SPECIAL REPORT

A mother searches MS-13’s ‘killing fields’ for missing son

Suffolk police said her son was a runaway. Carlota Moran knew better.

Carlota Moran holds a photo of her late son, Miguel Garcia-Moran, who was killed my members of the MS13 gang in 2016. Photo credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

From the editor

To dig deeper into the violent presence of the MS-13 street gang in Long Island’s immigrant communities and the efforts to combat it, Newsday has teamed with ProPublica, the independent, nonprofit investigative news organization and winner of four Pulitzer Prizes since its start in 2008.

The result is a series of extensive articles, beginning today with a probe by Hannah Dreier of ProPublica into one mother’s search for her missing son. The account, told through the disturbing recollections of Carlota Moran, is the most complete offered by any of the families of 11 high schoolers from Suffolk County to disappear during the killing spree linked to MS-13 in 2016 and ’17.

As well as capturing her anguish, it raises serious questions about how well the Suffolk County Police Department performed and whether those issues extend to other cases. The department said it could not comment on the ongoing investigation into what happened to Moran’s son, Miguel.

Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini, who was Suffolk police commissioner at the time of Miguel’s disappearance, also declined to discuss specifics of the case. But he said police, working closely with the FBI, have built more than 30 federal racketeering cases against MS-13 members and made street arrests of more than 240 gang members since September 2016. He said the department has also invested heavily in gang prevention and intervention and has improved relations with the Brentwood community.

The detective first assigned to the case declined at least a dozen requests for his side of the story.

This article will be followed in coming weeks by others by Newsday reporters exploring life within the gang, police efforts to improve relations with the immigrant community against a history of criticism and mistrust, and the complicated effects on those communities of the gang, the law enforcement crackdown against it, and the policies and rhetoric of the Trump era.

A mother, a murder and MS-13

The string of text messages that would come to haunt Carlota Moran seemed like just an annoyance at first — an interruption to what was supposed to be a special outing for her and her son. It was the school break after Presidents Day in 2016, and Carlota had taken 15-year-old Miguel to the mall. Miguel walked with his arm slung around his mother’s shoulders as they returned a pair of pants at American Eagle.

Read the ProPublica story.

Every few minutes, Miguel’s phone pinged with messages. Carlota asked who kept texting him and he answered, with teenage vagueness, “Just a boy from school.”

Carlota was just over 5 feet, with thick black hair that fell midway down her back. At 5-foot-10, Miguel towered over her. As he tried on clothes in the dressing room, he teased her, “Why did you make me so handsome?”

The messages kept coming. They were from Alexander, a classmate of Miguel’s at Brentwood High School, and promised a taste of cool on a dull February afternoon. “Hey, let’s smoke up today,” Alexander wrote on Facebook Messenger.

Miguel agreed to join him, but not until later, and he wanted to bring a friend. “No, only us,” came the response. “That man Jairo is going to treat you. But just you, dog. I can pick you up. But just us.”

After lunch, Carlota dropped Miguel at a neighbor’s to play video games. Miguel and Alexander switched to Facebook voice messages. “Should I wait for you in the woods?” said Alexander, whose Facebook handle was Alexander Lokote, Spanish slang for Homeboy.

“No, better at my house — I don’t like to go out there in the trees,” Miguel said.

Miguel and Alexander argued about whether to meet at Miguel’s house or in the woods. Around 7 p.m., Miguel agreed to go to the patch of trees nearest his home, by the high school.

“Where are you? I’m here with Jairo,” Alexander said.

“Wait by the school,” Miguel replied.

“OK, come over. We’re just getting here now, by the fluorescent lights.”

Miguel walked off and vanished into the darkness. The only clue his family would have to where he had gone and what awaited him there were the 84 Facebook messages he had exchanged that day with Alexander. They were discovered, weeks later, by his teenage sister — not the police.

Miguel was the first of 11 high schoolers to go missing in Suffolk County in 2016 and 2017, as the street gang MS-13 preyed with increasing brutality on the Latino community. As student after student went missing, their immigrant families were stymied by the inaction and inadequate procedures of Suffolk County police, according to more than 100 interviews and thousands of pages of police reports, court records and documents obtained through freedom-of-information requests. Officers dismissed their children as runaways instead of crime victims and repeatedly failed to provide interpreters for witnesses and parents who spoke only Spanish.

See Carlota Moran tell the story in her own words.

Their experience points to a larger breakdown between the police department and Latino immigrants. Too often, Suffolk detectives acknowledge, police have stereotyped young immigrants as gang members and minimized their killings as “misdemeanor murder.”

Today, Suffolk police and the FBI are cracking down on MS-13. They’ve charged dozens of MS-13 members with felonies and the disappearances have mostly stopped. President Donald Trump visited Long Island and praised Suffolk police for doing a “spectacular” job against the gang, which he has made a national security priority.

The police department says it took the disappearances seriously and has improved relations with the Latino community. But Suffolk police gang squad head Lt. Tom Zagajeski acknowledged that, before the surge of attention, the department’s efforts to fight MS-13 fell short. “I think we’re a little more aware of things we didn’t pay that much attention to,” he told me.

‘I think we’re a little more aware of things we didn’t pay that much attention to.’ -Lt. Tom Zagajeski, head of Suffolk police’s gang squad

For Miguel’s family and many others terrorized by MS-13, the police response came too late, and remains too little.

Carlota had been trying to protect Miguel since before he was born. When doctors in Ecuador said there was a problem with her placenta, she lay in bed for months. When her tiny baby arrived at 29 weeks, she slept next to his incubator.

She felt the pressure of being his sole defender; his father had left after he was born. Kids teased Miguel for being chubby, for his slight stutter, and for holding his mother’s hand long into elementary school. Carlota married an Ecuadorean who lived part of the year on Long Island, and then got green cards for Miguel and his sister Lady in 2014. The marriage didn’t last, but she made ends meet with her assembly line job at an envelope factory. She and her kids lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the majority-Latino community of Brentwood.

‘This is how you survive high school: Do not make friends with anyone.’ -Lady, Miguel’s sister

By 2016, Miguel and Lady were both enrolled at Brentwood High. Lady, a year ahead, brushed up against the gangs first. Boys wearing the blue plastic rosaries favored by MS-13 had pestered her to sit with them at lunch and smoke marijuana after class. But Lady was a natural loner. After a few months, the gang gave up. She worried that her soft little brother, a mama’s boy who still collected Beanie Babies and watched Disney cartoons, would be an easier target.

“I told him, ‘This is how you survive high school: Do not make friends with anyone,’” Lady said.

Carlota had heard about gang problems at Brentwood High. But when Miguel mentioned that some classmates were hassling him, she just gave standard parent advice to ignore the bullies. She was happy when he started going to meet friends by the high school. She loved how confident he was becoming. He was lifting weights. He had a girlfriend and got along well with Carlota’s boyfriend, Abraham Chaparro, whom he called his stepfather.

She was pleased that he wanted to spend part of his winter break with her. After dropping him off to play video games that Friday, she picked up chicken and rice for dinner. When she got home, she texted Miguel to ask where he was. She sent a third, a fourth, a fifth message, each time telling herself that he hadn’t heard the first few dings. 

‘I was all alone in the dark out there … I was so scared I would never see my boy again.’ -Carlota Moran, Miguel’s mother

By midnight, Carlota’s stomach was clenched with dread. Miguel never went more than a few hours without calling her. He never missed his 10 o’clock curfew. At 2 a.m., she got in the car and started driving, to the high school, the soccer fields, to bars that Miguel was too young to get into. “I was looking and looking, and the hours were passing so slowly. I was all alone in the dark out there, and it felt like my world was ending. I was so scared I would never see my boy again,” she told me.

When she ran out of places to look, Carlota came home and paced in front of the house, peering into the darkness. Then, she sat fully clothed on her bed, waiting for the sun to come up so she could go to the police station and report Miguel missing.

The door to the Bay Shore station was locked, so Carlota rang to be buzzed in. An officer greeted Carlota and asked what he could do for her. The station faced a Latino church, a Central American grocery and a pupusa restaurant, but few detectives there spoke Spanish.

Carlota didn’t know much English, so she brought along her boyfriend, Abraham. She tried to explain that her son would never run off; he couldn’t even handle sleepovers. The officer told Abraham there was no reason to panic. Most likely, Miguel was with his new high school friends. “They’re probably hanging out in New York City,” Abraham remembers the officer saying.

The New York City Police Department has a checklist of things officers must do if a minor goes missing, including speaking with the kid’s friends, checking social media accounts and putting out a press release. Nassau County has an even more extensive protocol that includes alerting state officials within two hours of taking a report. The Suffolk County police handbook requires one step: Search the area.

If police thought Miguel had been abducted and was in danger, they could have asked for a statewide alert. But state records show the police department never made the request.

The next day, Lady and a friend searched the woods, with a pet dog for protection. Venturing deep among the bare trees, they found no sign of Miguel. Carlota went through his things, looking in vain for some clue.

A Spanish-speaking detective was assigned to the case. Det. Luis Perez had served in the Air Force before joining the police department in the 1990s. He led other officers in searching the area around the house and Miguel’s room.

When classes started again on Monday, Lady worried about leaving her mother alone, but Carlota insisted she go to school. When Abraham got off work, they drove around together, scanning the streets.

‘What I worry about most is, it could be the gangs.’ -Carlota Moran, Miguel’s mother

Three days had passed since Miguel went missing, and police now sent out a press release. It said, “Detectives do not believe there is foul play involved.” The department listed Miguel as a runaway in the state missing person database, even though a spokesman said its policy is to assume missing children are in danger unless they have been thrown out by their parents or have a history of leaving home. Police generally spend less time and resources finding teenagers who leave home voluntarily. “As soon as you use the word ‘runaway,’ it’s a non-incident. It’s a non-crime,” said Vernon Geberth, a former New York City homicide detective who wrote a widely-used police investigative textbook.

Perez and the police department declined to comment on Miguel’s case. The department also declined to provide the missing person report to me or Miguel’s family, citing an open investigation. The department said that it conducts every missing-person investigation thoroughly and follows up on all leads.

“Our response to a reported missing person does not differ based on nationality,” it said, later adding, “Suffolk County Police officers are among the finest in the country and treat everyone with professionalism and compassion.”

Carlota started watching the news obsessively, and MS-13 kept coming up. Founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s, MS-13 is relatively small nationwide but has been active for years on Long Island.

Five days after Miguel went missing, Carlota got a local Spanish-language Univision TV reporter to film a segment about the case. Her face shiny with tears, she confessed the possibility she had begun playing and replaying in her mind: “There’s so much you can never be sure of in this country. What I worry about most is, it could be the gangs.” Reporter Alex Roland nodded sympathetically but later told me he thought Miguel had probably run away. After all, he explained, that’s what the police said.

The department hadn’t made a missing poster for Miguel, so Carlota photocopied his freshman ID and wrote next to it in Spanish, “If anyone sees this boy, please call his mother.” She posted the flyer at delis, churches and Miguel’s favorite clothing store, American Eagle. Tips flowed in: Miguel was eating empanadas, begging outside the 7-Eleven, getting a haircut. Each tip spurred an agonizing cycle of emotions: hurt and confusion that Miguel hadn’t let her know he was safe, then desperate hope, and finally despair as the leads proved false.

In early April 2016, almost two months after Miguel went missing, Lady discovered he had left his Facebook account open on Abraham’s phone. Most of his messages were failed attempts to talk to girls. Then, on the day he disappeared — the 84 text and voice messages with Alexander. Carlota and Abraham say they went to Perez with the phone immediately. He kept it for a few days, and then called and invited them to the high school to speak with Alexander. Assistant principal Lisa Rodriguez called Lady out of class over the intercom and had her wait outside the principal’s office as the adults talked to the student who had coaxed Miguel out.

Carlota and Abraham recall Alexander saying he and his friends had planned to go with Miguel to some train tracks, but Miguel never showed up. Carlota started crying. She demanded to be told where her son was. Alexander said he didn’t know. “I knew right away this was something key, and I was begging Perez to press for more,” Carlota said. “I was telling them, ‘He has to know where my baby is.’” After they dismissed Alexander, Perez and the assistant principal told Carlota they thought he knew more than he let on, but there was not much officials could do about it.

A spokesman for the Brentwood schools declined to discuss the meeting but said the district fully cooperates with police. Rodriguez said she couldn’t remember who Alexander was. “I work with a lot of kids, it’s a large building, so I can’t even tell you,” she said.

At the end of April, police asked the state for a missing person poster. It said, “Miguel is a runaway.”

Carlota fell into a routine of watching the news, paging through mystery thrillers at the library, asking Perez for updates and making the rounds of places where she had already searched. She thought about counseling but dreaded the likely advice: accept that Miguel might be gone.

It was the height of spring — three months since Miguel had gone missing — when Carlota saw something on TV that brought her up short: Another mother, crying over a missing son. Oscar Acosta was weeks away from graduating high school when he left home and never came back. He had told his mother a gang was bothering him because he had refused to join. Carlota needed to talk to her.

A nephew of Abraham’s recognized the mother’s house on TV. Carlota knocked on the door, heart hammering. The mother, Maria Arias, didn’t speak English. She told Carlota a familiar story: Detectives had reassured her that her son was hanging out with friends and would return after the weekend. Since then, Carlota recalled, Maria said she had been going to the police station and leaving without information because of the language barrier. Maria later told me that she had to enlist a woman from church to help her report Oscar missing.

Most Brentwood residents speak Spanish. But in 2016, three people in the entire 3,800-person Suffolk County Police Department had passed a language test to interpret for Spanish speakers. The department says it now has 10 interpreters. The New York City Police Department — 14 times Suffolk’s size — has 250 times as many certified interpreters.

‘The sense is that these kids are killing each other.’ -Ken Bombace, retired Suffolk police detective

The U.S. Department of Justice, which has been supervising the Suffolk police department since 2011, found this year that Suffolk officers are still not consistently using professional interpreters.

Current and former Suffolk detectives told me they didn’t see MS-13 as a public safety threat because its victims are usually at least on the fringe of gang life. They have a phrase for these killings: “misdemeanor murder.”

“The sense is that these kids are killing each other,” said Ken Bombace, who investigated MS-13 murders as a Suffolk County detective before leaving the department three years ago. 

In June 2016, a third immigrant teenager went missing from his home. His mother, Sara Hernandez, said she had pulled him out of Brentwood High because MS-13 was bullying him there. Since nobody spoke Spanish at the police station, Sara had to pay her cabdriver to interpret. She said police told her that her son could be hanging out with friends and would soon return.

Through the summer, Carlota struggled to maintain her belief that Miguel was alive. Hoping to find a piece of his clothing or some other hint, she took to walking at dusk through an area of shaggy oak and pine trees that police called “the killing fields.” At the heart of these woods loomed a boarded-up brick building, part of the abandoned Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center. Carlota was spooked by the empty spray paint cans and candy wrappers in the brush and wondered who had left them there.

She was always sure to leave by nightfall. “For the first time in my life, I was afraid of the dark.”

Carlota continued to check in with Perez weekly. One day, he invited the whole family to the station. Carlota hoped he was going to give them some news, but also dreaded what it might be. Instead, the family said, he accused them of knowing more than they were letting on. He spoke to Abraham in English, saying it was the language of the United States, and had him interpret.

A different immigrant family that met with police in 2016 about gang threats toward their daughter secretly recorded their interaction with Perez after he was brought in to interpret between them and another detective. Perez is not a certified interpreter, and in the video, instead of speaking in Spanish, Perez asks the daughter if she is bilingual and, even as her father protests that he can’t understand, begins interrogating her in English. “You think we’re as dumb as the kids you hang out with? You think this is all a joke?” Perez says.

In their conversation with Perez, Carlota and Lady insisted that they didn’t know anything more. What the detective said next stands out in the memories of all three family members. Perez turned to Carlota and told her, “If you’re so worried, go pay a fortuneteller to find Miguel.”

Perez didn’t respond to the two dozen questions I emailed him. When I called him, he hung up. When I knocked on the door of his home, he told me to get off his property.

In September 2016, Carlota tracked down another Univision reporter, who agreed to tape a segment outside the high school. He asked Carlota where she thought her son might be, but the producer cut in. Two girls from Brentwood High, Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, had been attacked as they walked near their homes. Nisa had been killed in the street. Kayla ran into a patch of woods and was missing overnight. Police had told state officials she was a runaway. Now her body had been found.

This case was different. The victims were native-born U.S. citizens, girls, and the gang hadn’t even tried to hide their bodies. “That’s not misdemeanor murder,” said retired Suffolk gang detective Rob Trotta, now a county lawmaker.

The murders made national news. The Suffolk County Police Department posted signs offering a reward for help catching the killers. Officers went door-to-door asking for tips. Police arrested dozens of suspected MS-13 members, mapped out the local MS-13 cliques, and searched the woods with German shepherds and shovels.

Zagajeski, the Suffolk gang squad head, said the girls’ murders spurred police to pay more attention to reports of missing Latino teenagers. “Where in the past we may have been like, ‘Oh, a missing girl, we hear this all the time,’ now it’s like, ‘Oh, a missing girl in Brentwood? There’s a lot of gang members over there, let’s take a ride over and see what it is,’” he told me. 

On Sept. 21, 2016, Lady was watching coverage of the hunt for the girls’ killers when an alert flashed. Police were identifying a body found days earlier in the woods as missing high school student Oscar Acosta. Carlota raced in from her bedroom and saw footage of police walking along the edge of the same killing fields she had searched with Abraham. Then the announcer said a second body had been discovered. Carlota noticed two men in suits walking down the stairs to her door. Her legs began to wobble. They were from the FBI, and had brought an interpreter to tell Carlota what she had already figured out from the TV: The second body was Miguel’s. 

Two days later, Carlota woke up in a hospital bed. The trauma staff had written on her chart, “Altered mental state. Patient unable to answer questions. Patient repeatedly stating ‘Just kill me. My son, my son.’”

Perez called Abraham to say he was sorry for the family’s loss. Soon after Carlota was released from the hospital, the body of the third missing Brentwood High student was found in the killing fields.

In all the months of uncertainty, Miguel’s clothes and stuffed animals had comforted Carlota. Now she packed them into five trash bags and put them on the street next to piles of fall leaves.

The coroner listed the cause of Miguel’s death as a blow to the head, and his place of death as a road. He had likely been killed the night he went missing. Abraham chose not to translate the forensic report that said Miguel’s bones were crisscrossed with long machete marks.

The police were paying more attention now, but the slaughter continued. In October, another 15-year-old, Javier Castillo, vanished and was listed with the state as a runaway, only to be found buried in the woods a year later. A man’s corpse was left in the street. A bystander was shot at a deli. At the peak of the violence, MS-13 murders accounted for 40 percent of Suffolk County homicides.

In April 2017, the gang left four boys in a gruesome tableau in the woods, bringing the murder count to 18.

Of the Suffolk County families who lost children to the gang during the rampage, nine have told me they felt ignored and disrespected at times by police. Most say they had to look for their kids themselves and struggled to communicate with police, and at least four saw their children listed as runaways before their bodies were found.

“The police treated me like I just had some rebellious kid on my hands, and meanwhile I was living the worst year of my life,” said Santos Castillo, Javier’s father.

As the head of the Suffolk County Police Department from January 2016 until he became district attorney early this year, Timothy Sini was responsible for handling the crisis. He said in an interview that, even though police had listed Miguel as a runaway, they had immediately suspected a homicide.

Sini acknowledged that police increased their efforts after the two girls were murdered, seven months after Miguel disappeared. “If you want to criticize the Suffolk County Police Department for not doing enough against MS-13” before then, “I suppose you can do that,” he said.

He called the phrase “misdemeanor murder” offensive and said it has taken time to change the police department’s culture. “We need to do as much as possible to eradicate MS-13 and will continue to do that. Any victim that has been murdered or injured, that is a tragedy,” he said.

MS-13 violence has largely subsided. Federal prosecutors have indicted suspects in about half of the MS-13 murders. But Miguel’s case has continued to stump investigators.

I spoke with two teenagers who said they had not been questioned by police about Miguel but knew who had killed him: Jairo Saenz, a leader of the MS-13 clique known as the Sailors. Federal prosecutors have charged him with killing six other people, including the two girls and Oscar Acosta. Jairo has pleaded not guilty. On the day Miguel disappeared, Alexander’s messages had kept talking about “that man Jairo.”

Henry, a Brentwood High MS-13 member who has given information to the police, told me the gang saw Miguel as overly friendly and effeminate. He also confused the Sailors. He didn’t seem to have gang friends, but he sometimes came to school wearing the red bandanna of the Bloods, the rosary of MS-13, or the head-to-toe black of the 18th Street Gang. Henry thought Miguel was just trying to look cool, but MS-13 members started circulating photos of him on a group text.

Henry said that at Jairo’s order, he grilled Miguel about how he dressed. Jairo listened in on speaker phone as Miguel said he didn’t owe anyone an explanation. After the Sailors killed Miguel, Henry said, some members went back, unearthed the body, cut apart his limbs and swung a machete into his face.

Jairo’s ex-girlfriend, nicknamed Chinita, also linked him to the murder. Chinita told me that, soon after Miguel disappeared, Jairo texted her that he was in the woods playing with human teeth. He sent her a photo of a dirty pair of black sweatpants like the ones Miguel wore the night he vanished.

Carlota and Abraham no longer haunt the killing fields, but they’re still looking for answers. One afternoon this summer, Abraham shuffled through his collection of worn business cards, trying the numbers of different detectives. Their apartment remained a shrine to Miguel. Carlota kept the urn of his ashes on Lady’s nightstand, nestled among some of Miguel’s Beanie Babies, several Bibles open to passages about fiery justice and a now-deflated Mylar balloon he bought for her for Valentine’s Day the week he disappeared.

Abraham got through to the Suffolk County homicide detective who now has Miguel’s case. He put the call on speaker phone so I could hear.

“We’re still working on it, us and the FBI. We are still trying to find out what happened,” the detective said.

Abraham asked about Alexander. What was his full name?

“That was one of the kids who was spoken to. I’d have to look in the folder and see what his name is,” the detective answered. “Everybody that we had a name of, we spoke to, and they didn’t really provide any usable information at this time. Unfortunately, sometimes these things take a long time.”

The last time I went to see Carlota, she and Abraham were in the middle of looking for a new apartment. She had decided to stay on Long Island until someone was charged with Miguel’s murder, but she was hoping to move to Nassau County. Carlota is feeling especially scared these days, after Kayla Cuevas’ mother was killed this month. She was run into by an SUV just before a memorial service for her daughter after getting into an argument with the driver.

‘If Miguel was an American, they might have found him right away.’ -Carlota Moran, Miguel’s mother

“You get the sense that the police here have this attitude that we Latinos are just killing each other,” she said. “If Miguel was an American, they might have found him right away.”

Even though they haven’t found a place yet, Carlota has begun sorting things into boxes. The detectives’ cards she kept safe in a drawer, to avoid losing them in the mess of the move. When she’s ready to leave, she’ll pack them up last, just in case.

Top image credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca