When His­panic teens van­ished, did New York po­lice do enough?

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OBITUARIES - By Frank Elt­man and Michael Bal­samo As­so­ci­ated Press writer Clau­dia Tor­rens con­trib­uted to this re­port from New York.

His­panic teenagers be­gan van­ish­ing last win­ter in Brent­wood, a work­ing-class sub­urb 40 miles east of New York City.

Miguel Gar­cia-Mo­ran, 15, dis­ap­peared in Fe­bru­ary. Os­car Acosta, 19, was re­ported miss­ing in May. Jose Pena-Her­nan­dez, 18, van­ished in June.

If po­lice no­ticed the pat­tern, they said noth­ing pub­licly un­til Septem­ber, af­ter two girls at Brent­wood High School, ages 15 and 16, were beaten to death in what in­ves­ti­ga­tors sus­pect was an at­tack by mem­bers of the vi­o­lent street gang MS-13.

Within a few weeks, the miss­ing teens had all been found dead, their skele­tal re­mains hid­den in se­cluded ar­eas of the ham­let, in­clud­ing the grounds of a partly aban­doned state psy­chi­atric cen­ter.

Now, some His­panic ad­vo­cates on Long Is­land are won­der­ing why au­thor­i­ties didn’t raise an alarm sooner about the string of dis­ap­pear­ances. A spokesman for Suf­folk County po­lice says the in­for­ma­tion dis­closed about each case varies, de­pend­ing on the cir­cum­stances.

The county po­lice com­mis­sioner isn’t say­ing how many other teens might be miss­ing.

“What’s be­come clear to us over the last cou­ple of months — and now we have ev­i­dence with the bod­ies be­ing found — is the po­lice de­part­ment has not been tak­ing these cases se­ri­ously,” said Wal­ter Bar­ri­en­tos, the leader of a His­panic ad­vo­cacy group.

Suf­folk County po­lice be­gan pour­ing re­sources into the cases af­ter the deaths of best friends Nisa Mick­ens and Kayla Cuevas, who were at­tacked in a res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood near an ele­men­tary school on Sept. 13.

De­tec­tives sus­pect all are likely vic­tims of the MS-13 gang, which has roots in El Sal­vador and out­posts in com­mu­ni­ties across the U.S. The re­cent killing of a sixth per­son in Brent­wood, a 34-year-old man, is also un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The crack­down on sus­pected gang mem­bers has re­sulted in about 35 ar­rests. Five al­leged MS-13 mem­bers are in fed­eral cus­tody, ex­pected to be charged un­der rack­e­teer­ing statutes.

But ques­tions re­main about what in­ves­ti­ga­tors did to try to find the miss­ing teens months ago.

“They did not seem to do that much . ... They would never tell us any­thing,” said Ana Arias, an aunt of Acosta. Af­ter he van­ished, Arias said she and his mother went to lo­cal busi­nesses and his school them­selves seek­ing clues.

Justin Mey­ers, a Suf­folk County po­lice spokesman, said ev­ery miss­ing-per­son case is fully in­ves­ti­gated.

Mey­ers said the amount of in­for­ma­tion po­lice re­lease pub­licly about in­ves­ti­ga­tions varies, de­pend­ing on whether foul play is in­di­cated or whether the per­son ap­pears to be a ru­n­away.

“If you’re ap­proach­ing a case as a po­ten­tial homi­cide or other crim­i­nal acts, the way you pub­li­cize and what you do pub­licly is go­ing to be dif­fer­ent,” he said.

For more than a month, Suf­folk County Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Ti­mothy Sini has re­fused to say whether other teens are miss­ing in Brent­wood.

Ini­tially, he said the num­ber wasn’t avail­able, but when pressed, he said po­lice know but aren’t com­fort­able re­leas­ing that in­for­ma­tion pub­licly.

“Giv­ing too much de­tail could jeop­ar­dize cer­tain cases,” Sini told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

Just as he won’t de­tail the num­ber of miss­ing teens, he also won’t iden­tify any of the three dozen sus­pects or say what they did. He did say the sweeps have re­sulted in a drop in vi­o­lent crime. No one has been charged in any of the killings.

“We’re out there shak­ing the trees, putting pres­sure on cer­tain in­di­vid­u­als, re­ceiv­ing in­for­ma­tion and act­ing on that in­for­ma­tion,” Sini said.

MS-13 has been blamed on 30 other killings on Long Is­land alone since 2010.

The grow­ing gang threat in the sprawl­ing suburbs has been known for more than a decade, but ef­forts to stop the spread of vi­o­lence have re­peat­edly fal­tered.

Crit­ics say the po­lice de­part­ment was ham­pered in gath­er­ing in­tel­li­gence when former Chief James Burke re­moved de­tec­tives from a fed­eral gang task force from 2012 to 2013.

Sini, who be­came head of the de­part­ment af­ter Burke was ar­rested last year on charges he beat a bur­glary sus­pect in a precinct squad room, said he has worked to re­store re­la­tion­ships be­tween the de­part­ment and FBI.

Bar­ri­en­tos, with the ad­vo­cacy group, said the de­part­ment also needs to re­as­sure the His­panic com­mu­nity.

It’s im­por­tant, he said, “that when chil­dren go miss­ing in com­mu­ni­ties of color that they will be treated with the same ur­gency as when chil­dren go miss­ing in other com­mu­ni­ties, where we see Am­ber Alerts or miss­ing-per­son alerts go out within hours of a re­port be­ing made.”

MICHAEL BAL­SAMO — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Suf­folk County Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Ti­mothy Sini, at podium, speaks at a news con­fer­ence in front of a Suf­folk County po­lice precinct in Bay Shore on Oct. 24, about a rash of slay­ings in nearby Brent­wood. From left are New York State As­sem­bly­man Phil Ramos, D-Brent­wood, Suf­folk County Po­lice Chief of De­part­ment Stu­art Cameron and Suf­folk County Ex­ec­u­tive Steve Bel­lone.

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