Barely a month into the new academic year, a Long Island high school community is reeling after four of its students were found dead, victims of what police suspect is gang-related violence.
Police discovered the body of 15-year-old Nisa Mickens first, when on Sept. 13 a passing driver reported seeing her body on a road in Brentwood, a Long Island enclave about 45 miles east of Manhattan.
Nisa had suffered lacerations and head trauma, police said. The county police commissioner would later say that her injuries were some of the worst he had ever seen. It was the day before Nisa’s 16th birthday.
The following day, Suffolk County, New York, police found the body of her lifelong best friend, 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas, also apparently beaten to death with similarly extreme injuries.
Within a week, as they continued combing the town, Suffolk County police would find two more bodies of Brentwood High School students: One was Miguel Garcia-Moran, whose remains were found Sept. 20 in a wooded area just north of the Long Island Railroad tracks. The 15-year-old had been missing since February.
The other was 19-year-old Oscar Acosta, who was reported missing in May. His remains were found near Garcia-Moran’s body, police said.
The only common link among all four students – besides them having attended Brentwood High School – is county police’s suspicion that their deaths are gang-related, though they have not elaborated on why.
News of the deaths has hit the community hard and put parents and teenagers on edge.
“They don’t play around. If they don’t like you and if you do something to them, they will come after you,” one teenager told the Associated Press about the gangs. He did not give his name for fear of retaliation. “I’m not going to walk anywhere. We’re definitely more cautious about that. I don’t go out at night anymore.”
The Brentwood Union Free School District sought to reassure its students that their schools were safe, saying in a Sept. 15 statement that it was taking steps to “ensure the safety and welfare of our students,” including increasing police presence on the district’s campuses.
Grief and bereavement counselors were also available to students, the district said.
The week police found the bodies of Nisa and Kayla, dozens of teachers and students turned out to a candlelight vigil to mourn the girls.
“It should have never happened. . .. It’s not fair to take away what future these two girls had. ” Nelly Miranda, a nutrition teacher at Brentwood High, told New York Newsday at the vigil. “And it’s just very heartbreaking. . .. How do you say goodbye to babies?”
For the vigil, the district encouraged all students to wear green and white, Brentwood High’s colors. About a week later, the district distributed a letter to its students, telling them to avoid wearing colors that might be associated with gangs, according to CBS New York.
A law enforcement official told the Associated Press that police suspect the Salvadoran gang MS-13 is behind the violence. The official was not authorized to talk publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity. The MS-13 street gang has ties to El Salvador and Los Angeles, and its many cliques have maintained a notorious and violent presence on Long Island for nearly two decades, according to WYNC.
Several of the victims’ anguished family members wondered why gang members would target their children.
“She was trying to keep focused, but this nonsense that is out here, it’s hard for kids,” Kayla’s mother, Evelyn Cuevas, told the AP in tears after her daughter’s body was found. “They get bullied if they don’t participate. They beat them up, they kill them.”
To say Kayla and Nisa had a bond was to underestimate their friendship: According to relatives, the girls had been “inseparable since before they could walk” and spent holidays and summers together, the AP reported. Both had recently started at Brentwood High, one of the largest high schools in the state.
“If you see Nisa, you see Kayla,” Nisa’s mother, Elizabeth Alvarado, told the AP. “Those girls mean everything to us. We saw them growing up. We ate at the same plate. We encouraged each other.”
Two weeks ago, the Suffolk County Crime Stoppers increased to $ 15,000 a reward for the first tip leading to an arrest in the girls’ deaths.
Abraham Chaparro, Miguel’s stepfather, told the AP that he last saw his stepson as he left to meet some friends. The boy’s family had previously said they feared a gang may have targeted their son but did not know why.
“He had a girlfriend in every corner. He was good-looking,” Chaparro said. “I don’t understand how this happened. It’s a mystery.”
Featured Image: Associated Press
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Amy B Wang
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