The friends had liked Gerson Saravia from the start. With his halting English and scrawny arms that stuck out like sticks from the tank tops he wore, he reminded them of themselves when they first came to the U.S., excited but also bewildered and self-conscious.
Jonathan had spotted him at school on Long Island at the start of junior year in 2015. With a poof of curly hair and a wide smile, Jonathan liked to be the first to welcome newcomers at Bellport High. He had come from Honduras in 2013 at age 16 to join his mother, whom he hadn’t seen since he was a small child. The loneliness had been intense, and now he tried to save others from it. He invited Gerson to play in a local soccer league and to go on snack runs to a neighborhood pupusa shop, and teased him for his Salvadoran slang. He introduced him to his best friends, the Morales brothers, from Guatemala, and a Salvadoran-American freshman named Alfred. Soon, Gerson was coming over to their houses after school to play video games.
Toward the end of their junior year, Jonathan noticed Gerson was falling in with a different crowd. Gerson started wearing the Nike Cortez sneakers and blue and white rosary of the Central American street gang MS-13. Before long, he confirmed to the friends that he had joined the gang and told them to join up, too, for protection. But the friends already felt safe. They said no and began avoiding Gerson when they saw him with his new crew.
The friends kicked off the summer of 2016 by driving to a long white sand beach near their town. Gerson rode with them. They set up a volleyball net and dipped their toes in the freezing water. But then Gerson’s new friends showed up, and he left abruptly with them, barely saying goodbye. It was the last time the group would hang out all together.
Jonathan spent the summer working demolition. The brothers got jobs at a cookie factory and a KFC restaurant. Alfred, who was 15, went to summer school along with Gerson, who would glare at him in class. “Why are you looking at me? Is there are a problem?” Alfred asked. Gerson just walked away.
On the last Friday of summer vacation, Aug. 19, 2016, the Morales brothers hosted a neighborhood barbecue. As the party broke up, an older man invited the friends to smoke marijuana in a nearby patch of woods. The brothers had other things to do.
But Jonathan said he’d go, and Alfred came along.
The night was warm and still. The clearing in the woods was small, but someone had left a chair and tires to sit on. Almost as soon as Jonathan and Alfred arrived with the older man, the attack began. Jonathan heard people rushing through the trees. Then a group emerged dressed in jeans and black sweatshirts, with bandannas covering their faces and machetes glinting in their hands.
Jonathan turned to run, but he tripped after a few steps. As he fell, he felt the first blows land on his back. The shock was so intense it muted everything else. He felt the impact but not the pain as machetes cut into him dozens of times, slicing to the bone. Breathless, he curled into a ball, trying to protect his head with his hands. His blood spattered onto the chair, the tires and the leaves of the oak trees.
His heartbeat slowed, and he began to pass out in the grass amid the strong smell of blood. His last thought was of his mother.
As Jonathan lost consciousness, Alfred managed to get to his feet, despite deep cuts in his legs and arms. He punched one of the men, pulling down his bandanna, and saw the attacker’s face.
As suddenly as they had come, the attackers turned and fled into the woods. The man with the marijuana was gone. Alfred limped out to the road, leaving a trail of blood in the dirt. He fell at the foot of a ragged lawn, where a passerby saw him gasping, with a bashed head, and called the police.
“Subject came out of woods covered in blood. Asked complainant to call 911,” the dispatcher relayed. Fighting for air, Alfred whispered the name and address of the one attacker he had seen.
It was Gerson.
The next morning, a neighbor who had a key to the brothers’ house ran in, crying. “They killed Jonathan,” he told them. Alfred got in touch that afternoon. He was in the hospital with a fractured skull and machete wounds all over his body. He said that Jonathan was in a coma, between life and death, and the gang might come for the brothers next.
That weekend, older strangers offered the brothers rides and seemed to be following them home. They sensed that Alfred was right; they were the gang’s next targets.
Afraid for their lives, they went to the police station. A detective gave them a black box that looked like a car battery and a tan remote with a large button for summoning police. He called it a panic alarm.
Jonathan awoke choking on the tubes in his throat. The pain hit him all at once. His mother ran to his side. Then a nurse. Soon, the small room filled with hospital staff and police officers, who had been assigned to guard the door.
It was Monday, three days after the attack. Doctors had cut off Jonathan’s hair while he lay in a coma and pulled his scalp together with more than 100 staples. They had reattached his severed left hand. His arms were in casts down to the fingertips.
That night, Jonathan says, Suffolk County Police Detective Kevin Caraher came to speak with him and his mother. He said that if Jonathan worked with police, officials would keep him safe. His medical bills would be covered, and his family would be eligible for a special visa for crime victims. (Asked whether they made these commitments, Caraher and the department declined to comment.)
Jonathan could barely speak. He hadn’t seen the attackers’ faces, but Caraher told him Gerson had been among them. So, propped up on pillows, Jonathan shared all he knew about the MS-13 members at school. He balled his bandaged right hand in a fist around a marker and wrote out Gerson’s full name for the detective.
Police combed the clearing in the woods and tagged the iced tea bottles, cigar wrappers and a BB gun they found in the underbrush into evidence. A week after the attack, they arrested Gerson. Two members of Long Island law enforcement said they believed MS-13 attacked Jonathan and Alfred because the boys had refused to join.
Gerson told detectives that he had been with other people on the night of the attack, but he didn’t give any names. He said he had happened to find a machete in the grass and had been scared Jonathan and Alfred might attack him. “I thought they had a knife, so I just swung the machete at them,” he told police.
Jonathan went from the hospital to the courthouse to testify against his former friend. The shirt his mother picked out snagged on the staples around his arms, so he wore a tank top. Through a fog of painkillers, he told a grand jury how the attack had felt: “They came at me like they were slaughtering a cow.”
In September, Jonathan was released from the hospital, and Gerson was arraigned on two counts of gang assault, each of which carried a sentence of five to 25 years. Jonathan was relieved. It couldn’t be long before the other attackers were caught as well.
When Jonathan returned to school in October 2016, everyone seemed to know about the attack. Classmates told Jonathan they had seen gang members lurking by his house; another said the gang knew Jonathan had talked to police and wanted to kill him. Jonathan’s teachers changed his schedule so he wouldn’t have MS-13 members in his classes, but they sometimes found him between periods and threatened him.
The gang was starting a killing spree on Long Island. Five students at another high school had been murdered, their bodies discovered soon after Jonathan woke up from his coma. Detective Caraher came to Jonathan’s house and left the family with a panic button like the one the Morales brothers had. He made clear that Suffolk County was no longer safe for the family. But they couldn’t afford to move.
To try to keep safe, Alfred stopped seeing his friends and joined a different soccer team. Jonathan stayed home after dark and reduced his social circle to just the Morales brothers and a few close friends. Sometimes, a baby-faced 16-year-old neighbor named Emilio Sanchez would stop by the brothers’ house to share the latest gossip.
Police never made another arrest after Gerson gave his confession. The department could have given Jonathan’s case to the homicide unit because he was almost killed. Instead, it was charged as an assault, not attempted murder, and assigned to a single detective, Caraher. The police file is unusually thin. “That’s it? Normally there’s more notes than this,” Ralph Rivera, who retired from the Suffolk County homicide unit in 2015, said after reviewing the file for ProPublica.
In March 2017, Gerson made a plea deal for the lightest possible sentence — five years total, with the possibility of early release — without ever cooperating with prosecutors and naming his accomplices. His defense attorney, William Collado, said the strongest evidence against his client was Alfred’s 911 call.
“You had a young man who was on death’s door. And it was during those moments that he pointed out Gerson,” Collado said. At the sentencing hearing, Gerson asked the judge for forgiveness and expressed surprise that everyone else had managed to remain at large. “I didn’t know that I was just taking the case all on myself,” he said.
The month after Gerson was sentenced, in April 2017, the macheted bodies of four boys were found in the woods. Two of the victims were Bellport students. Suffolk County police say MS-13 was responsible for some 18 killings in 2016 and 2017. The wave of violence attracted the attention of President Donald Trump, who used it to justify his proposals for tighter border security and a crackdown on immigration.
Asked about Jonathan’s case last year, the Suffolk County police commissioner and his assistant struggled to remember which of the many MS-13 machete attacks was Jonathan’s. Suffolk County Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante said police believe most of the people who committed that violence have been detained. In a February 2018 interview, he said Jonathan should not give up hope that his attackers could be brought to justice. “You can’t rush it. You need patience. We have time, you know?” he said. “Arrests get made sometimes years later, so the possibility exists. You never know.”
In the spring of 2018, Emilio, the baby-faced neighbor, came to the Morales brothers’ house with scary news. Sitting at their kitchen table, eyes darting nervously from one brother to the other, Emilio said the gang was asking about them and Jonathan — whether they had talked to police, where they hung out, when they might be alone. He was scared for his own life as well — he had stolen a bicycle to get away from the gang members who were harassing him. “They want to kill you guys, they want me to bring you to them. What do I do?” he said.
On a chilly morning not long ago, Gerson sat in the cavernous visitor’s center of the Greene Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Now 20 years old, he folded his hands in his lap and spoke in a polite tone for two hours, carefully denying any role in the attack.
At first, he claimed to know less about MS-13 than most students, and even most teachers, at Bellport High. He said he wouldn’t know how to recognize gang members in school and only ever heard about them on the news. He said he had never seen a machete; he acknowledged signing a confession saying he was carrying a machete on the night of the attack, but he said he hadn’t understood it because it was in English.
Later, he said he had known gang members but had found it easy to reject their overtures. “I knew a lot of people, you get me?” he said. “But when you don’t want to be part of something, you don’t want to be part of it. No one is going to force you.” He said he asked the judge for forgiveness because a cellmate in jail said it might reduce his sentence, not because he has regrets.
Gerson asked for help getting deported before his prison term ends in 2020. He said he wants to return to El Salvador and make a humble living in the countryside. “If they send me back to my country, it’s better because I’ll be free from everything, you got me?” he said.
On July 4, 2018, Emilio’s father, Jose Sanchez, went to wake him up at 3 a.m. Sanchez worked at a bakery, and his son was joining him for the early morning shift for the first time. After searching the house, he went outside and found Emilio lying near the front gate. He shook him, then lifted his hand and saw it was covered in blood. Emilio had been shot to death, his foot still in his bicycle strap.
Sanchez appeared on local news the next day, wiping tears into his sleeve and blaming the gang for his son’s death. “He didn’t want to join,” Sanchez said. The case remains open. Asked about gang violence in the area, Bellport precinct police inspector William Silva said MS-13 is under control. “As far as gangs, I don’t have a problem,” he said. “I have a presence, but it’s manageable and small.”
Now a senior at Bellport High, Alfred still lives a few blocks from Gerson’s family. He keeps to himself to avoid provoking gang members. “I forgave those people,” he said.
In the fall of 2018, Jonathan found out that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had classified him as a gang member and would push for him to be detained. Jonathan is trying to show that he refused to join the gang — and was in fact attacked for that refusal — but it’s almost impossible to prove a negative when it comes to gang membership. At least one of the Morales brothers has also been classified by ICE as a gang member since the attack. Neither ICE nor the Suffolk Police Department will say what evidence links Jonathan or the Morales brother to gangs.
From his wrists to his scalp, Jonathan still bears the thick, ropy scars of the attack.
The special visa and the money for his medical bills never materialized. Jonathan’s mother tried to find a physical therapy program to help him regain feeling in his reattached hand, but no clinic would take him without insurance. His months of recovery put the family into debt. Unable to afford rent, he and his mother split up this summer to live with different relatives.
Jonathan wound up in a nearby town. He was doing laundry recently when he recognized two young men from Bellport. He said they aimed their fingers at him as if they were pointing a gun.
He works in construction now, hauling wood past sunset with his one good hand.
About the Reporting
For this story, reporters met with Jonathan many times over more than a year, and they reviewed court documents and police and district attorney files related to Jonathan’s attack. They interviewed dozens of people, including several current and former members of law enforcement. Because of safety concerns, Jonathan asked them to use only his first name; the Morales brothers, only their last name; and Alfred, his middle name.
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