A suspected MS-13 gang member pleaded not guilty Friday in downtown Los Angeles to federal racketeering charges that allege the killings of seven people, including the machete slaying of a gang rival who was dismembered and had his heart removed.
Ever Joel “Bandita” Morales, 23, was among nearly two dozen people named in a 12-count indictment unsealed Monday in Los Angeles federal court, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The defendant appeared for his arraignment hearing in brown jail garb, and answered the judge’s questions with the aid of a Spanish-language translator.
A January trial date was set.
Prosecutors contend Morales is linked to a March 2017 murder in which MS-13 members allegedly targeted a rival gang member who they believe defaced MS-13 graffiti. After abducting, choking, and driving the victim — identified by the initials as J.S. — to a remote location in the Angeles National Forest, six members fatally attacked him with a machete, the indictment alleges.
The victim was then allegedly dismembered before one gang member “carved out J.S.’s heart,” and threw his “body parts into a canyon,” according to federal prosecutors.
Formed in the mid-1980s in Los Angeles, MS-13 — or Mara Salvatrucha — has a presence in at least 10 states and several countries abroad. The epicenter of the organization, prosecutors allege, is in the San Fernando Valley, where El Salvadoran MS-13 members joined with others to carry out the slayings detailed in the indictment, court papers allege.
The arrests were the culmination of a two-year investigation by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Task Force on Violent Gangs, which includes the FBI, Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Just three of the 22 named in the indictment are over the age of 24, prosecutors said, while 16 of the defendants are eligible for the federal death penalty should the Justice Department opt to seek it.