‘Junior’ Guzman Verdict: 5 Trinitarios Sentenced to Life in Hacking of Teen
The killing, captured on video, rattled New Yorkers like few in recent memory: A 15-year-old boy frantically ran into a deli and begged a clerk to let him hide behind the counter. Members of the Trinitarios gang charged in and dragged the teenager out onto the sidewalk, where they hacked him with knives.
The boy ran toward a nearby hospital, but collapsed and bled to death before he could get help. The police later determined that the gang members had mistaken the teenager for someone else.
On Friday, five of the men seen on the video attacking the youth, Lesandro Guzman-Feliz, known as Junior, were sentenced to life in prison in a Bronx courtroom, after being convicted of murder and gang assault in June.
Justice Robert A. Neary called the killing “senseless,” “savage” and “cowardly” as he sentenced the first defendant, Jonaiki Martinez Estrella, 25, who prosecutors said had struck the fatal blow. “Why?” the judge said. “To be held as a big shot in a gang? I am not sure you sense the magnitude of what you’ve done.”
Before Justice Neary handed down the sentences, Lesandro’s parents gave emotional speeches describing their loss. “That night, there were two deaths: Junior and I, who was left dead inside,” his mother, Leandra Feliz, said. “If it were up to me, I would sentence these murderers to 300 years in prison.”
Lesandro was walking alone at about 11:40 p.m. on June 20, 2018, in the Belmont section of the Bronx, looking at his phone, when he was accosted by several members of the Los Surés faction of the Trinitarios. The gang had been hunting for enemies and thought Lesandro was a member of a rival group, according to trial testimony.
The men chased Lesandro for blocks, catching up to him as he tried to hide inside the Cruz and Chiky Grocery, a bodega at East 183rd Street and Bathgate Avenue.
The gruesome murder a few minutes later prompted outrage on social media and calls for justice from elected officials and celebrities, including the rapper Cardi B and the Yankees pitcher C. C. Sabathia. Hundreds of people attended Lesandro’s funeral.
The police later arrested 14 people and charged them with taking part in Lesandro’s murder. Two became cooperating witnesses.
The five men sentenced on Friday were found guilty of murder and gang assault in June after a five-week trial in State Supreme Court in the Bronx that provided a look inside the workings of the Trinitarios, a highly organized and brutally violent gang.
The jury took two days to reach a guilty verdict for the defendants: Mr. Martinez Estrella, 25; Antonio Rodriguez Hernandez Santiago, 25; Jose Muniz, 23; Manuel Rivera, 19; and Elvin Garcia, 25. Eight others are awaiting trial.
Mr. Martinez, who prosecutors said struck the fatal blow, was sentenced to life without parole. Mr. Muniz, Mr. Garcia and Mr. Rodriguez Hernandez Santiago will be eligible for parole after 25 years, and Mr. Rivera after 23 years.
Lesandro’s father, Lisandro Guzman, told the court that since his son’s murder he has struggled to sleep. Weekends have become a “battle to stay busy” for him because those were the days he used to spend with his son. “You will never have the ability to understand the pain you have caused,” Mr. Guzman told the convicted men.
Before his sentencing, Mr. Martinez apologized to Leandro’s family in Spanish. “It was not my intention to cause the death of this kid, but that day I was under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and I did not know what I was doing,” he said.
Justice Neary, however, was unmoved and gave him the maximum penalty. “Certain words come to mind when I think about your involvement,” he said. “Senseless is one of these words. Savage is another word. But the one that often comes to my mind is cowardly.”
“You and your fellow gang members chased down and slaughtered a 15-year-old, defenseless boy in the most gruesome manner, and we in this courtroom had the misfortune of witnessing it on tape,” the judge said.
Arguing for leniency, the defense lawyers described the mesmerizing pull of gang life for young men like their clients, who they said came from troubled families and had found in the Trinitarios a group in which they felt valued and protected for the first time. The gang has provided the men with money, status and protection in return for their unflinching loyalty in carrying out orders from their superiors.
Mr. Rivera’s lawyer, Toni Messina, said his client was too young to fully comprehend what he was doing. “He was 18 years old and was seduced by the cult,” she said.
But the lead prosecutor, Morgan Dolan, argued for life sentences, pointing out that none of the defendants had shown remorse before the sentencing. She also argued that the defendants had gone out that night planning to kill someone and knew precisely what they were doing.
Mr. Rodriguez Hernandez Santiago refused to speak before his sentencing, offering no apology nor a plea for mercy. When Justice Neary sentenced him to life, his mother moaned in the gallery and stood up. “My son did not kill him,” she shouted.
Mr. Muniz, who at his last court appearance had shouted out that he was a Trinitario “until death,” also said that he felt no remorse for Lesandro’s death, though he offered an apology to the Dominican community and his family for “staining” their reputations. Speaking Spanish, he described the attack as “something that got out of hand, something that wasn’t justifiable.”
“I did not kill him,” Mr. Muniz said. “That’s why my conscience is clean. I do not care about you believing me.”
Justice Neary told Mr. Muniz he was a disgrace to his family. “You should be a poster boy for any young man contemplating to join a gang,” the judge said.