Christian Villagran Morales strolled a path into a darkening, densely wooded park. At his side was a woman he’d met days earlier.
That warm summer night, just north of Washington, held promise for the 18-year-old: The woman had said she wanted to have sex.
Lying in wait, 100 yards away, were MS-13 gang members. They knew the woman. And they’d helped her plot the ruse to draw in Villagran Morales. The assailants struck as the pair arrived. They pulled him into the woods, fought him and stabbed him 153 times.
The brutal murder in June 2016 of Villagran Morales — a cheerful, well-liked landscaper who had recently moved to Maryland — was one of five MS-13-related killings over 14 months in Montgomery County by a reinvigorated gang. Details of his death have been laid out in two guilty pleas from teenagers who took part.
Unlike other suspects in the cases, who were recent arrivals to the United States, the woman who has admitted that she lured Villagran Morales to his death in Gaithersburg was born and raised in Montgomery. Vanesa E. Alvarado, now 20, was sentenced to 40 years in prison Tuesday morning, the maximum amount based on an earlier plea agreement.
“This was a terrible, terrible case,” Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Anne Albright said from the bench.
In court, Villagran Morales’s mother, Bertha Morales, spoke about her son’s assailants, particularly Alvarado, who sat at the end of a long table with her head turned slightly away from Morales and looking down.
“I cannot even look at her face — that bad woman,” Morales said.
She told the judge that Alvarado could have backed out up to the last minute. “What she should have done is to tell him: ‘Look, go away, go back the same way you came.’ ”
Alvarado did not speak during the hearing.
She earlier pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. After she led the victim to other gang members, according to prosecutors and court records, she stepped back, shouted encouragement and laughed.
“Even after the murder,” Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Hill wrote in court records, “Ms. Alvarado showed so little regard for the life of her victim that she came back to the crime scene to show her friends the gang’s handiwork.”
Neither Tuesday’s hearing nor court filings explained how Alvarado became involved in MS-13. In court, her attorney suggested that other gang members manipulated her.
“They used her,” Timothy E. Clarke said. “I think the evidence would be that they used her to get to this person.”
The oldest of six children, Alvarado left school in the ninth grade. She has two children and has worked at a sandwich shop and for a company that cleans apartments, according to Clarke. She also used cocaine and marijuana “to a significant extent,” according to Clarke, a problem that led to her one previous arrest, on a charge of drug possession.
Clarke sought a prison term of 25 years — to give her more hope for life after her release. “Everything would suggest that she can be a very valid member of our community,” Clarke said, “and be a participant in her children’s lives.”
Four others were charged in the killing. The youngest, Juan Gutierrez-Vasquez, who was 16 at the time of the death and was charged as an adult, pleaded guilty this month and awaits sentencing. Trials are pending in Montgomery for Jose Coreas-Ventura and Josue Cuadra-Quintanilla. An attorney for Coreas-Ventura could not be reached. Ron Earnest, an attorney for Cuadra-Quintanilla, said his client is not guilty.
The Montgomery case against Oscar Delgado-Perez was dropped. Federal prosecutors charged him with immigration violations, to which he pleaded guilty, according to court records. They also charged him with conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise, according to court records. That case is pending. One of his attorneys, Alfred Guillaume, declined to comment.
For the family and friends of Villagran Morales, the extreme violence of his death has made it that much more haunting. Four people close to him began a search when they couldn’t reach him for a day and now live with images of his rain-soaked body, which they found in the park before calling police.
Villagran Morales was born in a region of Guatemala near the Honduran border. His mother and father migrated to the United States, leaving him in the care of his grandmother. He eventually came north himself, said his mother, Morales.
“At least bringing him here, nothing will happen to him,” she recalled telling her mother. “He’ll study and work and be safe.”
He crossed the border, made his way to his father’s home in Maryland, lived there and then moved in with his mother in New Jersey, Morales and other relatives said. He went to school for a while but was more interested in working and got a job on a landscaping crew.
“He always asked if I wanted to go back to Guatemala,” his mother said. “He said he wanted to work here for seven or eight years, make some money and then go back to Guatemala. He wanted to build a house, have a little farm.”
Outside of his job, Villagran Morales liked to work on cars, buy toys for his brother and play soccer. In early 2016, after turning 18, he told his mother that he wanted to move to Maryland, where he had lined up a landscaping job that paid $1 more per hour. “I didn’t want him to go, but he said it would only be for a short while,” his mother said.
She drove him to Maryland in April 2016, and he moved in with a cousin.
Villagran Morales generally left for his landscaping job at 7 a.m., returned 12 hours later and often bicycled to a nearby store to buy juice or candy. It was at the store, his family thinks, that he met Alvarado.
Within days, he ran into Gutierrez-Vasquez, Cuadra-Quintanilla and Coreas-Ventura, according to prosecutors. The three asked whether he was a member of a gang.
One of the suspects later told police that Villagran Morales had said he was a gang member but that Villagran Morales wouldn’t say which gang.
“Why he said that, we don’t know,” Hill, the prosecutor, said in court Tuesday. “He was 18 — maybe he wanted to look cool in front of the other individuals. But he said he was. He wasn’t. He was never a member of any gang.”
The three others, who told Villagran Morales they weren’t gang members, persisted, according to court records. They asked him whether he knew how to demonstrate hand signals, records show.
“He threw out some gang signs — maybe that he had seen or had learned or something,” Hill said. “But they were not for MS-13. They were for 18th Street, which is the rival gang of MS-13.”
None of the three — who were all members of MS-13, according to Hill — said anything.
But later, at an apartment, they called the leader of their gang “clique,” according to Hill, and told him they had come across a rival. The call was placed on speaker.
“Why didn’t you kill him?” the leader asked, demanding that they do so, according to Hill.
“They said, ‘We’ll kill him,’ ” the others responded, according to Hill. “We’ll kill him. We’ll work it out. We’ll get it done tomorrow.”
The gang members, he said, put in motion the plan to have Alvarado draw Villagran Morales to Malcolm King Park with the promise of sex.
Although he was only about 5-foot-2, Villagran Morales was powerfully strong from weightlifting. He fought off his attackers, until their numbers overwhelmed him as he begged for his life, court filings show.
When he didn’t return later that night or the next day, his family members and friends grew worried. They couldn’t reach him on his phone, began calling hospitals and went to search the park.
Jennifer Torres, who dates one of Villagran Morales’s cousins, said she was one of four people who went to the woods to try to find him last summer.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something,” Torres recalled outside court. “And then I saw his legs and his shirt, and I told them: ‘I think that’s him. He’s there.’ ”
She said: “He was an amazing young man full of life and joy. We hope this case brings light to the horrific things these gangs do.”
The teenager was buried in a cemetery near his mother’s home in New Jersey. That is one small comfort, Morales said.
Her son could be among the MS-13 victims buried in woods, their bodies never found, their parents never certain what happened.
“Some mothers,” she said, “don’t even know that their kids have been killed.”