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MS-13 gang created beachhead at Valley high school, but authorities insisted on secrecy

Panorama High School
A student at Panorama High School was killed off campus in October 2017. A month before his death, a student was stabbed and wounded as he was leaving the San Fernando Valley campus, according to a federal indictment.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Law enforcement and school officials have defended 21 months of secrecy around the murder investigation of a Panorama High School student at the hands of MS-13 — one part of a grisly rampage that has generated national headlines and left at least 10 people dead.

They said there was no need to alert teachers, parents and students because other students were never in danger, the gang had little presence on campus, and no acts of gang violence affected the campus itself.

But a month before the October 2017 off-campus slaying of Brayan Andino, another incident linked to MS-13 erupted at the edge of the San Fernando Valley campus.

At least two MS-13 members, including two former Panorama students, are suspected of stabbing and wounding a student as he was leaving school, officials acknowledged.

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According to a federal indictment unsealed this month, the assailants approached the victim, identified in court documents as B.C., and yelled, “MS!” — signifying their gang affiliation. They challenged “whether B.C. was from a rival gang,” according to the indictment.

The student “said he did not ‘gang bang,’” but the attackers paid no heed and “stabbed B.C. in the back and abdomen” as he tried to climb over the school’s perimeter fence. The injured student was enrolled in Cal Burke High School, an alternative program on the Panorama campus that has a separate entrance. The attackers fled and B.C. staggered to the school office, which called for help.

Law enforcement sources told The Times that MS-13 had established a significant beachhead at Panorama. And, although Brayan, 16, was killed off campus, it was two girls at the school who investigators say coaxed him to meet at Lake Balboa Park, where gang members, including other classmates, were waiting.

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The L.A. Unified School District has denied the presence of a gang clique at the school and said it left the question of whether parents and students should have been alerted to investigators.

As details of the gang’s connections have become public over the last week, some parents and teachers have questioned why officials didn’t alert the campus community earlier.

Only after a federal grand jury indicted 22 adults on racketeering and murder charges earlier this month did officials with the Los Angeles Unified School District acknowledge that students from Panorama High had also been arrested.

Prosecutors allege that all of the accused are members of a violent subset of MS-13 that killed seven people — including Brayan — over a span of more than two years. Three more deaths linked to MS-13 are being handled in state court, officials said.

“In situations like these, we rely on the best judgment of the law enforcement experts who are working to uncover the truth and bring perpetrators to justice,” said school board member Kelly Gonez, who represents that area. “The best way to ensure the safety of our students, staff and families at Panorama High School and the broader community is to ensure that these violent criminals are arrested and put in jail.”

One result of the secrecy was that after Brayan went missing in late October 2017, school administrators said nothing about it. When his body was found in mid-December they continued to stay mum. Nor was there word about his funeral or any statements of condolence. Principal Rafael Gaeta referred to Brayan as “missing,” said staff members interviewed by The Times. The school district has declined to make Gaeta available for an interview.

Then in February 2018, a sweep netted about 10 suspects in Brayan’s killing. At least seven were Panorama High students, according to teachers, although Capt. William P. Hayes, who commands the Los Angeles Police Department’s Robbery-Homicide Division, puts the number at five. That’s not including the two involved in the stabbing. Authorities kept the arrests quiet for 17 more months.

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Investigators were “concerned about the flight risk of suspects and the loss of critical information,” Hayes said. He said that the February sweep brought in some suspects on lesser charges than murder — and that any publicity could have tipped off gang members about the magnitude of the investigation.

Hayes also said that it could have been risky to provoke talk about MS-13 among students while the gang might still have a presence at the school, and that he didn’t want students inadvertently making themselves targets. “You’re trying to prevent people from saying stupid things that would put them at risk,” he said.

He added that his officers were tracking potential suspects and staying in regular contact with school police and administrators to make sure Panorama students were not at risk after Brayan’s death.

A grand jury indictment charges more than a dozen alleged MS-13 gang members with gruesome killings committed in the Angeles National Forest.

One law enforcement official familiar with the investigation characterized Panorama High as “recruiting ground” for MS-13. The source requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about the case. Students later implicated in the murder had been disciplined by the school for tagging and wearing MS-13 paraphernalia, the official said.

MS-13’s foothold at the school “was something known” to school officials, the source added.

Alex Sanchez, a former MS-13 gang member and executive director of Homies Unidos, a nonprofit that provides intervention and prevention services for at-risk teenagers, said that not acknowledging that a student is killed deprives other students of grief counselors and other resources that can help them process their feelings.

“Kids will find out what happened and the word is going to spread around,” he said. “There’s no way that the kids are not going to find out.”

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Labeling a school as a breeding ground for a certain gang only raises its profile and incites unnecessary fear, he said .

A former student who graduated in 2018 said there were whispers across campus.

“We knew there was somebody missing at some point,” she said. “Then the rumors came up that the person had been killed. Everybody knew something but it wasn’t the exact truth.”

She added that she never felt unsafe on campus.

The stabbing occurred on Sept. 8, 2017, shortly before Brayan’s disappearance.

The indictment identifies one of the attackers as Steven Emmanuel Linares. Unlike the juvenile suspects, Linares is named in the federal indictment because some of the crimes he’s charged with occurred after he turned 18 in 2018.

Linares is a former Panorama High student but was not attending school at the time of the knife attack, Hayes said. The same is true of another assailant.

Before The Times learned of the assault just outside the school, district officials had echoed police in saying all the trouble was off campus. The district went further in a Wednesday statement.

“We have no information that suggests a ‘clique’ was ‘operating out of school,’” a district spokeswoman said. “In fact, that statement appears to be factually inaccurate based on our knowledge of the school climate.”

On Thursday, after The Times published details about the arrests of at least six Panorama students, Gaeta sent a message of reassurance to staff.

“At no time then or now was the safety of staff or students jeopardized on campus,” the principal’s message stated in part.

Late on Thursday, after being confronted with information about the stabbing, school district officials acknowledged the earlier incident and provided the text of an alert they said they sent to parents at the time.

Hayes said Linares was connected to the stabbing months later. Prosecutors allege that he was involved in a previous assault.

On June 4, 2017 — several months before the stabbing — Linares was allegedly among about 12 MS-13 gang members who took Elvin Hernandez, 20, to the Angeles National Forest and killed him. The indictment names four assailants in particular, including Linares, who are accused of attacking him with a knife. Another gang member used a machete. Hernandez was stabbed more than 100 times, a medical examiner concluded.

Linares was arrested this month and was one of the last of those charged to be taken into custody. An attorney for Linares could not be reached Friday.

On Monday, Gaeta sent to parents, via email and phone, the first acknowledgment of Brayan’s death. The message also included a long list of resources the school provides for counseling, gang intervention and parent support.

“I want to extend our deepest condolences to the student’s family and friends on their tragic loss,” Gaeta said.

Times staff writers James Queally, Nicole Santa Cruz and Sonali Kohli contributed to this report.


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