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MS-13 associate sentenced to 40 years in prison in videotaped slaying of 15-year-old girl

Venus Romero Iraheta, left, was convicted in the brutal murder of Damaris Reyes Rivas in Springfield, Va., in February 2017.
Venus Romero Iraheta, left, was convicted in the brutal murder of Damaris Reyes Rivas in Springfield, Va., in February 2017. (Fairfax County Police (left); family photo)

For the ninth time, Maria Reyes slipped into the witness stand in a Fairfax County courtroom to confront one of the MS-13 associates who abducted her 15-year-old daughter, brutally tortured her, then left her broken body face down in a puddle.

Reyes stared unflinching at Venus Romero Iraheta, 18, a few feet away, at her sentencing hearing Friday. Iraheta had orchestrated the killing of Damaris Reyes Rivas, telling the Gaithersburg teen she would see her in hell before plunging a hunting knife into her repeatedly in January 2017.

She told the girl she would see her in hell. Now, she’s guilty of murder.

The mother wiped away tears with bubblegum pink nails as she described the 18-hour days she worked to bring Damaris to the United States from El Salvador, the joy of reuniting with her and the devastation of burying her in her quinceañara dress.

Finally, she told a prosecutor she had one final message.

“I want to say to this young lady that she destroyed my life. She destroyed the life of my daughter. She didn’t owe anything to you,” Reyes said through a translator. “My daughter is not in hell, as she said. She’s in heaven. She has shown me that in my dreams. . . . Hell will be lived by you, not by her.”

Soon after, a judge imposed a sentence of 40 years in prison on Iraheta, the most high-profile defendant in a slaying so horrific it drew national attention and was used by the Trump administration to grimly highlight the resurgence of MS-13 in the Washington area and beyond.

Ten associates of MS-13 have been convicted of the vicious attack in wooded areas of Springfield. Damaris’s harrowing final minutes were captured in cellphone videos that were discovered by police.

Iraheta, whose body shook with grief through much of the hearing, testified that she was remorseful for what she had done. When asked by her attorney to respond to what Reyes said about her going to hell, Iraheta said simply: “She’s probably right.”

“I know I have made the worst mistake of my life,” Iraheta said. “At night, while I’m sleeping I will wake up with these memories. They will come to me full force. I wish I could push them away.”

But Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh called Iraheta’s contrition “crocodile tears.”

“You let that child’s body lie out in the open winter air for a month,” Morrogh told her.

Damaris’s slaying played out on the frigid afternoon of Jan. 8, 2017. Iraheta blamed Damaris for helping lure her boyfriend, Christian Sosa Rivas, an MS-13 associate, to his death roughly a week earlier.

Sosa Rivas, who claimed he was the leader of the gang’s Harrison clique, was killed by other MS-13 members, possibly because they thought he was falsely claiming his title. Federal prosecutors are pursuing a separate case in that slaying.

Damaris was lured to Lake Accotink Park in Springfield under the pretense of smoking marijuana. When she arrived, 10 MS-13 associates between the ages of 15 and 21 walked her into the woods and began interrogating her about the killing of Sosa Rivas.

The ghoulish cellphone videos, which were played following Iraheta’s plea hearing, captured the moment. The MS-13 associates stalk around Damaris, who stands in the snow-covered woods, and yell at her in Spanish. One clicks a cigar cutter and tells her she could lose a finger, before the video ends.

A second video picks up after Damaris was walked to a second location. She is shivering in the woods with no shirt or shoes in the 21-degree weather. The MS-13 associates wanted Damaris to feel the same cold Sosa Rivas felt when his body was dumped in an icy Potomac River.

Iraheta is seen wielding the hunting knife, before someone off camera shouts in Spanish: “Just stick the steel in her.”

But the ordeal would not end.

The group returned Damaris to a car and drove her to a nearby location, where a Beltway overpass vaults over some train tracks, prosecutors said at Iraheta’s plea hearing. MS-13 graffiti still marks the pilings and underside of the bridge.

Some of the gang members peeled away, while others punched and kicked Damaris. After a while, Iraheta climbed on top of Damaris and asked her if she had slept with Sosa Rivas, prosecutors said. Damaris admitted she had and asked for forgiveness, but prosecutors said Iraheta flew into a rage.

Iraheta later told Fairfax County detectives and an FBI agent that she did not feel bad about what happened next. The interrogation was videotaped, and the FBI agent translated what Iraheta told them.

“ ‘You’re going to remember me until the day we see each other in hell,’ ” Iraheta said she told Damaris. “ ‘Don’t forget my name,’ and I told her my full name. . . . I told her to never forget who I was.”

A Fairfax County detective then asked what happened next. Iraheta replied in English: “I killed her.”

The FBI agent testified at a preliminary hearing that Iraheta sliced a tattoo off Damaris and plunged the knife into her 13 times. As Damaris lay on the ground, another MS-13 member stabbed her with a large tree branch.

A third video picks up soon after. Damaris is seen lying on her back amid dead leaves on the floor of the woods. Blood trickles onto the leaves from her abdomen and is smeared on her forehead.

Another MS-13 associate enters the frame and jabs a bloody stick into her neck again and again, before the video abruptly ends. Prosecutors said Damaris was left to die and slowly expired over about 20 minutes.

Some MS-13 associates returned to the scene later that night and dumped Damaris’s body facedown in a puddle of water beneath the overpass. She was discovered there about a month later by police.

Police in Prince William County discovered the videos of Damaris’s killing while investigating Sosa Rivas’s death. The MS-13 associates were arrested and convicted on various charges, including first-degree murder, gang participation and abduction.

The path that brought Damaris and Iraheta to the Springfield woods was a winding one. It illustrates the dangers of growing up in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates and the challenges tens of thousands of Central American children have faced after fleeing to the United States in recent years.

Damaris and Iraheta grew up a few miles from each other in San Vincente, El Salvador. Iraheta’s attorney said in court she was kidnapped at 14 and repeatedly raped over the course of several weeks. Her father was abusive and an alcoholic.

Damaris, who had spent nine years away from her mom before coming to the United States, faced trouble adjusting here and fell in with gang members.

The mothers of both were in the courtroom and cried throughout the hearing.

Iraheta said she once dreamed of being an attorney, but that hope is gone.

“I didn’t just kill Damaris,” Iraheta told the judge, “I killed a part of myself that day.”

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