BEDFORD — A man convicted of participating in the violent street gang MS-13 and being an accessory after the fact to the brutal murder of a Lynchburg teen in 2017 was sentenced Friday to two and a half years for his role.
Juan Martin Hernandez, 27, pleaded guilty in August 2019 to gang participation, being an accessory after the fact to murder and being an accessory after the fact to abduction in the case of murdered Lynchburg teen Raymond Wood. His sentence, recommended by guidelines in the case, amounts to time he’s already served in jail since his 2018 arrest.
Wood’s body was found by a passing driver off Roaring Run Road in Bedford County the night of March 27, 2017, with multiple stab wounds and his hand and head nearly severed, according to evidence in the case. He’d been abducted from the front lawn of his Lynchburg home by members of the MS-13 gang — members living in the Lynchburg area had been buying marijuana from him, had argued over prices and received threats, then decided they wanted to take his business and declared him a rival.
Hernandez was living in Charlottesville at the time, according to evidence presented at Friday’s hearing, and received orders from higher-ranking gang members in Maryland the day before to do gang-related work he refused at first. The morning of March 28, he received new orders — backed by threats — to pick up two people from the side of the road in Bedford County: Cristian Jose Sanchez Gomez and Kevin Josue Soto Bonilla.
Hernandez said Friday he didn’t know they had come from the scene of a killing. In prior hearings, Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Wes Nance said Hernandez helped the two men flee to Charlottesville and eventually New York. They were wanted for about six months before officers arrested them.
Soto Bonilla was sentenced to life in prison in December 2019 on his charges, including capital murder, and another man charged in Wood’s death, Victor Arnoldo Rodas, was sentenced to 55 years in prison in 2018 after being found guilty of first-degree murder and other charges. Sanchez Gomez, who testified in previous trials of his co-defendants to taking part in the events of that night but denied actually stabbing Wood, is scheduled for a March 8 jury trial.
Testifying about his own background and history with the gang, Hernandez said through a translator that his family is from a peaceful part of Mexico and he’d lived in the U.S. for 12 years. When he was about 16, he said he first met members of MS-13 and got gang tattoos without really knowing their meaning and significance.
Later, when someone notified higher-ranking members of the gang in Maryland about his tattoos, Hernandez said they started to threaten to cut off his hands and body parts bearing the tattoos if he didn’t help out the gang. Still, he said, he refused to participate in violence and only helped to sell weed.
Nance said investigators confirmed there was evidence Hernandez was being pressured because he hadn’t taken part in violence on MS-13’s behalf. Around the time of Wood’s killing, Hernandez said he was trying to quietly slip away from the gang, since members had left the area.
He insisted he wouldn’t have picked up the two men if he knew there was a killing involved, especially a killing of someone not involved in the gang.
While in jail, Hernandez said he’s dedicated himself to God and distanced himself from the gang. He said he didn’t feel in league with its members, being from Mexico while most MS-13 members hail from El Salvador, and having no family members affiliated with the gang.
“I’m not a killer; I’m not like them,” he said through a translator. “I have different feelings. I’m sorry.”
He apologized directly to Wood’s mother, Marjorie Stagno, who was present to testify.
She had asked Bedford County Circuit Judge James Updike to impose on Hernandez the maximum punishment allowed by law. Despite having cooperated with law enforcement and having served jail time since September 2018, Stagno said Hernandez still was part of the gang that orchestrated the “gruesome” murder of her son and was friends with its members.
Guidelines drawn up based on Hernandez’s charges recommended anywhere from six months to two and a half years of imprisonment, Nance said, though Updike could’ve deviated from the guidelines to impose up to 16 years in prison.
Nance said although it’s hard to imagine a more brutal and horrific crime than the manner of Wood’s slaying, Hernandez has earned some consideration because of his cooperation with local, state and federal law enforcement.
Without the assistance from some of those involved in the crime, Nance said, his office wouldn’t have known who participated and to what extent. With the capital murder trials of two co-defendants and the sentencing of a third stretching into early 2022 partially because of the coronavirus pandemic, he said sentencing guidelines called for a term Hernandez already has served.
Hernandez’s attorney, Jeffrey Haynes, said his client made a foolish decision when he was younger and thought he wouldn’t run into members of the gang. He emphasized his client’s cooperation and said he was only associated with the gang by coercion.
Updike ordered Hernandez to be on supervised probation for five years and to be of good behavior for 10 years. He also ordered him not to participate in any gang activities, not to contact any members of Wood’s family and to abide by special conditions of probation and parole intended for gang members.
Haynes said his client likely will be taken into federal custody after leaving imprisonment for removal to Mexico. If he is deported, Nance said the guidelines imposed Friday won’t mean anything.
Other future hearings in the case of Wood’s death aren’t scheduled until early next year.
Josue Moises Coreas-Ventura still awaits a jury trial that’s scheduled for March 4. Lisandro Antonio Posada-Vasquez pleaded guilty to his charges in September 2018 and is scheduled to be sentenced March 15.