Local law enforcement officials say a violent international street gang established a presence in Kingston and was able to operate under the radar of local police agencies until a grisly murder and a federal investigation exposed their presence.
Now, cops say, they’re working to determine the size and scope of the 18th Street Gang’s Kingston operation — and, chillingly, whether the October 2017 murder of a suspected informant in a Saugerties state forest was in fact an isolated incident.
“They were under my radar,” said Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright in an interview this week. “I was unpleasantly surprised to learn that we had an 18th Street Gang population in Kingston, and I was not the only one.”
The gang — which has its roots in Los Angeles and cells known as canchas across the U.S., Mexico and Central America — came to the attention of local authorities in February when the FBI informed them that it was conducting an investigation into the slaying of the suspected informant. Over the course of about 10 days in February, FBI agents working with state police, the DA’s Office and the Kingston Police Department conducted an intensive investigation that culminated in the arrest of four alleged gang members.
Cops believe that Yanki Misael Cruz-Mateo, 19, of Jamaica, Queens traveled to Kingston with the victim (whose name is known by authorities but who remains listed as John Doe in court documents) on a Trailways bus on the night of Oct. 25. There they were met by Sergio Herrera-Hidalgo, 19, and Israel Flores, 23. According to court documents, police believe the three gang members took their victim to the Turkey Point State Forest Preserve in Saugerties where he was stabbed and slashed to death and buried in a pre-dug grave in the swampy woodland on the banks of the Hudson River. All three men were arrested on Feb. 21 after, cops say, Cruz-Mateo fled to Kingston and took refuge with fellow gang members after shooting and killing a member of the rival MS-13 gang in Queens. A fourth alleged gang member. Cristian Perez, 20, was arrested in the same investigation for aiding and abetting the fugitive Cruz-Mateo.
All four men are in jail awaiting trial on federal murder and racketeering charges. But local officials say the gang’s presence in Kingston goes well beyond those arrested. They say investigators have identified and interviewed a number of Kingston-based 18th Street members or associates. At least one was arrested on state charges unrelated to the murder investigation. Others remain at liberty because police were unable to link them to specific crimes. Detective Sgt. Brian Robertson, who heads the Kingston Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit, said SIU detectives were still trying to get a handle on the dimensions of 18th Street’s local footprint.
“I’m not going to say it’s 10 guys, because by tomorrow it could be 20, we just don’t know at this point.” said Robertson. “We still have a lot of homework to do. There’s connections to New York City, there’s connections to other countries we’re looking at all of that.”
Not the first slaying?
Robertson said police were also looking into whether the gang had used Ulster County as a killing ground before. While there’s no specific intelligence that that had happened, Robertson said the efficiency of the operation and the fact that the gang’s members often live vagabond lives drifting between canchas with little connection to outsiders made it an avenue worth pursuing.
“Has this happened before? We don’t know.” said Robertson “If [the October murder] hadn’t gone down like it did we still wouldn’t know that it ever happened. A lot of these guys are street kids. No one’s going to report them missing.”
The backgrounds of the three Kingston men arrested in the investigation are typical of 18th Street Gang, which recruits heavily among immigrant communities from Mexico and Central America. Flores is a legal permanent resident from Mexico, Perez is from Guatemala and Herrera-Hidalgo is from El Salvador (Herrera-Hidalgo and Perez’s immigration status is unclear but neither man is a U.S. citizen, authorities say). According to Carnright, all three of the men were employed and two worked for the same Greene County-based construction business. One was married with a young child. Two of the accused told investigators that they were recruited into the gang while attending Kingston High School.
New gang, old techniques
Robertson and Carnright both said the gang’s members were able to maintain a low profile in part because — like earlier generations of immigrant-based crime syndicates dating back to the Italian Mafia — they largely confine their criminal schemes to the local immigrant community whose members are often reluctant to go to police. The gang’s international reach and reputation for brutal retaliation also helps keep their activities off of police radar. Members of immigrant communities who cooperate with authorities against the gang may find family members in their home countries, where the law enforcement is weak and gangs operate with near impunity, targeted for reprisals.
“They tend to stay in their own world, they just blend in and they don’t include anybody that’s not from their culture,” said Robertson. “They threaten people in that culture, they threaten their families, we’ve seen that in this case.”
Police are still working to uncover criminal enterprises run by Kingston’s branch of the 18th Street Gang. In other jurisdictions, the gang has been involved in human and sex trafficking, drugs, the sale of forged papers used by undocumented immigrants to obtain work authorizations and extortion schemes targeting immigrant-owned businesses.
Part of the challenge for law enforcement in combating 18th Street, said the DA, is they largely avoid the street-level drug sales, violent robberies and gunplay that are the stock and trade of better-known gangs like the Bloods. Robertson said another key difference between 18th Street and other local gangs was a strict military-like chain of command which made it easier for them to marshal resources and enforce discipline among members.
“Their organization seems to be fairly consistent. They have codes that they work by and live by and they’re better [than other gangs] at not being so overt,” said Robertson. “There’s less flash, less show and that makes it tough to figure out who is who.”
What’s the plan?
While Robertson and the SIU focus on identifying 18th Street members and enterprises, Carnright said he’s trying to figure out a strategy to deal with the elusive organization. Inevitably, the effort is likely to draw local law enforcement into the national discussion around immigration. Last year, Kingston enacted a “welcoming and inclusive city” resolution that affirmed the city’s welcome to immigrants, regardless of their legal status. The resolution also codified a longstanding city policy directing police to not inquire about immigration status in routine interactions with the public.
Opponents of the resolution have blasted it as creating a “sanctuary city.” Carnright, meanwhile, said he had heard second-hand from investigators on the murder case that several of those interviewed said they’d settled in Kingston because of the relatively low-pressure environment for undocumented immigrants.
“They were asked, ‘Why Kingston?’ And the answer was because nobody hassles us, nobody asks questions so we settle in here,” said Carnright. “We heard that more than once.”
Carnright did not take a position on the “welcoming and inclusive” resolution which he called “nebulous and politically driven.” But he did say going after 18th Street Gang members would require a closer working relationship with immigration authorities and a focus on crimes, like using forged or stolen Social Security documents or unlicensed driving, that are common in immigrant communities to target gang members. It’s a strategy that Carnright likened to successful prosecution and imprisonment of crime lord Al Capone for tax evasion rather than his more serious crimes.
At the same time, Carnright noted that he wanted to reassure law-abiding immigrants that they need not fear working with his office to report and prosecute crimes. Carnright noted he had participated in a program that offers legal status to undocumented immigrants who are crime victims or cooperating witnesses and would continue to do so.
“I don’t want to give anybody the impression that I’m going to arbitrarily seek deportation of people who have not committed a crime,” said Carnright. “But if we have someone who is in a gang, who has committed a crime, will I use their immigration status? Sure.”