Indictment sheds light on local gang murder

If these trees at Turkey Point State Forest could talk… (Photo by Will Dendis)

An indictment unsealed in Brooklyn federal court this week contained new details of a brutal slaying allegedly committed by members of a violent street gang at the Turkey Point state forest in Saugerties last year.

In the indictment, prosecutors charge that a three-man “cancha,” or cell, of the 18th Street Gang based in Kingston helped a downstate associate murder a suspected informant and later sheltered him after he gunned down a member of a rival gang on a Queens street.


The indictment, filed on March 22, names Yanki Misael Cruz-Matteo, Israel Mendiola Flores, Sergio Gerardo Herrera-Hidalgo and Christian Perez as conspirators. Cruz-Matteo, 19, Herrera-Hidalgo, 19, and Flores, 23, are charged with federal counts of murder in aid of racketeering and conspiracy in connection with the Oct. 25, 2017 murder at the Turkey Point state forest. Perez is charged with assisting a federal offender for allegedly sheltering Cruz-Matteo after he shot and killed a member of the rival MS-13 gang in Jamaica, Queens and fled to Kingston. Cruz-Matteo, a Guatemalan national whom authorities say is in the country illegally, is also charged with “alien in possession of a firearm” based on a video uncovered by authorities which shows him rapping about murdering rivals while displaying a pistol that authorities believe may be the murder weapon in a second gang slaying.

The indictment comes one month after state and local police working with the FBI arrested all four men in Kingston in an operation that was shrouded in secrecy. Since the Feb. 21 arrests, Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright, police officials and federal authorities have remained tight lipped about particulars of the case. An affidavit in support of arrest warrants obtained by Ulster Publishing last month named Perez and Herrera-Hidalgo while shielding the identities of Cruz-Matteo and Flores.

According to documents in the case, all four men are members of the 18th Street Gang. Known to law enforcement as a “transnational criminal street gang” with branches throughout Mexico and Central America, in the United States the gang, also known as “Barrio 18” and “Mara 18”is composed primarily of young immigrants, including some who came across the border among a flood of unaccompanied minors fleeing gang violence in Central America. Authorities say the gang, like its better known rival MS-13, engages in drug dealing, human trafficking, and prostitution while using violence to enforce discipline, secure turf and enhance prestige.

Federal prosecutors say Flores, Perez and Herrera-Hidalgo formed a Kingston cancha of the gang, while Cruz-Matteo is affiliated with another branch based in Jamaica, Queens. On the night of Oct. 24, 2017, the indictment alleges, Cruz-Matteo lured the victim — a fellow gang member suspected of cooperating with police — onto an Adirondack Trailways bus to Kingston. Meanwhile, based on cell phone records, police believe Herrera-Hidalgo was at Turkey Point, a 140-acre state forest on the Hudson River, preparing the execution site. At 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 25, police believe Herrera-Hidalgo met the victim, whose identity is known to prosecutors but not included in the indictment, at the bus station and drove them to Turkey Point.

What happened next is recorded on a cell phone video that Cruz-Matteo allegedly sent to a high-ranking gang member turned paid FBI informant. On it, Cruz-Matteo and Floresare shown stabbing the victim repeatedly in the body, head and neck. The video also depicts Flores slashing the victim’s throat and Cruz-Matteo slicing off an ear. Herrera-Hidalgo does not appear in the video, but an FBI agent’s affidavit claims that he told agents that he had stabbed the victim.

Perez is not identified in the indictment as being part of the Turkey Point murder. But the same affidavit claims that his cell phone “pinged” off a tower near the forest around the time that the conspirators were murdering and burying the victim. At one point in the video, Cruz-Matteo brags to the camera that the murder is “for the sureños,” using a term for high ranking gang members. In the FBI affidavit, the agent surmises that the killing was carried out either as an initiation into the gang or to enhance the killers’ prestige within the crew.

A second affidavit, unsealed this month, implicates Cruz-Matteo in the Feb. 2 murder of a man he believed was a member of Barrio-18’s bitter rival, MS-13. In the affidavit, FBI agent Martha Beltran refers to communications between Cruz-Matteo and the same gang leader/informant who provided agents with the murder video. The FBI’s Beltran refers to a second video, sent around the time of the Turkey Point murder, which shows Cruz-Matteo rapping in Spanish about murdering rivals while waving around a .380-caliber semi-automatic pistol.

“Let me introduce myself, I represent 18th Street,” Cruz-Matteo allegedly declares in the video. “I throw out the X with the word from Guatemala, killing the rivals chopping them all to pieces.”

Beltran said investigators suspect the gun may have been the same weapon used in the Feb. 2 murder at the corner of 160th Street and 85th Avenue in Jamaica, Queens. During the investigation of the shooting, NYPD detectives turned up .380-caliber shell casings. FBI firearms experts later determined that the shells were fired from the same type of Cobra CA-380 pistol, or a nearly identical model, displayed by Cruz-Matteo in the video. Three days after the shooting, Beltran testified, Cruz-Matteo admitted to the shooting in a series of WhatsApp messages with the informant.

Around the same time, prosecutors believe, Cruz-Matteo decamped Queens to take refuge with the Kingston cancha. On Feb. 14, agents and local police discovered the grave at Turkey Point. One week later, agents were able to use cell phone data to track Cruz-Matteo to Perez’s Kingston residence. All four men were initially arraigned on state charges of second-degree murder.

Flores remains behind bars in Ulster County Jail. Cruz-Matteo, Perez and Herrera-Hidalgo are in federal custody. All four men will be tried in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn. Cruz-Matteo, Herrera-Hidalgo and Flores face life in prison without the possibility of parole. Perez faces a maximum term of 15 years in federal prison on the assisting a federal offender charge and 25 years to life on the state charge of second­-degree murder.