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MS-13 gang leader pleads guilty to eight brutal murders, including two teens honored by Trump in SOTU speech

A MS-13 gang leader pleaded guilty Wednesday to his involvement in eight brutal murders in New York, including the horrific killings of two high school girls.

A high-ranking MS-13 gang member pleaded guilty Wednesday to his involvement in eight brutal murders in New York, including the killings of two high school girls who were beaten with bats and hacked with a machete in 2016.

The slain high-school pals, Kayla Cuevas, 16, and Nisa Mickens, 15, were honored along with their parents by former President Trump in his 2018 State of the Union speech, during which he called for stricter border controls.

Alexi Saenz, 29, said little as he entered his guilty plea to racketeering charges in federal court in Central Islip on Long Island – a far cry from his court appearance in 2018, where he reportedly smiled and joked with two other suspects in front of the girls’ families.


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Saenz also admitted to his role in three other attempted murders and to arson, firearms offenses, and drug trafficking – the proceeds of which went toward buying firearms, more drugs and providing contributions to the wider MS-13 gang.

He faces 40 to 70 years in prison when he is sentenced, with prosecutors previously withdrawing their intent to seek the death penalty in the case.

The gruesome slew of murders in 2016 and 2017 shocked the Long Island community and underscored how deeply embedded the gang’s operations and murderous capabilities had become in the area.

Kayla’s father, Freddy Cuevas, said outside of court that he was disappointed that the death penalty had been taken off the table.

“He’s an animal. He’s inhumane,” Cuevas said of Saenz. “Hopefully, justice will be served soon, and we can put this all behind us, as far as the families are concerned.”

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The two teenage girls were slaughtered in a residential neighborhood near an elementary school on Sept. 13, 2016 – the day before Mickens’ 16th birthday. Her body was found on a tree-lined street in Brentwood, and Cuevas’ beaten body turned up in the wooded backyard of a nearby home a day later.

The two teens had been lifelong friends. Their family and friends said they had been inseparable and shared an interest in basketball.

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In the months leading up to the murders, Cuevas was involved in a series of disputes with members and associates of MS-13 – a violent gang started by Central American immigrants, mainly from El Salvador, in Los Angeles in the 1980s, but has since expanded with devastating results. 

Saenz, also known as “Blasty” and “Big Homie,” was the leader of an MS-13 group operating in Brentwood and Central Islip known as Sailors Locos Salvatruchas Westside. Charges are still pending against his brother, Jairo Saenz, who prosecutors say was second in command in the local gang.

According to prosecutors, the disputes escalated when Cuevas and several friends were involved in an altercation with MS-13 members at Brentwood High School. After that incident, the MS-13 members vowed to seek revenge against Cueva and were granted permission to kill them by Saenz.

Several MS-13 members then chased down and attacked both Cuevas and Mickens, wielding baseball bats and a machete, and striking each of the girls numerous times in their heads and bodies, while Alexi Saenz’s car drove around watching for police. 

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After the murders, the group retreated to Saenz’s home in Central Islip, where they changed clothes and hid the weapons.

Breon Peace, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said that the gang has now been “decimated” in Long Island.

“To say that Alexi Saenz’s hands are drenched in blood does not begin to describe the multiple killings and extreme mayhem he personally directed and committed in the span of one year in Suffolk County,” Peace said.

The horrific slaying of the pair garnered national attention, and the girls’ and their parents were honored by former President Trump at his State of the Union address in 2018.

“These two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their hometown,” Trump said while calling for tighter border controls. “Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter our country as illegal, unaccompanied, alien minors and wound up in Kayla and Nisa’s high school.”

The Republican had called for the death penalty for Saenz and others arrested in the killings and blamed the violence and gang growth on lax immigration policies as he made several visits to Long Island.

As well as Cuevas and Mickens, Saenz admitted his role in the killing of six other people, including 15-year-old Javier Castillo, who was befriended by members of the gang, driven 30 miles away to Freeport, and then fatally attacked with a machete in an isolated marsh as he was believed to have been a member of the 18th Street gang, one of MS-13’s principal rivals. His buried body was discovered a year later in 2017.

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Another victim, Oscar Acosta, 19, who was also thought to be an 18th Street gang member, was discovered dead in a wooded area near some railroad tracks, days after Cuevas and Mickens had died. He had disappeared nearly five months earlier after he left his Brentwood home to play soccer.

Older victims included Esteban Alvarado-Bonilla, 29, who was killed by a gunman inside a Central Islip deli in early 2017; Dewann Stacks, 34, who was ambushed and beaten to death as he walked along a road in Brentwood near a wooded area that was sometimes used as a gang meeting spot; Marcus Bohannon, 27, who was shot in 2016; and Michael Johnson, who was bludgeoned and stabbed to death in Brentwood in 2016. Saenz’s crew suspected that all of the victims were part of rival gangs.

In the wake of her daughter’s death, Cuevas’ mother became an anti-gang activist after her daughter’s death, but she was tragically killed in 2018 after she was fatally struck by a car during a dispute over a memorial marking the second anniversary of her daughter’s death. The driver, Annmarie Drago, pleaded guilty in 2024 to negligent homicide.

Since 2010, indictments charging MS-13 members with carrying out more than 70 murders in the Eastern District of New York have been made, resulting in the convictions of dozens of MS-13 leaders and members in connection with those murders, prosecutors said. 

Fox News’ Benjamin Brown and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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