A 16-year-old federal witness was not properly supervised in an FBI safe house in Maryland, which became the scene of drinking and drug use involving the same violent street gang whose members are now accused of killing her, according to federal court testimony yesterday.
While Brenda Paz was staying at the Silver Spring apartment in 2003, police investigated the report of a rape there, FBI agent Lawrence Alexander testified. The next day, he said, 10 people were arrested at the apartment, including members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. Paz, a key government witness in a crackdown on the violent gang, then disappeared.
_____From The Post_____
Prosecutors Say Slaying Of Witness Was Planned (The Washington Post, Apr 12, 2005)
D.C. Gang Leader Gets 151 Years in Deadly Plot (The Washington Post, Apr 9, 2005)
Gang Link Suspected in Pr. William Attack (The Washington Post, Apr 6, 2005)
Trial Witness in MS-13 Case Flees but Is Apprehended (The Washington Post, Mar 29, 2005)
Attorney Protests Legal Maneuvers in MS-13 Killing (The Washington Post, Mar 29, 2005)
Defense attorneys for four MS-13 members being tried on murder charges in U.S. District Court in Alexandria blamed the government yesterday for not protecting Paz, even though a psychological report had indicated she needed close monitoring. The defense argued that plenty of gang members wanted Paz dead but that their clients didn't kill her.
"She wasn't really closely monitored by your office, by the U.S. Marshals Service or by county detectives, was she?" defense attorney Jerome Aquino asked Alexander yesterday, the trial's second day.
"No," replied Alexander, who said he visited Paz twice a week. Paz's court-appointed guardian, Greg Hunter, testified under questioning by the defense that there was drug use and underage drinking at the safe house.
The government later put Paz in a witness protection program and gave her a new identity before she disappeared once again. But at issue yesterday were the three months she spent in the Silver Spring apartment in late 2002 and early 2003.
During yesterday's testimony, the four defendants sat in a courtroom under heavy guard. MS-13 is considered the most violent street gang in Northern Virginia.
After Paz disappeared from the FBI safe house, she resurfaced and was placed in the witness protection program run by the U.S. Marshals Service, where she received a new identity. But she could not cut her ties to her MS-13 friends, who located her in a hotel room in Minnesota. When federal agents visited, she passed the gang members off as friends or told them to hide, defense attorneys said.
Paz, then 17, left the program and returned with MS-13 to Virginia, where her pregnant, tattoo-covered body was found on the banks of the Shenandoah River in July 2003. Prosecutors say she was targeted for death by MS-13 after gang members found her diary, which contained police business cards and details of her dealings with law enforcement.
The FBI and federal prosecutors yesterday declined to comment on their handling of Paz. A spokesman for the Marshals Service, Dave Turner, said only that Paz left the program on her own and that "she was alive when she left."
Paz, a longtime MS-13 member known within the gang as "Smiley," was scheduled to be a witness in a federal murder trial in Alexandria in 2003.
One of the MS-13 members later convicted in that slaying, Denis Rivera, 20, of Alexandria, is among the men on trial in Paz's killing. Also charged are Oscar A. Grande, 21, of Fairfax County, Ismael J. Cisneros, 25, of Vienna, and Oscar Garcia-Orellana, 31, of Fairfax.
The government is seeking the death penalty for each. Prosecutors have said that the men formed a "kill team," targeting Paz for her cooperation with authorities, and that the slaying was organized from Rivera's jail cell in Alexandria. Paz was stabbed repeatedly while a rope was held around her neck, prosecutors said.