The slain bodies of four teenagers from the same high school have been found dumped in different locations over the past month.
The murdered students from Brentwood High School on Long Island are suspected to be the victims of a notorious local street gang with police yet to confirm details. The community is left on edge as it awaits information about who is responsible for the youths' deaths and why they were targeted.
Year 10 student Nisa Mickens, 15, was an aspiring athlete. Her brutally beaten body was found first on a tree-lined street in Brentwood on September 13, the day before her 16th birthday.
A day later, the beaten body of her best friend, 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas, was discovered in the wooded backyard of a nearby home. The teenagers had been inseparable and shared an interest in basketball.
Nisa's father, Rob Mickens, said he dropped his daughter off at Kayla's home just before 7pm. She sent him a text message at around 8pm asking him to pick her up at 10:30pm, but when he arrived she wasn't there.
He said he didn't learn his daughter had been found dead until later in the evening, when he flagged down a police officer and asked for help.
"My daughter was a very caring girl, affected a lot of lives that I didn't even know," he said. "Kayla, also another great girl, but very misunderstood. But she was a good girl."
Days later, police discovered the skeletal remains of 19-year-old Oscar Acosta and 15-year-old Miguel Garcia-Moran in a remote industrial area of the town. Acosta had been missing since May, and Garcia-Moran vanished in February.
Garcia-Moran's stepfather, Abraham Chaparro, said the teen was last seen heading off to meet some friends. He said his stepson, who emigrated from Ecuador two years ago, liked cars, soccer and girls.
"He had a girlfriend in every corner. He was good-looking," Chaparro said. "I don't understand how this happened. It's a mystery."
A large photo of the boy smiling in a white suit and black bow tie sat at the front of a funeral home chapel as mourners paid respects this past week.
Maria Arias spent days going door to door looking for her son, Oscar, after he disappeared while reportedly going to a nearby park to play soccer.
WHO MURDERED THE STUDENTS AND WHY?
A wooden cross marks the memorial near the scene where Mickens and Cuevas were found dead. It reads: "fly high Kayla (and Nisa). RIP." Pink and purple balloons, some captioned "princess" were also left to honour the young girls among a mound of candles, flowers and teddy bears. Suffolk Country Crime Stoppers posters in the area show that a $15,000 reward is offered for anyone with information leading to the arrest(s) of the killer(s).
In Brentwood, police have released few details about their investigation into the students' deaths.
Kayla's mother, Evelyn Cuevas, said she just wants her daughter's killer captured.
"She was trying to keep focused, but this nonsense that is out here, it's hard for kids," Cuevas said, tears streaming down her face Thursday as she visited the place where her daughter's body was discovered.
"They get bullied if they don't participate. They beat them up, they kill them."
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said detectives are optimistic about arrests. A "violent known gang member" was in federal custody, he said, but the arrest papers and charges are under seal and no one is saying if that suspect is tied to any of the killings.
A law enforcement official told The Associated Press that the notorious Salvadoran gang MS-13 is suspected, although police have not made arrests. The official was not authorised to talk publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
MS-13 GANGSTERS' BRUTAL PAST AND ONGOING THREATS TO COMMUNITY
Like many suburban areas, Long Island has become a home to street gangs.
At least 30 people have been killed by MS-13 gang members on Long Island since 2010.
"There's definitely been an uptick, but we always have bad crews operating here," the official said.
In one particularly heinous killing, four MS-13 gangsters were convicted in the 2010 killing of a Long Island woman and her toddler son.
Prosecutors said the mother had allegedly shown disrespect to the gang. Her child was murdered simply because he was with her.
Brentwood school officials said a freshman walking to a bus stop with a light blue T-shirt in his hand was stopped last week by a group in a car. The driver demanded the shirt, which was set on fire; the student was told not to wear that colour again. Curtis Sliwa, founder of the New York City-based Guardian Angels, a neighbourhood patrol group that has now started patrols in Brentwood, said blue is an MS-13 colour.
School officials advised in a letter to parents that "children not wear clothing that could be considered to be gang-related." Monique Darrisaw-Akil, assistant superintendent for secondary education, conceded that "students sometimes get involved in things that are not in their best interest or in the best interest of the school community, so we try to be as proactive, and provide interventions."
Last week, investigators searched a shuttered state psychiatric hospital for additional victims but came up empty.
Students are saying they're afraid to walk alone in their community and school administrators are warning students not to wear clothing that could risk offending vicious street thugs. Alexis Portillo, 16, was devastated when he learned of the killings: "Like, who else is going to be next, you know?" One Brentwood teen who wouldn't give his name, saying he feared gang retaliation, said many students are nervous.
"They don't play around. If they don't like you and if you do something to them, they will come after you," he said.
"I'm not going to walk anywhere. We're definitely more cautious about that. I don't go out at night anymore."
- With AP