Final guilty plea in MoCo gang-stabbing case
The last of 11 defendants has pleaded guilty in the death of a 15-year-old who was stabbed more than 60 times and dumped into a creek, closing out the prosecution of a case Montgomery County authorities called the most disturbing gang killing they have ever seen.
"The pain that you have caused this young man's family will never go away," Circuit Judge Eric Johnson told the defendant, Daniel Zavala, during the Thursday hearing.
The victim, Dennys Guzman-Saenz, left behind his mother, two sisters, and other family. During earlier discussions with prosecutors, his mother became so upset about how her son died that she fainted, officials said.
The case stems from events on Jan. 18, 2009. After a gathering of the 18th Street gang in Germantown, part of the group drove to Langley Park, just across the border in Prince George’s County. They kidnapped Guzman-Saenz, who was waiting for a bus to go to a friend’s house, and who they mistakenly thought was a member of a rival gang, MS-13.
In the back of a blue Honda Accord, gang members starting attacking and stabbing him. The assault continued next to the creek at a darkened park in Gaithersburg.
The hearing had an unusual twist: Zavala's defense attorney disputed prosecutors' claim that an official meeting of the 18th Street gang preceded the killing, noting that those present were drinking, which the gang doesn’t allow during meetings.
"Alcohol was imbibed by most of the people, and by my client. He was totally intoxicated," attorney Paul F. Kemp told a judge. "He says to me that there is no drinking permitted at any kind of meeting as such of this gang."
"That's good," Johnson quipped, before sentencing Zavala to life in prison.
Zavala was ordered returned to the custody of officials in the District. He will first serve a 25-year sentence for a second-degree murder committed there. Then, on to the Maryland state prison system to serve out his life sentence in the Guzman-Saenz case, officials said.
Under Maryland rules, he could become eligible for parole some day. But the governor's office would have to sign off, given the nature of the crime, and that generally doesn't happen in first-degree murder cases.
"It's probably precious little consolation to them [the victim’s family members], but you are likely never to get out of prison," Johnson told Zavala.
Prosecutor Jeffrey Wennar said Thursday that evidence showed Zavala was one of nine men and women who stabbed Guzman-Saenz at the creek.
Kemp disputed that. "My client insists he never stabbed this young man, that he hit him several times, definitively went down to the creek," Kemp said.
Those actions alone constituted participation in the killing. Zavala pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.
Kemp told the judge that Zavala grew up poor in El Salvador, and immigrated illegally to the U.S., where he held a series of odd jobs. Kemp said that in conversations at the jail, Zavala was polite and appreciative.
Wennar, the prosecutor, didn't dispute the description, and said that as individuals, those who took part in the killing presented themselves in court as fairly nice, reserved people.
"But that night, they all, like a pack of wild animals, descended on Dennys Guzman-Saenz and attacked him and killed him," he said.
Most of the other defendants are awaiting sentencing.
-- Dan Morse
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