Washington - As many as 10 members of the notorious MS-13 street gang lured a man into a park in Wheaton, Maryland, spoke with one another over walkie-talkies as he arrived, stabbed him more than 100 times, decapitated him and then cut out his heart, according to police documents made public Wednesday in Montgomery County District Court.
The first alleged attacker to be arrested, Miguel "Timido" Angel Lopez-Abrego, 19, was charged with first-degree murder and held in jail after a brief hearing on Wednesday.
"He is noted as being the first individual to thrust a knife in the chest of the decedent," Assistant State's Attorney Kelly McGann said in court. Police continue to search for other suspects.
Police found the body buried in a grave, deep in the woods of Wheaton Regional Park, that the attackers dug before the slaying, according to court records. Authorities have not been able to identify the victim, who they believe may have been from Annapolis. He was wearing a sweatshirt, and those who knew him would have noticed he was missing a lower tooth near the front of his mouth, police said.
The investigation began in early September, when detectives spoke to an informant who said he knew of an MS-13 murder that occurred in the spring of this year in the park. The informant led detectives to the gravesite, according to court records. The remains were exhumed and examined by the Maryland Medical Examiner's Office.
"The victim had been stabbed over one hundred times, decapitated, dismembered, and his heart had been excised from his chest and thrown into the grave," detectives wrote in court papers.
Although the victim's identity was unknown, Montgomery detectives developed Lopez-Abrego as a suspect.
On September 29, patrol officers stopped a car driven by another MS-13 member in which Lopez-Abrego was a passenger. Detectives interviewed Lopez-Abrego, but he denied any involvement in the park murder, the court records state.
Montgomery police tried to find Lopez-Abrego after that interview but couldn't find him.
Law enforcement, looking for a different MS-13 suspect from Maryland - Milton Portillo-Rodriguez, accused of a murder in Anne Arundel County - tracked that man to Avery County, North Carolina.
On November 4, a group of about 10 agents from the US Marshals Service and the local sheriff's office arrived at a condominium, Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
A person - but not the suspect - answered the door. The deputies and agents found Portillo-Rodriguez, Lopez-Abrego and a third MS-13 member attempting to hide inside, Frye said.
The third suspect is accused in a different attack at the same Wheaton park.
In that incident, as many as 15 assailants surrounded two victims, punching them, kicking them and striking them with large tree limbs, according to arrest records.
The victims were hospitalised but survived.
Police identified the suspect in that assault as Edwin Ruiz-Urrutia, 19. He is being held on no-bond status in Montgomery County on charges including attempted second-degree murder and first-degree assault.
Frye, the Avery County sheriff, said the three alleged gang members found in the apartment hadn't made much of an impact. "They were new arrivals, and no one really knew who they were," he said.
Lopez-Abrego is a citizen of El Salvador, is in the United States illegally and is currently in immigration proceedings, officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Wednesday.
The charging documents do not cite a motive in the slaying in the park, but investigators believe that the suspects had planned to carry it out for about two weeks.
They also alleged that Lopez-Abrego helped dig the grave and "waited near the edge of the wood line with a handheld walkie-talkie radio to alert the other suspects of the victim's arrival." He also used a 15-inch knife in the attack, according to police.
Investigators said the victim was a Hispanic man, about 5-foot-2 and weighing 126 pounds. He had short, dark brown hair.
At the time of the killing, the victim was wearing a gray sweatshirt with "First United Methodist Church Laurel" written on the upper left side.
A rosary or necklace was also found on his body, said police, who had previously distributed photos of the victim's sweatshirt and muddied blue shorts in an effort to identify his remains.
The brutal slaying at the Wheaton park is part of a resurgence of killings in the Washington region that police and prosecutors attribute to MS-13.
In one case, assailants armed with knives lured a 34-year-old to his already-dug grave. A 22-year-old also was taken to a wooded area and ordered to his knees before he was shot in the face. And in another case, an 18-year-old was ambushed near a stream, stabbed and stoned before he died under a bridge of the Capital Beltway.