A 17-year-old MS-13 gang member known as “the Enforcer” of Sterling, Virginia, shot and killed a high school student on orders handed down from gang leaders in El Salvador because the boy had left the gang and joined a rival group, according to testimony given Thursday by law enforcement officials investigating the homicide.
The testimony was given during a preliminary hearing in Loudoun County for two illegal Salvadoran immigrants accused of stashing the gun used in the September killing. It sheds new light on the motivation for a homicide that has elicited outrage from a U.S. senator.
The juvenile charged with first-degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Danny Centeno-Miranda has not been publicly named because he has not been charged as an adult.
But in Thursday’s court hearing, a detective with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office offered a myriad of nicknames for the boy, referring to him by initials “JME” and by street nicknames that included “the Mexican” and “the Enforcer of Sterling.”
The boy’s case is expected to go before a Loudoun County grand jury soon and, if he is indicted, officials will identify him.
In court Thursday, investigators were hoping to prove that prosecutors had enough probable cause to charge stepbrothers Henry Ernesto Dominguez-Vasquez, 20, and Juan Moises Aguirre Zelaya, 18, with firearm possession by an unlawful alien and accessory after the fact to homicide.
Detective Tommy Rodriguez of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office testified that the two men admitted during interrogations that JME came to their home with a gun shortly after the Sept. 4 killing and asked for help hiding it.
Citing transcripts of an interview conducted with Mr. Dominguez-Vasquez, Detective Rodriguez said JME “admitted to shooting Danny,” and Mr. Aguirre Zelaya then took the revolver and emptied the shell casings before putting the gun on a couch.
JME then used Mr. Dominguez-Vasquez’s cellphone to call “homeboys back in El Salvador,” the detective testified.
The gun was found later that day, stuffed inside a food container in the freezer inside the home, when investigators searched the Sterling residence.
The victim, Centeno-Miranda, reportedly had left his home in El Salvador to escape violence there and was living with relatives in Sterling. It was unclear whether he was involved in any gang activity in either El Salvador or Virginia.
But JME believed that Centeno-Miranda had been an MS-13 member in his native country and had left the gang when he arrived in the United States for membership in the rival 18th Street Gang, according to Detective Rodriguez.
Wearing orange and white-striped jumpsuits, Mr. Dominguez-Vasquez and Mr. Aguirre Zelaya listened to court proceedings in Spanish through a translator.
During Thursday’s hearing, a Department of Homeland Security official also confirmed that both Mr. Dominguez-Vasquez and Mr. Aguirre Zelaya were in the country illegally.
Both had prior contact with U.S. Border Patrol and were assigned “immigration court hearings that they failed to attend,” said Special Agent Gordon Cummings.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, has launched a probe of immigration officials’ handling of the suspects. He has said all three entered the country as unaccompanied alien children in 2013 and missed immigration hearings scheduled about a month before the killing occurred.
“Had these suspects appeared for their mandatory court date, they would have likely not had the opportunity to murder a 17-year-old high school student from Loudoun County,” Mr. Grassley wrote in a letter sent to DHS last month.
In court, attorneys for both men tried to put distance between their clients and the juvenile charged with murder, arguing that they were not willing participants in the hiding of the revolver.
“Don’t tell him anything because tomorrow you will find me dead,” Mr. Aguirre Zelaya told detectives, according to a police interview transcript read aloud by his attorney, Renee Berard.
Burke Walker, an attorney for Mr. Dominguez-Vasquez, said his client never handled the gun and wanted no part in the request to hide it.
“When he realized what was going on, he told him to leave,” Mr. Walker said. “He didn’t help him in any way.”
Loudoun County District Court Judge Deborah C. Welsh partially agreed.
While she tossed the handgun possession charge against Mr. Dominguez-Vasquez, the judge found there was probable cause to sustain the accessory to murder charges against both men as well as the handgun possession charge against Mr. Aguirre Zelaya.
Both of their cases are also now expected to be handed over to a grand jury.