Teenage MS-13 associate 'La Diablita' found guilty on all counts in Long Island murders
NEW YORK - Leniz Escobar, who went by the same "Diablita" or "little devil" on social media, was found guilty on all counts on Monday for luring a group of young men to a wooded area in Central Islip where more than a dozen members of the MS-13 gang beat and hacked them to death with machetes, knives, and tree limbs.
She was also found guilty of obstructing the investigation into the murders by destroying evidence, warning people to flee, and lying to police.
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The jury's guilty verdict came five years to the day after the murders.
During the federal trial, prosecutors argued that Escobar showed a complete disregard for human life. Escobar, who was 17 at the time, had told the group they were meeting to smoke marijuana, according to federal prosecutors.
She had convinced the vicious MS-13 street gang that the victims were members of a rival gang or had disrespected MS-13 on social media, the feds said. The victims' families have denied that the men were in a gang.
Several of the members cut deals with the government to testify against Escobar during the trial.
Alexander Ruiz, the only one who managed to escape by running for his life, told the jury that members of MS-13 covered their faces with sweatshirts and ordered them to get down on the ground, threatening to kill anyone who moved.
Text messages entered as evidence by the defense attempted to question Ruiz's credibility.
Escobar was tried as an adult. She pleaded not guilty to charges including murder and racketeering.
Prosecutors argued recorded jail phone calls between Escobar and her then-boyfriend, a high-ranking member of the gang, were essentially coded confessions. They said Escobar lied and portrayed herself as a victim when she actually bragged to her boyfriend about her important role in the murders.
Escobar's boyfriend at the time testified she helped bring the young men to the park.
She also allegedly discarded bloody clothes she wore the night of the murders and tossed her cellphone from a moving car so law enforcement couldn't recover its contents.
After carefully reviewing other evidence including a weapon used during the deaths, the jury reached a verdict after less than four hours of deliberating.
Escobar's family members were in the courtroom and quietly sobbed as the verdict was read. Her defense attorney argued Escobar wasn't an associate. He said he is considering an appeal.
"She took the verdict as well as a person could," Jesse Siegel said. "She understands the serious consequences. We're disappointed but we do appreciate the time and effort by the jury."
No family members of the victims were in court today.
Escobar faces up to life in prison when sentenced in September.
MS-13, also known as La Mara Salvatrucha, recruits young teenagers from El Salvador and Honduras, though many gang members were born in the U.S. The gang has been blamed for dozens of killings since January 2016 across a wide swath of Long Island.
Prosecutors hope the verdict sends a message that those who associate with the gang will be held accountable for their involvement.