BEDFORD — A new witness in a trial concerning a Lynchburg teen’s murder said Monday ranking members of MS-13 were upset with the killing, since it was committed against someone they considered an innocent person.
Juan Martin Hernandez took the witness stand in Bedford Circuit Court during the trial for Kevin Josue Soto Bonilla, who is charged with capital murder in Raymond Wood’s death in March 2017.
Witness testimony started Thursday for Soto Bonilla, the second defendant to face trial. Three men connected to the death of 17-year-old Raymond Wood have pleaded to their charges. Another was found guilty of first-degree murder in a trial last year and sentenced to 55 years behind bars.
Soto Bonilla also faces charges of abduction for pecuniary benefit, robbery and participating in the violent MS-13 street gang.
Hernandez pleaded guilty to participating in the violent street gang MS-13 and other charges in August. He said Monday he initially was asked to help with a killing in Lynchburg on March 26, 2017, but said he didn’t have a ride and had to work.
The following morning, he was contacted by high-ranking “homeboys” in MS-13 and threatened by them to pick up two members in the woods in Bedford County. One of them was Soto Bonilla.
Having secured a ride from another gang member, Hernandez said he picked the two up and drove them back to Charlottesville, where he lived.
Soto Bonilla and Cristian Josue Sanchez-Gomez, a co-defendant also charged with capital murder, talked about the killing on the way up, Hernandez testified. While he said Soto Bonilla didn’t talk about killing Wood specifically, both Soto Bonilla and Sanchez-Gomez said they participated in Wood’s death.
The two stayed in Charlottesville for a couple of days before Hernandez took them to Arlington, he said.
Sanchez-Gomez, who also testified Monday, said the two stayed at homes of many other gang members in that area and in Maryland for months, laying low.
Hernandez said he was selling about a pound of marijuana a month in Charlottesville, giving half his profits to members of the gang in Maryland and half to members in El Salvador.
He said he was the only gang member in Charlottesville at the time, since another was deported. But he was acquainted with a “homeboy” named Josue Moises Coreas-Ventura and another gang member named Victor Arnoldo Rodas selling drugs in Lynchburg.
At one point, Hernandez took a shipment of weed down to Coreas-Ventura’s residence in Lynchburg. He said Lynchburg wasn’t really considered MS-13 territory, which is established when MS-13 members kill someone from another gang. He added they “had plans” to make it gang territory.
Hernandez said Coreas-Ventura cleared Wood’s killing with other members of the gang under a false pretense: that he was trying to kill a “chavala,” or rival. He said he found out that “chavala” was Wood in the news after picking up the others from the woods near where Wood’s body was found on Roaring Run Road and called Wood an “innocent person.”
“He didn’t belong to anything,” he said of Wood through a translator.
In fact, Hernandez said he recognized Wood from an occasion when he came down to Lynchburg and was present when Rodas bought weed from Wood.
Anthony Anderson, one of Soto Bonilla’s defense attorneys, tried to ask if Hernandez found out the killing was done for personal reasons and not to take Wood’s “drug business” away. Because of rules regarding hearsay in court, Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Nance was able to stop that line of questioning.
In Rodas’ trial last year, Nance said Rodas and Coreas-Ventura were trying to take that business away from Wood and showed evidence Wood and Rodas had threatened each other.
Other expert witnesses in the Wood case have said among members of MS-13, respect is important and someone who threatens or embarrasses a member could be harmed or killed.
Hernandez said a “chavala” is a term meant to be used for individuals that are more along the lines of a member of the Crips, Bloods or the 18th Street gang, a rival to MS-13.
Soto Bonilla’s trial will continue today.
Rachel Mahoney covers courts for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5554.