Building a light-rail line — in this case, the 16-mile Purple Line in Maryland — often involves acquiring houses to be razed. A routine part, for construction workers, is going into the homes to inventory items that need to be removed before demolition.
What the worker didn’t know — but was made clear in court Thursday afternoon — was that members of the violent street gang MS-13 had turned the vacant structure into what McCarthy called their “clubhouse.”
The gang members came and went. They used the place to smoke pot and drink. They scrawled graffiti on walls, hung a toy skeleton from a ceiling fan and lit candles at their shrine to Santa Muerte, a female deity of death. And on Oct. 17 of last year, according to accounts at the hearing, they confronted a man who had walked in.
Two approached the construction worker near a staircase. He saw what looked like a gun, raised in his direction. He saw a black mask.
“I’m just working here, man,” he said, putting his hands up.
The two men walked downstairs and left. The construction worker waited 30 seconds, walked out, went to his truck and called the police. “The victim was terrified,” McCarthy said. “He remains terrified.”
Thursday’s hearing centered on what prison sentence should be given to David Lagunes-Bolanos, 18. He was not accused of holding the gun inside the home along University Boulevard, near the border between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. But when police arrested him a short time after the confrontation, they found a “machete-style knife” that was 12 to 15 inches long and concealed inside his pants leg, according to court records. The records said he was a member of MS-13.
While jailed, he managed to get hold of three homemade weapons, or shanks. In June, according to court records, he went before Circuit Court Judge Cheryl McCally and pleaded guilty in both incidents — to one count of participating in a criminal gang and one count of “possession of a deadly weapon in a place of confinement.”
On Thursday, Lagunes-Bolanos tried a slightly different approach, telling McCally that he wasn’t so much guilty when he pleaded but concerned about how a jury would have weighed the case.
“I was afraid that I would lose,” he said.
“What does that mean?” the judge asked.
“I’m not a gang member,” Lagunes-Bolanos said. “I do have friends that are members of a gang, but I am not a gang member. I was hanging out with them.”
“This wasn’t your house,” McCally said. “It’s nobody’s house. It was condemned. It was designated to be demolished to make way for a Metro light-rail system. . . . So you’re telling me you just happened to be there with all these gang people that were writing all over the walls, but you’re not a gang member?”
“Yes,” Lagunes-Bolanos said. “I was there because, truthfully, I was smoking pot with them. I was.”
“Are you telling me this is just a big misunderstanding?”
With that, the judge declared his explanation “totally unbelievable,” and spoke about the dangers posed by MS-13.
“Urban terrorism,” she called the group. “That is the function of your organization.”
McCally then handed down 15 years for the gang participation, and 10 years for the shanks. For parole purposes, neither crime is considered a crime of violence, meaning Lagunes-Bolanos would be eligible for parole consideration after serving 25 percent of the combined 25 years, according to attorneys in the case.
The second suspect who confronted the worker, Jesus Ponce Flores, 19, was found guilty July 12 by McCally of gang participation. He admitted to threatening the worker, according to police records, but said he used a fake gun. He is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 10.
Lagunes-Bolanos, a native of Mexico, is likely to face deportation after serving his sentence. In a court hearing last year, Assistant State’s Attorney Teresa Casafranca said that he had “self-admitted to detectives” that he had entered the United States illegally.
Detectives learned about the confrontation in the house when the construction worker called them about 8:20 a.m. on Oct. 17, just after leaving the house. He met them a short distance away.
He told them he’d gone into the house, gone upstairs and was heading for the attic when he heard footsteps coming up the stairs. He thought it was men from his crew and called out, “Hello.”
Instead, the man told officers, he was confronted by the two men.
Police went to watch the home, waited for more officers to arrive, and moved in.
That’s when they found Lagunes-Bolanos and three others, though not Ponce Flores, according to court records. To gang detectives, the place carried the hallmarks of a “destroyer home,” a structure used by MS-13 as a hangout. Among the graffiti markings was the country phone-calling code for Honduras, the Santa Muerte shrine, and the “skeleton idol” to the shrine, hanging from a ceiling fan. One of the graffiti words was spelled “Santa Mu3rt3,” which detectives described as homage to “the saint of death with E’s replaced with 3’s out of respect for MS-13.”
Also in the bedroom, according to police, was a Halloween mask, a skull with red blood. According to detectives, they had seen a person they knew — Ponce Flores — the day before, riding a bicycle, with an identical-looking mask atop his head but not covering his face. They went looking for Ponce Flores, records say, and found him a few blocks away.
Immigration officials have lodged a detainer for Ponce Flores, a native of Honduras, according to Montgomery jail officials, an indication they will move to deport him, as well.