A decade or so before he killed two men, a quiet boy sat in a South Grade Elementary School art classroom learning what he could before ties to the international gang MS-13 would dictate his future.
That boy, now a man, is one of six Lake Worth-area MS-13 associates arrested this past month in a string of violent crimes south of downtown, just blocks from the elementary school he and at least two other suspects attended.
Each of those six young men faces adult felony charges as well as deportation. All are in the United States illegally from either El Salvador or Honduras, according to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
South Grade teacher Rebecca Hinson sees how easily her kindhearted students can fall into the ranks of gangs like MS-13 — known for violent crimes, as well as drugs and human trafficking. That’s why in 2013 she asked the sheriff’s office for help.
Now called Breaking the Cycle of Gang Recruitment, the program at North and South Grade Elementary schools pairs at-risk fifth graders with sheriff’s deputies. Hinson defines “at-risk” children as students with low academic performance, a negative peer network and a lack of adult supervision, and who live in poverty and sometimes violent homes.
Together the deputy and student build not only Lego motorized cars but also relationships that humanize the often scary persona the child has associated with law enforcement.
Nearly 100 students already have gone through the program, the sheriff’s office said.
Hinson, who was recognized this past month by the sheriff’s office for her work with the program, regrets that her students a decade ago aren’t among them.
“If your brother’s in a gang, or your cousin is in a gang and your uncle is in a gang, that might be your destiny,” Hinson said in an interview this past year. “Unless an intervention comes in your life like this.”
A Nov. 9 shooting that put South Grade Elementary on a code-red lockdown led authorities to the first of six gang members who confessed to their involvement in the “terror” rocking Lake Worth neighborhoods.
Surveillance-camera footage from that afternoon shows a teen pulling a gun from his waistband and firing multiple rounds at a man near 10th Avenue South and South Dixie Highway, records state. The bullets missed, but Lake Worth-area patrols had what they needed: three shell casings and footage of the gunman.
The next day, authorities arrested then-17-year-old Edwin Manzanares outside of his Lake Worth trailer. Manzanares, who turned 18 at the end of this past month, was holding the gun that would tie together two killings, the Nov. 9 shooting and multiple armed robberies, recently released sheriff’s records state.
The other arrests came quickly, according to records, with each suspect confessing to his role in the crimes and giving authorities accomplices’ names.
Jorge Santos-Cruz, 17, was arrested Nov. 11 for reportedly having a glass pipe that smelled of marijuana on him at Lake Worth Mobile Home Park. Authorities booked him on murder charges after he allegedly confessed.
When authorities brought in Victor Hernandez Castro, 17, the next day to obtain his DNA, he too confessed. The next confession was Natividad Omar Umanzor Yanes’ Nov. 15 statement, followed by Victor Fuentes’ and Henrry Cardoza’s confessions on Nov. 16.
Sheriff’s records indicate Cardoza, a junior at Lake Worth High, is the only one of the six in school.
Looking to rob
Santos-Cruz, 17, told authorities he drove a stolen minivan early Oct. 30 while his associates looked for people to rob. At about 5 a.m. they found Velazquez-Morales standing at the corner of 10th Avenue South and South H Street.
Santos-Cruz said he parked the van, flipped off the headlights and the young men poured out toward Velazquez-Morales. Fuentes first held a gun to the 33-year-old’s head, then turned it on 17-year-old Umanzor Yanes, ordering the teen to reach into the man’s pockets.
Someone shot the man in the leg, causing him to fall to the ground in pain, Santos-Cruz told authorities. The younger men ran back to the van, but one turned to see Velazquez-Morales trying to hobble away. Fuentes told authorities a “demon” inside his head made him pull the trigger. He kept firing, he said, because his finger got stuck.
He heard Velazquez-Morales’ screams. Neighbors heard at least five shots, but two hours passed before anyone contacted authorities. And they only contacted them because they found Velazquez-Morales dead in the bushes in the front lawn of a home on South H Street, near Sixth Avenue South, sheriff’s authorities said. He took bullets to the heart, liver and other internal organs, the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s Office said.
Six days later, the young men roamed Lake Worth’s streets looking for their next victim. It would be 25-year-old Octavio Sanches-Morales, who was riding his bike early that morning near South F Street.
Surveillance-camera footage shows a GMC Envoy stop near Sanches-Morales. Several people jump out, then move from the video frame. Then they rush back to the car and flee the scene. A 911 call came in minutes later to report the shooting.
Sanches-Morales was found with one bullet hole in his jaw, and another bullet went through the left side of his body, hitting both his lungs and severing a major blood vessel, according to a sheriff’s report.
Santos-Cruz said he was driving that morning, too. He knew his friends took money and he heard gunshots, but sped off when the young men jumped back into the car.
Henrry Cardoza, who at 16 is the youngest arrested, said he grabbed Sanches-Morales’ bike and pushed him to the ground. Manzanares said he put Sanches-Morales in a headlock while the others beat the man. Umanzor Yanes claimed he grabbed the man’s wallet.
Manzanares let the man go. But as Sanches-Morales ran, Fuentes sent two fatal shots into him.
By Nov. 14 sheriff’s authorities had what they believed was that GMC Envoy, according to a search warrant. They searched it for DNA on Nov. 22.
Hinson knows generations of Lake Worth-area kids consider gangs as the way up and out of poverty. She hopes that the sheriff’s deputies who come to her classroom will show students other options.
“That was the first time a police man helped me with something,” one student who went through the program said in a video released by the school.
“I used to bully other people,” another boy says. “But now I know that it’s not good. … (The program) changed me a lot.”
The students interviewed in the video agreed: “I’m not scared (of law enforcement) anymore.”
Staff writer Hannah Winston contributed to this story.
KIDS AND GANGS
Kids as young as elementary-school-aged have been documented throwing gang signs and “clicking-up,” the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said. Most of those groups are considered hybrid-gangs, hyper-local associations that make up their own rules.
Though it is rare, the sheriff’s office has seen children in middle school joining national gangs. Most come from families already associated with the larger-scale gangs.
The sheriff’s office tracks gang members but stresses that the gang allegiances spread well beyond any county municipality or county line.