How the 18th Street murder case was cracked

 

Turkey Point State Forest (photo by Will Dendis)

Over a week in mid-February, an ad hoc team of FBI agents, state troopers, Kingston cops and Investigators with the Ulster County District Attorney’s Office relied on a combination of old-school police work and cutting-edge technology to identify and capture four gang members wanted in connection with the October 2017 murder of a suspected informant in Saugerties and the Feb. 2 slaying of a rival gang member in Queens.

For the FBI, the case began in November 2017 when agents secured cooperation from a person described in court documents as former leader of a New York City based El Salvadorian cancha or cell of the 18th Street Gang. The informant, who agents said was in the country illegally, began supplying information in exchange for money. Among the information shared was a three-minute cell phone video sent to the informant by Queens-based gang member Yanki Cruz-Mateo using the secure messaging service WhatsApp. The video depicts Cruz-Mateo and Kingston cancha member Israel Mendiola Flores stabbing and mutilating a man in a wooded area while an unknown number of other people look on. The FBI would later determine that the murder shown in the video took place in the Turkey Point Forest Preserve in Saugerties. The dead man was a suspected informant lured by the gang from Queens to Kingston for his execution.

A second video shared by the informant depicts Cruz-Mateo in a bedroom rapping in Spanish about killing informants and rivals on behalf of the gang. In the video, Mateo waves a .32-caliber Cobra semi-automatic pistol. On Feb. 2, FBI agents believe Mateo used the same pistol to gun down a member of the rival MS-13 gang on a street near his home in Jamaica Queens, later bragging about the murder to the informant. Shortly after the murder, the FBI used cell phone data to determine that Cruz-Mateo had fled his home in the Jamaica Heights neighborhood of Queens and was hiding out somewhere in Kingston.

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District Attorney Holley Carnright said he first learned of the FBI investigation in mid-February from Senior Assistant DA and Chief of Investigations William Weishaupt, a retired FBI agent. The news was the start of a joint effort to identify and catch the killers.

“It started with the video,” said Carnright. “It took [the FBI] a little while to figure out where it was. Once I found out about it I started calling in all of our resources.”

Those resources included state police investigators from Troop F in Middletown, members of his own office and the Kingston Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit. The task force also included agents from both the FBI’s Albany and New York City field offices. Carnright said he was especially eager to get the KPD on board because of their detailed street-level knowledge of Kingston. The team, which numbered about a dozen people in all, would meet in Carnright’s office on Wall Street to strategize while working to keep the investigation quiet. Carnright said investigators were worried that the suspect would disappear if they learned of the manhunt before cops had gathered enough evidence to charge them.

“In cases like this you have to play your cards very close to your chest,” said Carnright. “We had many of the names, we knew many of the names we had were here and they had a lot of reasons to flee and hide.”

A dead man’s shirt

The first big break in the case came on February 14 when a team of FBI Agents and State Police Investigators located the grave at Turkey Point and exhumed the body. Investigators were able to match a sweatshirt in the grave with one the victim was wearing in the murder video. Investigators also found a cell phone in the grave that showed communications between Cruz-Mateo and the victim (whose identity is known to police but who remains identified as “John Doe” in court papers) on the night of the murder. The sweatshirt and the phone provided investigators with the first solid link between the suspects depicted in the video and an actual body, but the discovery also added urgency to the investigation.

Carnright said he worried that despite great effort by investigators to keep the crime scene investigation at Turkey Point secret, word would leak out to the press and the suspects.

“Once we had the deceased, the investigation started to move very fast,” said Carnright.

On the streets of Kingston, meanwhile, KPD Detective Sgt. Brian Robertson, the head of the SIU, and his team were busy following dozens of leads as they sought to locate the suspects. Robertson said that the team relied heavily on KPD Detective Benny Reyes, one of a handful of Spanish-speaking officers on the force, who maintained extensive contacts among the city’s Latino immigrant population.

“He was very helpful because he had a lot of knowledge in an area where we hadn’t seen that much in-depth action,” said Robertson. “[The suspects] are moving around constantly, yesterday’s address is no good tomorrow. Being local we had some good intel on a real time basis.”

A difficult decision

By Feb. 21, Carnright believed he had enough evidence to charge Cruz-Mateo, Flores and two more gang members, Sergio Herrera-Hidalgo and Christian Perez, with second-degree murder under state law. But federal authorities still needed more time to obtain indictments under federal racketeering laws. To make a federal case, the FBI would need a sign off from a U.S. attorney and clear evidence that not only did the suspects commit the murder, but that they did so to further the goals of a known criminal organization. Carnright said federal evidence rules and the vast resources available to federal prosecutors made a racketeering indictment a more attractive option than state murder charges. But with the suspects loose on the streets of Kingston he was unwilling to wait. Instead, the decision was made to pursue the state charges under the theory of “concurrent jurisdiction,” which would allow the case to be turned over to the feds once they secured indictments.

“The fear I had was that if the feds were waiting for the indictment process it would take too long and put the community at risk,” said Carnright. “And I can’t have that. That was non-negotiable.”

On Feb. 21 Cruz-Mateo was the first to fall, when uniformed KPD officers on the midnight shift happened to pull over a vehicle he was riding in. The beat cops learned that Cruz-Mateo had just been indicted on a federal charge of alien in possession of a firearm based on the video of him rapping while displaying a pistol. Hours later, raid teams armed with search warrants hit the Midtown residences of Perez and Herrera-Hidalgo and arrested both men. Flores was caught on the street a short time later. All four men were arraigned under heavy secrecy in Town of Ulster and Rosendale town courts. Since then, all four have been charged in a federal racketeering indictment. Cruz-Mateo, Herrera-Hidalgo and Flores are all charged with murder and murder conspiracy in the case. They face a maximum of life in prison without parole. Perez is charged with abetting a fugitive for allegedly sheltering Cruz-Mateo while he was on the run. He faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in federal prison. The case is being tried in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn.  

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