28-Year Term for Fairfax Gang Attack
Saturday, March 11, 2006
A 19-year-old Latino gang member, convicted of chopping off another man's fingers with a machete outside a Fairfax County movie theater last year, was sentenced yesterday to 28 years in prison.
Wilber A. Rivera of Falls Church did not testify at his trial last summer, and he did not express any remorse when it came time for Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Jonathan C. Thacher to decide his fate. His silence did not impress the judge, who said Rivera was "apparently taking no responsibility" for his actions.
Thacher then imposed the sentence the jury recommended in August: 23 years for aggravated malicious wounding and five years for participating in a gang, to run consecutively. That gang is Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, whose initials Rivera had tattooed across his chest.
The machete attack, in January 2005 outside the Lee Highway Multiplex Cinemas in Merrifield, was the second gang-related incident in Fairfax involving a machete in eight months. In May 2004, a member of another gang had four fingers hacked off by three MS-13 members in the Alexandria area.
The victim in Merrifield, an admitted member of the Los Angeles-based Rollin' 60s Crips, lost three fingers on his left hand and was slashed in the head and stabbed in the side while his girlfriend and baby daughter ran from the scene.
The victim, Shawn D. Schroeder, said that as he, his girlfriend and daughter were walking away from the theater Jan. 3, 2005, a car pulled alongside them and a man said, "Don't you remember me from Tysons Corner mall?" Schroeder said he had previously had encounters with Rivera and others at the mall. Rivera worked as a busboy at the Rainforest Cafe.
Rivera's attorney, David Bernhard, renewed his claim, first made during trial, that Rivera did not strike the blows that caused Schroeder to lose his fingers. Schroeder testified that he lay down in front of the theaters and tried to play dead as three men rained blows on him. With a hand over his forehead and blood streaming down his face, he saw Rivera swing the blow that severed his digits.
A co-defendant, Moris Villalobos, pleaded guilty to the attack before trial. He testified that Rivera did not have a machete, only a knife.
Bernhard urged the judge to consider that the injuries could have been much worse. "This was clearly intent to maim, intent to disfigure," Bernhard said, "but not intent to kill. If they intended to kill him, they certainly could have killed him."
Assistant Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Casey Lingan noted that Rivera previously had been expelled from a Fairfax high school for a similar attack, in which he jumped out of a car, questioned someone's gang affiliation and then assaulted the person. Lingan said that person was punched in the face, and a machete was flashed.
In the incident with Schroeder, Lingan said, Rivera wanted to demonstrate MS-13's presence "and make it known to Fairfax County." MS-13 is considered to be the largest street gang in Northern Virginia and believed to be behind five slayings in the region since 2003, including one less than two weeks after Rivera's assault.
Gang violence has not abated in Northern Virginia, though no gang-related homicides have occurred there since May. The only two unsolved slayings in Fairfax last year, out of 23 total, were gang-related.
"The jury spoke for Fairfax County," Lingan said. "The jury expects to be safe for 28 years, and now the county expects to be safe for 28 years."
Rivera's mother testified that she moved to this country from El Salvador in 1999, and her son followed three years ago, moving in with her in Falls Church. She said she never saw any sign of gang involvement from him, despite the tattoo on his chest and his expulsion from school.
Thacher had the option of reducing the jury's recommendation of 28 years but not increasing it. He noted that the victim "was doing nothing but walking with the mother of his child and his daughter" and that Rivera was on probation for a previous assault at the time. "I find no reason to depart from the jury's sentence," Thacher said.