A former Mara Salvatrucha gang member testified yesterday in a Prince William County courtroom that he witnessed a fatal attack on his nephew in a Manassas townhouse in August after gang members accused the nephew of being a snitch.
Raul Escobar, 24, pointed at Wilfredo Montoya-Baires, 25, sitting at the defense table, when asked by the prosecutor who fatally shot Jose Escobar, 22, the night of Aug. 11.
During a hearing last month for the first of four MS-13 members charged with murder in the slaying, Raul Escobar testified that he did not witness anything that night, forcing prosecutors to drop murder and weapons charges against Reynaldo Alexander Cordova, 22. Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney William Jarvis said Escobar did not cooperate then because he was scared that other gang members would exact revenge on him or his family if he incriminated them.
Escobar is cooperating now because prosecutors have convinced him that they are trying to protect him and prevent him from being deported to his native El Salvador, Jarvis said.
In an interview last month, Jarvis said gang members across Northern Virginia took a vote to execute Jose Escobar because they believed he had helped immigration agents try to deport another gang leader so that Escobar could be promoted. Police said four fellow gang members spread throughout the townhouse in the 8100 block of Community Drive -- a gang "safe house" -- and sealed off all the exits so that Escobar could not leave.
Yesterday, Raul Escobar testified at a hearing in General District Court that he and his nephew went to the townhouse that night about 6 just to hang out. When four other gang members arrived an hour later, no one spoke to Jose Escobar.
"I just asked, 'What was happening? Why weren't they speaking to my nephew?' " Raul Escobar said through an interpreter. "They didn't want to say anything. They just said my nephew was a rat, a snitch. . . . They didn't say why."
One gang member told Raul Escobar not to worry, that "they weren't going to do anything to me."
About 10 minutes later, Jose Escobar was shot in the chest and then cut along his neck, chest and left arm. He was still alive when medics arrived but died later that evening at Inova Fairfax Hospital.
After the shooting, Raul Escobar first told police that he had just arrived when the shooting occurred. But he later changed his story, telling police that he was inside the residence when his nephew was attacked. He was charged with obstruction of justice and giving a false police report, but Jarvis said his testimony remains credible because it is corroborated by other evidence. He declined to elaborate. He said if Escobar continues cooperating, the misdemeanor charges will be dropped.
Barry Zweig, defense attorney for Montoya-Baires, tried to undermine Escobar.
"You lied to police during the investigation?" he asked. Escobar responded: "I didn't want any more problems with my family and the gang."
Zweig then got Escobar to admit that he had been in the country illegally, was deported in April and returned illegally. Asked whether he was cooperating only to remain in the country, Escobar said that he thinks he could still be deported and that he wants "justice done for the death of my nephew. . . . He was like my younger brother."
Yesterday, the judge sent the case to a grand jury, which meets in December. Last month, Escobar also testified against Fredy Escobar (no relation), who police said helped guard the townhouse's rear sliding doors. Fredy Escobar's case also goes to the grand jury next month.
Police are looking for Carlos Avalos, the owner of the townhouse, who has also been charged in warrants with murder.