the case hinges not on DNA, fingerprints or eyewitnesses to the slaying, but on the testimony of gang members and informants.
Attorneys for the defendants attacked the credibility of those witnesses, contending that several have ulterior motives.