A mix-up in the federal sweep against transnational street gang MS-13 led to the wrongful arrest of a 21-year-old on murder charges, court documents show.
Marvin Melgar, 21, was one of 56 alleged MS-13 gang members indicted on January 29.
He was arrested on his way to his job at a downtown Boston restaurant, and charged with the brutal murder of 16-year-old Christofer de la Cruz, a crime prosecutors no longer allege he committed.
After nearly a month behind bars, all of the charges against Melgar have been dropped.
“He’s got no criminal case,” said Melgar’s attorney, Peter Parker.
In an updated indictment released last week, Melgar’s name is no longer listed. Instead a new suspect, Rigoberto Mejia, was indicted for de la Cruz’s murder.
Mejia’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
According to testimony earlier last month from Scott Conley, a Chelsea Police detective and member of the federal task force investigating MS-13 in the Boston area, federal agents made a mistake.
“The fellow who was arrested initially because he was believed to be ‘Ninja’ as discussed with [the informant] in these draft transcripts, has actually been released, because it’s the wrong person?” asked attorney Elliot Weinstein during a March 9 detention hearing. His client Jario Perez, 24, is also facing charges for de la Cruz’s murder.
“I am aware of that,” Conley said.
“That’s at least one pretty dramatic mistake that government agents made in connection with this investigation, right?” Weinstein asked.
“It sure is,” Conley said.
Melgar was originally identified with the help of a paid federal informant whose car was equipped with recording devices and who provided rides to de la Cruz’s alleged killers, according to Conley.
The informant climbed the ranks within MS-13 during the course of his cooperation, according to Conley’s testimony.
During these interactions, the alleged MS-13 members and associates referred to each other only by their MS-13 aliases or nicknames. In one instance, a man prosecutors identify as Edwin Gonzalez, said that “Ninja” shot de la Cruz.
In the original indictment, Melgar was listed as “Ninja,” In the updated indictment, Mejia is identified as “Ninja” instead.
Though all of his criminal charges have been dropped, Melgar remains detained by Immigration Customs Enforcement.
Melgar will remain in custody pending a hearing from an immigration judge, according to ICE spokesperson Daniel Modricker. Melgar is considered a “Civil Enforcement Priority,” which include public safety risks, recent immigrants, and fugitives, according to a 2011 memo.
“In general, ICE’s enforcement resources are prioritized and primarily focused on those who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security,” Modricker said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Melgar’s family is upset that he remains behind bars.
“They just automatically put him in immigration once they realized they made a mistake,” said Stephanie Ruiz, Melgar’s stepsister. “He’s never been in a gang.”
Ruiz said her stepbrother came to the United States when he was 14 or 15 years old, and that he was once a captain of the soccer team at East Boston High. He’s married, and has an 8-month-old daughter.
He is originally from El Salvador, according to his attorney, Johanna M. Herrero.
Melgar’s bond hearing is set for Thursday.
A spokesperson from the U.S. Attorney’s Oritz’s office declined to comment for this story.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Melgar’s native country as Honduras. Boston.com regrets the error.