Members of the MS-13 street gang enlisted a 19-year-old woman to lure another teenager into a darkened Montgomery County park, where he was stabbed more than 40 times, according to police accounts of the county’s 10th gang-related killing in the past 10 months.
The accounts, filed this week in Montgomery District Court, underscored the horror of the slaying, with at least three assailants — one of them just 16 — who either held down the victim or repeatedly stabbed him.
“We really are seeing an unprecedented level of gang-related homicides,” said Capt. Paul Liquorie, director of the Montgomery Police Department’s Special Investigations Division.
In one of the suspected MS-13 killings last year in the county, assailants allegedly threw heavy rocks down on a victim as he crawled away from an attack toward a stream, according to court records. In another, the victim was told, “Get on your knees,” before being shot in the face, neck and shoulder while in the woods.
In the June 16 death of Cristian Antonio Villagran-Morales, 18, in Malcolm King Park in Gaithersburg, police said the 19-year-old, Vanesa Alvarado, used the promise of sex to entice Villagran-Morales into the park.
Once they arrived, MS-13 members came up to Alvarado and Villagran-Morales and asked him whether he wanted to go into the woods to smoke marijuana, police said.
“Unfortunately, Cristian made the decision to go into the woods with them. He did not come out of those woods,” Capt. Darren Francke, Montgomery’s major crimes commander, said Thursday.
Police have arrested two suspects in the case, charging them with first-degree murder: Alvarado and Juan Gutierrez-Vasquez, 16, who allegedly took part in the attack. Police are looking for two more suspects: Oscar Ernesto Delgado-Perez, 27, and Jose Coreas Ventura, 20, who also goes by the name Jose Corea.
“These two individuals are extremely dangerous, and they’re on the run,” Francke said. “We want to get them into custody as soon as possible.”
When Gutierrez-Vasquez, who is being charged as an adult, was interviewed by detectives, he told them that the victim was thought to be a rival gang member, according to court records.
But detectives have found no evidence of that and said they believe the attackers made up that claim to gain street credibility.
“It’s absolutely senseless,” Francke said of the killing. “This young man was a hardworking young man. He came down here for a job.”
Investigators said Villagran-Morales arrived in Montgomery about two months ago from New Jersey to live with relatives and was doing landscaping work.
The young man sent money home to his father in Guatemala — something that to Jennifer Torres, a girlfriend of one of Villagran-Morales’s cousins, set him apart from others his age. “Most 18-year-olds just want to spend their money on themselves,” she said.
His demeanor also distinguished him, she said. “ ‘Cristian laughs about everything. Cristian smiles about everything,’ ” Torres remembered her boyfriend telling her — attributes she came to see.
She said she believes he went to the park thinking that Alvarado held a genuine romantic interest in him. “I think there was a lot of innocence to him,” Torres said. “She tricked him. It was a huge betrayal.”
Gutierrez-Vasquez gave a rundown of what happened after an exchange of text messages that, police said, occurred between Villagran-Morales and Alvarado on the day of the killing.
He stated that he initially held down the victim’s legs, while others were stabbing him, and then he also stabbed the victim with a knife, detectives wrote.
Court records do not indicate whether Gutierrez-Vasquez or Alvarado have retained attorneys. Police describe Alvarado as an “associate” of MS-13, a large gang with ties to El Salvador.
Detective Dimitry Ruvin, one of the investigators working the case, said the suspect, Gutierrez-Vasquez, came to Montgomery County from El Salvador in February and probably joined MS-13 after arriving. “I think he was recruited here,” Ruvin said.
At Gutierrez-Vasquez’s first court appearance on Tuesday, prosecutor Robert Hill said the 16-year-old had been enrolled at Gaithersburg High School but showed little interest in his studies. “He never went to school,” Hill said. “He was mostly interested in whatever the gang was doing.”
Immigration agents recently lodged a jail detainer against Gutierrez-Vasquez, an indication they could move to have him deported.
Alvarado was born in Silver Spring, according to court records, and attended schools in the area. “She had every opportunity to be a normal kid,” Ruvin said. A public defender who represented her in court Tuesday said Alvarado has two children, ages 2 and 3, and is enrolled in GED classes and previously worked cleaning apartments.
“For the time being, she is pretty much a stay-at-home mom,” her defense lawyer, John Lavigne, said in court.
“When she was arrested, she confessed to luring, confessed to knowing that he was going to be killed and participating in the crime,” the prosecutor, Hill, said.
The Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, operates drug rings, human trafficking and prostitution networks extending from its base in El Salvador to Mexico, the United States and Canada, according to the Treasury Department. In October 2012, Treasury designated the group a “transnational criminal organization.”
In Montgomery County, Liquorie, the police captain, said that six of the 10 gang-related slayings are linked to MS-13 and that the other four are linked to local neighborhood gangs, often called crews.
For years, MS-13 has been the Washington region’s largest and most notorious gang.
In 2014, after years of relative quiet for the gang, FBI officials noted an upswing in violence. Experts attributed part of the resurgence to gang leaders in El Salvador attempting to reconstitute operations here in order to make more money.
In a report written last month, Montgomery police officials cited another factor for the renewal: the wave of teenagers migrating, without parents, from the gang violence of El Salvador and other Central American countries.
It’s not necessarily that the teenagers are arriving as hardcore gang members, but what seems clear, Liquorie said, is that by the time the teenagers get to Montgomery County, they often are isolated, broke, unable to speak English — and prime targets for area MS-13 members.
“They are probably the most susceptible youths for gang recruitment,” Liquorie said. “They fall into this trap. They don’t have family to necessarily fall back on.”
And that recruitment is taking on modern-day approaches, centered in large part on social media.
Existing gang members in Montgomery and El Salvador follow social-media postings by the new immigrants, looking for connections they may have to certain towns or people in El Salvador. They then leverage that information to threaten and bully teenagers into joining gangs.
“It’s a small world,” Liquorie said of the connections.
Newcomers living in neighborhoods that already have a presence of MS-13 and its rival, 18th Street, can feel a need for protection, which also drives them to gangs.
MS-13’s increased presence seems to have made the local, neighborhood gangs more threatening as well. “Your violence has to match the other group’s violence,” Liquorie said.
In a report to the Montgomery County Council, police officials discussed the teenage migrants.
“After making their precarious journeys, they often find their expectations do not match the realities of the economic opportunities, cultural barriers and family situations they find here,” the police officials wrote. “The resulting isolation that many of them feel or experience makes them more susceptible to victimization, gang recruitment and participation in criminal activity.”
“Utilizing social media and the Internet to conduct research, MS-13 and the 18th Street gang target vulnerable, newly-arrived youth by threatening to harm their families and loved ones back home,” the report also stated.
“The very real potential for the gangs to carry out these threats back in Central America, out of the reach of American law enforcement, forces these targeted young adults to comply with demands to join the gangs, act on their behalf, or make recurring extortion payments,” the report added.
Investigators ask that anyone with information on the Villagran-Morales case or the whereabouts of the two wanted suspects call 301-279-8000. To be eligible for a reward, tipsters should call 1-866-411-TIPS (8477).