A key witness in the upcoming trial of four members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang who are charged in the slaying of another federal witness will appear in court today after he fled and was tracked down by U.S. marshals, court papers and government officials said.
Joaquin Grande-Chavez, who had been missing for several weeks, was arrested on a material witness warrant Thursday in Northern Virginia, said U.S. Marshal John F. Clark. It is rare for witnesses to run away before trial, Clark said.
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Grande-Chavez is the brother of Oscar Antonio Grande, one of four members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, accused in the stabbing death of Brenda Paz.
Paz, 17, who was pregnant, was a federal witness in another MS-13 slaying case. Her body washed up on the banks of the Shenandoah River in 2003, shortly after she left the witness protection program.
It is unclear why Grande-Chavez fled, but sources familiar with the case said he is expected to testify against his brother at the trial, which begins April 11 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for all four defendants. They have pleaded not guilty.
Grande-Chavez's case highlights the difficulties in the massive federal and state crackdown on MS-13, which is the largest and most violent street gang in Northern Virginia. Investigators and MS-13 members say the gang issues a "green light," code for an order to kill, against members who cooperate with authorities. Such an order was issued against Paz, prosecutors have said.
Federal prosecutors declined to comment about Grande-Chavez and would not reveal their witness list, which was disclosed to defense attorneys Friday. But sources familiar with the list said it includes MS-13 members and girls friendly with Paz.
Investigators say it is often hard to keep track of witnesses in gang cases. "The moment you lose sight of them, they're going to move around," said one law enforcement official familiar with the case. "They don't want to testify against their friends and family. They know if they testify they could get killed, and what better reminder of that than what happened to Brenda Paz?"
The atmosphere surrounding the case has affected jury selection, which began Feb. 24 and will finish the day the trial starts. Court records show that several prospective jurors expressed fears for their safety, including one who said a student at his son's school was killed by MS-13.
Prosecutors requested an anonymous jury, but their motion was denied by U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee.
A federal grand jury indicted the four MS-13 members in June on charges of killing a federal witness, witness tampering and retaliating against a witness. Charged were Grande, of Fairfax; Denis Rivera of Alexandria; Ismael Juarez Cisneros of Vienna; and Oscar Alexander Garcia-Orellana of Fairfax.
Prosecutors say the men lured Paz to the Shenandoah River on the pretense of taking her fishing, then stabbed her repeatedly and told her they were killing her because she had cooperated with law enforcement. They say the plot was masterminded from a Northern Virginia jail cell where Rivera was awaiting trial on murder charges. Paz was to testify against Rivera.
Rivera, known within the gang as "Conejo," or "Rabbit," is quoted in the indictment as saying in a taped telephone call that he would plant Paz "in a park."
Paz, a longtime MS-13 member known as "Smiley," had cooperated with detectives against MS-13 in at least six states and was scheduled to be a witness in a federal murder trial in Alexandria.
Rivera and another MS-13 member were later convicted in that case: the slaying of Joaquim Diaz, 19, who was lured into the woods on federal land in Alexandria, stabbed repeatedly and nearly beheaded.
Grande-Chavez was ordered detained at his initial court appearance Friday and faces a detention hearing today. An attorney for Grande-Chavez declined comment yesterday.