Panorama High School was already on edge after a 10th grader went missing.
Then, six students were detained in February 2018 with no explanation. There were whispers that the missing boy had been murdered, but the campus was in the dark about a possible motive and suspect.
Authorities now say several of the students are linked to the killing of their missing classmate, Brayan Andino, and another man among seven slayings allegedly carried out by a local clique of MS-13.
The high school has emerged as a disturbing backdrop to what authorities describe as a reign of terror in the San Fernando Valley by the notoriously violent street gang with a strong presence in both the U.S. and El Salvador.
But teachers, students and parents said they received little or no information from either police or school officials about the gang’s alleged operations on campus until last week, when prosecutors announced murder and racketeering charges against nearly two dozen adults who are alleged to be gang members.
The secrecy about Brayan’s killing and its alleged ties to several of his own classmates has led to concerns about how the investigation was handled and whether more information should have been released earlier.
The MS-13 clique had a “sizable presence” at the school, according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the case candidly. The official declined to give an exact number of gang members thought to be linked to Panorama High.
Some teachers said they noticed that some of their students dressed in the MS-13 style but they did not necessarily suspect the students of being gang members.
Two girls at the school allegedly helped lure 16-year-old Brayan to his death in October 2017 and have been charged in connection with the killing, said Capt. William P. Hayes, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Robbery-Homicide Division. The names of the girls and the other students are not public because they were juveniles at the time of the killing.
At the request of investigators, school district officials released no information about either Brayan’s death or ties to other students at the school during an investigation that stretched over more than 20 months. The news blackout continued even after the arrests on Feb. 8, 2018.
“We constantly have to weigh the needs of the investigation against putting out public information,” Hayes said. “We were concerned about the flight risk of suspects and the loss of critical information.”
Alerting the school community was not essential because no one on campus was in danger after Brayan’s slaying, Hayes said.
After the arrests in early 2018, other members of the clique continued their spree of violence elsewhere — allegedly committing murders in Compton and Malibu, he added.
Los Angeles Unified School District officials said they had little option but to comply with instructions.
The district “consistently and proactively asked LAPD whether information about various developments could be shared with Panorama students and staff,” a district spokeswoman said. “We were advised that we were not to provide information publicly because of the ongoing investigation.”
Five juveniles, all age 16 or 17, were arrested in connection with Brayan’s death in that 2018 sweep during a joint operation involving the LAPD and the FBI, said Shiara-Davila Morales, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
Each teen has been charged in juvenile court with murder and criminal street gang conspiracy, she said.
A sixth juvenile defendant arrested during that operation has been charged with murder in the April 2017 killing of 20-year-old German Ochoa-Berrios, whose body was discovered in the Angeles National Forest with multiple stab wounds, Davila-Morales said.
One or more of the Panorama students was also linked to the killing of Ochoa-Berrios after their arrests, Hayes said.
Hayes said the arrested students were likely accomplices in additional crimes.
The seven gruesome slayings linked to the Fulton clique of MS-13 span more than two years, according to a federal indictment unsealed last week that named and charged 22 adults. All are alleged to be members or associates of MS-13. Hayes said the juvenile cases are separate and are largely being handled by state rather than federal prosecutors.
Panorama High sits on a busy stretch of Van Nuys Boulevard in Panorama City, a working-class neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. The neighborhood has long been a home to recent immigrants from Latin America.
Nearly 91% of Panorama High students entered school as children with limited English skills. Even in high school, about 30% remain in classes for non-native speakers.
Brayan’s history class included one of the girls — a teen mother — who is accused of coaxing him to Lake Balboa Park, according to Brayan’s mother and accounts from school staff and law enforcement officials. His mother, Doris Andino, said in an interview that she read electronic message exchanges between her son and the girl on Brayan’s laptop. Brayan had been good friends with the girl since his arrival in the U.S. in 2013, she said.
But the girl’s loyalties had apparently shifted. After he left to meet the girl, Brayan was beaten and stabbed to death, his remains left in a canyon, prosecutors allege. Authorities have provided no motive for his death.
The girl’s boyfriend was in the same class and was among those arrested, according to school staff.
In February 2018, the teacher of that 10th-grade class, Lorena Medina, and a colleague, Cynthia North, were called aside by Principal Rafael Gaeta as they were leaving the school, they said.
For months after Brayan’s disappearance, Gaeta, in accordance with his instructions, had referred to the student as missing, even after his body was found in December, said North, who teaches French and social studies and leads the teacher’s union chapter at the campus.
North recalled that Gaeta read the teachers a list of names of students who had been detained by police. One of the students was in a class she taught. Medina said she recalled hearing the names of six students from her 10th-grade history class, which had also included Brayan.
After Brayan’s late October 2017 death, the attendance of these students became spotty, North said. For the most part, the students had stopped coming to school by Thanksgiving, although they remained on the rolls. When they were arrested in February 2018 it was in connection with Brayan’s slaying, said the LAPD’s Hayes. All remain in custody awaiting trial, he said.
On that February day, Gaeta advised the two teachers to expect a horde of media once word of the students’ arrest got out. He also said he’d been told that grief counselors would be standing by. But word didn’t get out. Neither the media nor the extra counselors arrived.
The district declined to make Gaeta available for comment for this article.
North remembers the accused student from her class.
“If you asked him nicely to do an assignment and sit next to him he would make some attempt,” North recalled. Other students liked him and he would do classwork sometimes within a group. Otherwise, “he would just disappear under his headphones.”
About a month later, a distraught girl came up to North. She said that one of the students who was arrested was texting her — insisting he didn’t take part in the killing.
North said she alerted administrators that the girl needed counseling. “Tell her not to talk to you about it anymore,” she said she was told by an administrator.
Medina declined to talk about individuals in her class. However, she said she did perceive a troubling nervousness among her students. After learning of Brayan’s killing, she put her finger on it: “I sensed there was fear among the students because no one could speak about it.”
One former teacher, Vincent Nicoletti, did speak up after hearing details from the handful of people who knew. He said he called a detective on May 29, 2018, to find out what was going on. School officials suspended him the next day for “interfering with the investigation,” Nicoletti said.
The district has not commented on Nicoletti’s claim, but a union official confirmed Nicoletti’s suspension over the matter. Nicoletti acknowledged that he had been an outspoken teacher regarding various issues and had past run-ins with administrators. He has since retired.
Nicoletti said he remains concerned over something he said a detective told him about the need for secrecy: Investigators did not want other students affiliated with the gang to flee while the probe was in progress.
“I was just concerned that the gag order by the LAUSD and LAPD could endanger students,” he said.
Hayes said investigators considered that possibility.
“None of the murders or crimes were occurring on campus,” he said. “It was all off-campus stuff.”
At the Panorama campus Monday, students and parents said they were caught off guard about the unfolding details of Brayan’s killing. The Times interviewed several but is not naming them due to the sensitivity of the case.
A 16-year-old senior said he’d heard whispers about Brayan being killed when he was a sophomore, but he hadn’t heard that MS-13 was involved. He didn’t know Brayan.
“It makes me a little nervous, but at the same time, anyone could have done it.”
A 16-year-old junior said the school “should have told us what was going on.”
Although she expects her parents to be unnerved, she said she didn’t feel unsafe at the school.
The incident and its handling have raised concerns for one parent whose 12-year-old daughter attends a privately operated charter school for younger students on the Panorama campus. He had envisioned his daughter continuing on to Panorama High. Now, he’s not so sure.
“It makes me a little more cautious as to what I want to do next year,” he said.
Times staff writers Matthew Ormseth and Nina Agrawal contributed to this report.