This story has been updated several times with additional information since it was first posted Feb. 26, most recently on the afternoon of Feb. 28.
Four members of a violent street gang are in custody for the October 2017 murder of a suspected informant who was brought from Queens to a state forest on the Saugerties-Town of Ulster border and brutally slain. Cops say the killers videotaped the murder and shared it to send a message to fellow members of the 18th Street Gang to stay in line and step up their criminal endeavors.
Authorities are keeping elements of the case, including the identity of the victim and those of two of the alleged killers, under wraps. But court documents paint a frightening picture of a downstate gang that has established an outpost in Kingston and uses the Hudson Valley as an execution ground and hideout.
On February 14, state police working with FBI uncovered a grave inside the Turkey Point state forest, a 140-acre parcel of swampy woodland on the Hudson River. Inside the five-foot-deep grave was the mutilated body of a man with a cell phone, a Gap sweatshirt, and a large “18” tattooed across his chest. The cops concluded that the victim, who was not identified in court documents, was the same man depicted in a murder video turned over to the FBI by an informant.
By the time they discovered the body, FBI agents working with state and local police were already zeroing in on four men who they believed had participated in the October 25 murder and were now hiding out in Kingston.
On February 21, police moved in and arrested all four at two locations in Kingston. Three of the men, Sergio G. Herrera-Hidalgo, 19, Christian R. Perez Perez, 20, and Israel Mendiola-Flores were subsequently arraigned in Rosendale town court on state charges of second-degree murder. The same day, a fourth, unidentified man was arraigned on murder charges under heavy security in Town of Ulster court. Ulster town supervisor Jim Quigley said that he first learned of the arrests when town police chief Kyle Berardi came to him and explained that there were serious security concerns about the arraignment.
“I was advised that there was a hearing [for a gang member] and that there were already concerns about attempts on his life,” said Quigley.
As of deadline, Mendiola-Flores remains in the Ulster County Jail without bail. Perez and Herrera-Hidalgo were transferred to federal custody. On February 23 a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, located in Brooklyn, unsealed an affidavit in support of an arrest warrant charging Perez and Herrera-Hidalgo with federal crimes for their alleged roles in the murder plot. The fourth suspect, identified in court documents as “Co-conspirator 1,” was in the custody of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York but has since been ordered transferred to the Eastern District.
Part of a violent gang culture
According to court documents, all four men are members or associates of the 18th Street Gang, also known as “Mara 18” and “Barrio 18.” The gang has its roots in Southern California, where immigrants fleeing war and civil strife in Central America were integrated into existing Latino gang culture back in the 1980s. Members of the gang deported back to their native countries established branches in El Salvador and other Central American countries. There they had established a virtual reign of terror built on extortion, drug dealing and human trafficking.
In recent years, branches of the gang, known as “Canchas,” have sprung up on the East Coast. The gang shares similarities with the better known MS-13, including a membership with many immigrants from Central America and a penchant for gang tattoos. Despite the similarities, the two groups are bitter rivals.
According to the affidavit filed by FBI special agent Daniel Letts with the Eastern District Court on February 22, all four suspects are members or associates of a Barrio 18 Cancha based in Queens. Only Herrera-Hidalgo and Perez are mentioned by name in the affidavit. Two others suspects are referred to as Co-conspirator 1 and Co-conspirator 2.
According to Letts’ statement, all four men had a role in the October 25 John-Doe murder at Turkey Point. Perez and Herrera-Hidalgo are also accused of helping Co-conspirator 1 hide out in Kingston after he allegedly killed a rival gang member in Queens on February 2 of this year.
Following the cell-phone trail
In his affidavit, Letts relies on cell phone records and “pings” from cell-phone towers to reconstruct the movements of the four men on the night of murder. According to the statement, Co-conspirator 1 called the victim around 3 p.m. on October 24. At 11:30 p.m., both men arrived at the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan and boarded an Adirondack Trailways bus to Kingston.
While Co-conspirator 1 and John Doe were en route to Kingston on the bus, Letts testified, records showed Hidalgo-Herrera’s phone was in the vicinity of Turkey Point State Forest, where the victim’s grave would later be discovered. Herrera-Hidalgo’s phone and one belonging to Co-conspirator 1 exchanged five calls during the trip from Port Authority to Kingston, Letts said.
Around 1:30 a.m., Letts testified that Herrera-Hidalgo’s phone was tracked leaving Turkey Point and heading into Kingston to locations of the phones of Co-conspirator 1 and John Doe. Between 1:45 a.m. and 3:45 a.m. all three phones were at Turkey Point. Meanwhile, at 3:06 a.m. Herrera-Hidalgo’s phone placed a call to Perez’s phone, with both devices “pinging” off a cell tower near Turkey Point.
By 7:30 the next morning, Letts said, Co-conspirator 1’s phone was back in Jamaica, Queens. Herrera’s phone had returned to Kingston.
The video of the killing
Police believe that John Doe was stabbed to death and buried at Turkey Point. A portion of the murder, Letts said, was recorded on a three-minute-and-six-second video that depicts Co-conspirator 1 and Co-conspirator 2 repeatedly stabbing the victim, slashing his throat and cutting off his left ear.
At one point in the video an unidentified male voice off-camera comments in Spanish, “He’s fucked now,” to which Co-conspirator 1 replies, “In a big way, son of a bitch. For being a rat.” At another point in the video Co-conspirator 1 allegedly declares “For the surenos, okay,” using a term for senior gang leaders.
During a portion of the video that depicts the suspects dragging their victim through the woods apparently towards the gravesite, Letts told the court faint moaning can be heard on the video indicating that the victim was still alive. According to Letts’ testimony, “multiple other individuals,” including Perez and Herrera-Hidalgo, were present in the forest while the video was shot.
Letts testified that in the days after the murder Co-conspirator 1 sent a copy of the video discussed the killing with a person identified only as Confidential source 1, using the secure WhatsApp messaging service. Letts testified that Co-conspirator 1 told the informant that the murder was carried out to motivate fellow Barrio 18 members to step up their revenue-generating criminal activity lest they suffer the same fate.
According to Letts’ testimony, Co-conspirator 1 returned to Kingston some time in February after he allegedly killed a member of a rival gang on a Queens Street. Letts’ affidavit claims that the unidentified killer confessed the February 2 murder to the same confidential source who provided cops with the murder video. On February 12, the FBI shifted its search for Co-conspirator 1 after data provided by a cell-phone warrant showed that had left his Queens neighborhood and was in Kingston.
On February 15, FBI officials obtained a warrant for Co-conspirator 1 from the Eastern District Court for the crime of being “an alien in possession of a firearm.”
Waiting for the heat to die down
On February 16, Letts testified, agents used cell-phone signal data to track Co-conspirator 1 to a Perez’s home in Kingston. Meanwhile, Letts’ testified, the fugitive gunman was communicating with Confidential source 1, telling them that he was hiding out from cops investigating the February 2 murder in Queens. He said he planned to maintain a low profile in Kingston until the heat died down.
During the same surveillance operation, agents spotted the second man depicted as stabbing the victim in the murder video, Co-conspirator 2, in the company of Herrera-Hidalgo and near Herrera-Hidalgo’s Kingston residence.
On February 20, police arrested Co-conspirator 1 shortly after he left Perez’s home. A short time later they executed warrants on Perez and Herrera-Hidalgo’s homes and arrested both men. It is unclear when or where police arrested Co-conspirator 2. A footnote in Letts’ affidavit indicates that he was charged with second-degree murder by the Ulster County district attorney and subsequently detained at the Ulster County Jail. It is unclear whether Co-conspirator 2 is Israel Mendiola-Flores, the only suspect charged with second-degree murder in the case who is not named in the Letts affidavit.
Letts’ statement claimed that agents recovered shovels and photographed Barrio 18 graffiti at Perez’s residence. The affidavit also said that while in custody Herrera-Hidalgo confessed to being present at the Turkey Point murder and admitted stabbing the victim.
In his request for arrest warrants, Letts said that investigation had demonstrated that Herrera-Hidalgo “together with others conspired to murder John Doe for the purpose of gaining entrance to and maintaining and increasing his position in 18th Street.” Perez, meanwhile, “knowingly and intentionally received, relieved, comforted and assisted [Co-conspirator 1]…in order to hinder and prevent Co-conspirator 1’s apprehension.”