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Despite rumors, authorities downplay gang link in triple slayings


The search for the two remaining suspects in the cold-blooded murders of three college students extended down the Eastern seaboard Wednesday, as local authorities continued to downplay any organized gang involvement despite anecdotal evidence that suggests a gang connection.

Federal marshals joined the search for suspects shortly after the killings, said U.S. Marshal James T. Plousis, who is responsible for New Jersey.

“We have an expertise in tracking fugitives, and we try to help our state and local partners when we can,” Plousis said Wednesday.

Marshals in several southern states are involved, Plousis said. He said Rodolfo Godinez may have some connection in the region, but declined to be more specific and would not name the states.

A law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation said the search had extended beyond Virginia.

The three Delaware State University students Terrance Aeriel, 18, Dashon Harvey, 20, and Iofemi Hightower, 20 were murdered late in the evening of Aug. 4 in an elementary school playground.

Since then, authorities have arrested and charged three people: two juveniles and 28-year-old Jose Carranza, an illegal immigrant from Peru. They are seeking Godinez, a Nicaraguan native living in the U.S. legally, and his brother, a juvenile.

The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office would not confirm whether the two had split up or were fleeing together.

Friends and neighbors have said some of the suspects claimed to be involved with the El Salvador-connected MS-13 gang, according to published reports.

In addition, several images on a computer showed one of the juvenile suspects making hand gestures associated with MS-13, and numerous references to the gang have cropped up on some of the suspects’ MySpace pages, the New York Times reported for Wednesday newspapers.

Though they have not gone as far as to discount a gang connection, authorities have indicated that the references may merely signal that the youths aspired to be associated with the gang.

“There is nothing in this case that indicates a gang angle or gang initiation,” Police Director Garry F. McCarthy said at a news conference Tuesday. “At this point, the motivation is robbery, whether or not a 15-year-old kid claims he’s a gang member. You can drive around any neighborhood in Newark and you’ll see bandanas and tattoos. Guess what? Everybody isn’t a gang member.”

At a news conference Wednesday to announce an anti-crime initiative that is expected to address immigration, gangs and recidivism, Gov. Jon S. Corzine questioned how Carranza was freed on bail despite his immigration status and while he was facing separate indictments for child rape and assault.

Attorney General Anne Milgram said she is looking into the situation, but declined to address it Wednesday. She hopes to complete her review in about a month.

“Sometime in the not-too-distant future you’ll hear me speak about the immigration issue,” Milgram said.

MS-13, which stands for Mara Salvatrucha, originated in Los Angeles among immigrants from El Salvador in the 1970s and 80s and has since spread to parts of the U.S. and Central America, where it is involved in human trafficking, kidnapping, and drugs and weapons smuggling, according to federal authorities.

In 2005, the government used federal racketeering statutes to indict 19 alleged MS-13 members in Maryland in connection with seven murders and other crimes including kidnappings and assaults over several years.

Experts on gangs in New Jersey say MS-13 has been in Newark for several years, but that the gang isn’t nearly as large or as organized as more-established gangs such as the Bloods, Crips or Latin Kings.

MS-13 is divided into subsets called cliques, much the same as Crips and Bloods are divided into sets, according to Detective Brad Gilbert, a member of the New Jersey State Police’s street gang unit. The Newark clique is called NLS, for Newark Loco Salvatrucha, and uses the symbol XIII or X3.

Gilbert said MS-13 once was solely made up of El Salvadorans but has expanded its membership to countries as far away as Argentina. Cliques have sprung up in several towns and cities in New Jersey, often where migrant laborers and transients live, he said.

The nature of the crime which authorities said began as a robbery and ended with the three friends forced to kneel in front of a wall before being shot in the back of the head also may provide some clues, according to a community activist who has tracked gang activity in the greater Newark area for more than 20 years.

MS-13 members “are the most vicious of all gangs Latin Kings, Bloods, Crips,” said Salaam Ismial, director of the United Youth Council, a locally based group with affiliates in several other cities including New York and Washington, D.C. “They have no remorse. They’ll cut your throat in a minute.”

Ismial began noticing the presence of MS-13 in Elizabeth, which has a significant El Salvadoran population, within the last 10 years. He said members of other gangs have told him they consider MS-13 to be the roughest group, even by street standards.

“The Crips and Bloods, they’ll do street fighting with knives and guns, that kind of stuff, but these guys will chop you up,” he said. “It’s not the kill, it’s the whole dynamic of the kill.”

Associated Press writers Jeffrey Gold in Newark and Tom Hester Jr. in Trenton contributed to this story.

– Associated Press

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