An Aug. 4 article about the guilty pleas of a Fairfax County teenager involved in a machete attack misstated the possible prison terms he faces. Cristobal Z. Medrano faces as much as 30 years in prison, not 15. (Published 08/06/04).
The machete attack that mutilated the hands of an Alexandria youth in May started with an exchange of harsh words between rival street gangs and ended with three machete-swinging teenagers slashing at the victim, a Fairfax County prosecutor said yesterday.
New details about the sensational attack emerged yesterday in the first guilty plea in the case from 17-year-old Cristobal Z. Medrano in Fairfax Circuit Court. Medrano, who prosecutors said has a lengthy juvenile court record, was certified to stand trial as an adult and pleaded guilty to malicious wounding and participation in a street gang.
Medrano did not speak other than to answer questions acknowledging his understanding of the proceedings and his membership in Mara Salvatrucha, or "MS," the dominant street gang in Northern Virginia. During the attack, Medrano yelled "MS represents!" the prosecutor said.
The attack occurred about 1 a.m., along Edsall Road near Beryl Road, just east of Interstate 395. Officers found the 16-year-old victim with severely injured hands and deep cuts to his head and back. Fairfax police initially announced that both of his hands were cut off, sparking a public uproar and speculation about the symbolic significance of such an assault.
The victim did not lose either hand, although four fingers on one hand were severed. Fairfax Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Jay R. Nanavati said the assailants did not specifically target the victim's hands. They were injured when he raised them to ward off blows from the three machetes, he said.
Nanavati said the incident began at a 7-Eleven store about seven blocks away on Edsall Road. A car with some young women inside spotted several members of Mara Salvatrucha outside the store and yelled out the name of another gang, South Side Locos, believed to be the region's second-largest gang. Medrano responded with an epithet about "SSL" and threw a bottle at the car, Nanavati said.
Minutes later, the car returned, this time with young male passengers. Two were armed with baseball bats, including the 16-year-old who would later be attacked, Nanavati said, and began chasing three MS gang members.
The MS members ran into a nearby apartment and emerged with machetes, Nanavati said. The chase was now reversed. The prosecutor said Medrano admitted inflicting the blow that knocked the victim down, and that two other MS members then repeatedly chopped at him with machetes while Medrano shouted "MS represents!"
The victim has denied being a member of South Side Locos, but police and school officials said the youth had tattoos and clothing that clearly indicated his allegiance to the gang.
Medrano faces sentences of as much as 10 years on the malicious wounding charge and five years on the gang charge when he is sentenced by Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Jane Marum Roush on Oct. 15. The victim was not at yesterday's hearing. He still has a cast on one hand.
Both Mara Salvatrucha and South Side Locos have their roots in the Salvadoran street gangs of Los Angeles. Mara Salvatrucha is believed to have as many as 1,800 members in Fairfax alone, and South Side Locos is thought to have about 400. Five homicides in recent years, including one in Herndon several days after the machete attack, have been attributed to MS.
"The victim was lying with his back on the ground, using his hands to protect his face from the defendants' machetes," Nanavati said, referring to two other alleged MS members who have been charged. "All three attackers were armed with machetes that they bought at a nearby Latin store for $20," Nanavati added.
Hayner R. Flores, 18, was the first suspect arrested in the case. Last week, his plea agreement unraveled when he refused to plead guilty to the gang participation charge. Flores had been offered a deal in which prosecutors would not seek a charge of aggravated malicious wounding, with a sentencing range of 20 years to life, in exchange for a guilty plea to the gang charge and the lesser wounding charge.
Flores faces trial next month on the aggravated malicious wounding charge. He also faces trial next week for a separate incident in which he allegedly slashed and beat a former MS member for being a police "snitch."
The third defendant in the machete case, Jose Cruz-Melendez, 19, is scheduled to plead guilty next week. A police search warrant affidavit stated that Cruz-Melendez acknowledged being at the scene of the attack and being an active member of MS.