A 22-year-old man who had been lured to Maryland from New Jersey — expecting to rendezvous with a woman after an exchange of Facebook messages — was killed and buried in a shallow grave in Montgomery County, according to police documents filed in court Wednesday.
The killing, which took place in October, appears to be related to the MS-13 street gang, authorities said. The gang has made a resurgence in the Washington area over the past year.
Two suspects in the case — Neris Moreno, 19, and Jackelin Leiba-Esperanza, 16, who is being charged as an adult — made first appearances in Montgomery District Court on Wednesday. They were jailed Tuesday and charged with first-degree murder in the death of Jordy Mejia.
“This young man’s body was found in the woods, desiccated in a shallow grave,” Assistant State’s Attorney Peter Larson said in court. “He was found by some hikers off away from the main road, and left and died there.”
Larson urged Judge Margaret Schweitzer to hold the two suspects on no-bond status, saying they are extreme flight risks because they are recent immigrants and are in the country illegally. He also said they posed a danger to the community and are in danger themselves.
“MS-13 has a history of seeking action against co-defendants and witnesses,” Larson said, adding that the suspects would be safer in jail.
The court hearing Wednesday addressed only the bond status of Moreno and Leiba-Esperanza and aired little information about their version of the alleged events. John Lavigne, a public defender who represented them, said the case at this point “is at best very circumstantial.”
Speaking specifically about Leiba-Esperanza, Lavigne said that the girl and her mother had fled violence in El Salvador. The mother, who was in court Wednesday, declined to comment afterward, as did the family of Moreno.
Court records do not say how Mejia was killed.
His body was discovered Nov. 12 near Game Preserve Road in the Gaithersburg area. Police initially could not identify the remains, but they keyed in on a distinctive, red-and-black-patterned long-sleeve shirt found on the body.
They publicized images of the shirt and were contacted by police in Guttenberg, N.J., who said the shirt matched one in a missing person case that they were working on. A fingerprint match was made to Jordy Mejia, according to Maryland court records.
Detectives began looking at Mejia’s Facebook account and found messages with a woman named Shaila Smith, according to charging documents. The records showed Mejia discussing traveling to Maryland on Oct. 15 to meet her.
That same day, according to Mejia’s Facebook account, Mejia arrived in the Germantown area, took a picture of himself next to a street sign, and sent the image to the person he believed to be Smith, according to court records.
In the image, according to charging documents, Mejia appeared to be wearing the distinctive shirt. The person claiming to be Smith wrote a return message and gave him a local phone number to call.
Investigators obtained phone records for that number and began reviewing other incoming calls to the number, according to court records.
That led them to a cellphone for Moreno in New Jersey, police allege. Records for the cell number that police say is tied to Moreno showed the phone traveled to Maryland and back to New Jersey around the time of the killing, court records show.
More recently, investigators say they learned Moreno had returned to Maryland and was in the Brentwood area. Undercover officers spotted him getting into a van with a woman, followed the van, and pulled it over.
Inside were Moreno and Leiba-Esperanza, police said.
When questioned, Moreno acknowledged that he had travelled to Maryland in October, according to Larson. Leiba-Esperanza said she had been dating Moreno for a few months and living with him in New Jersey, according to court records. She told detectives she had left audio messages, posing as “Shaila Smith,” on the victim’s phone at the request of Moreno, according to charging documents.