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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Southern District of Texas

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Friday, September 6, 2019

Final Defendant Gets Nearly 40 Years for Gruesome MS-13 Murder

HOUSTON – A 23-year-old El Salvadorian citizen has been ordered to federal prison for his role in a horrific gang slaying – the murder of a teenager in the Sam Houston National Forest in 2013, announced U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick. Jose Leonel Bonilla-Romero aka Jose Tupapa, who resided in Houston, pleaded guilty April 19, 2019.

Today, U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. handed Bonilla-Romero a 460-month term of imprisonment and ordered him to pay $13,000 in restitution. Not a U.S. citizen, he is expected to face removal proceedings following the sentence. If that occurs, the court ordered he must remain outside the country unless lawfully allowed to return. 

At the hearing, evidence established the crime was unusually heinous, cruel and degrading. The court also heard Bonilla-Romero’s conduct in detention was clearly inconsistent with acceptance of responsibility. He has continued his allegiance to the MS-13 gang and continued the use of gang signs.

The victim’s family also spoke today, mentioning how they took in Bonilla-Romero and let him share a room with the victim. They commented that they had given Bonilla-Romero support for two weeks, allowing him to share clothes with their son and giving him food. The victim’s father asked Bonilla-Romero to repent and accept God. As the judge pronounced the sentence, the victim’s mother wept in back of courtroom.  

In handing down the lengthy prison term, Judge Werlein noted Bonilla-Romero was the victim’s friend. However, he supplied him with alcohol and coerced him to come to the federal land in Huntsville, knowing he was going to be killed. The court further noted Bonilla-Romero even struck the first blow. He took a metal baseball bat, concealing it from the victim, and then hid behind him, rushed him and hit him with such force that he fractured his skull. 

At the time of his plea, Bonilla-Romero admitted to aiding and abetting two others in the murder of the 16-year-old victim Sept. 22, 2013.   

Those others - Cristian Alexander Zamora aka Christian Zamora, Alex or Pollo, 28, and Ricardo Leonel Campos Lara aka La Muerte, 24, both also of El Salvador, who resided in Huntsville and Houston, respectively -  previously pleaded guilty and are currently serving their federal prison sentences of 420 months each.

At the time of Bonilla-Romero’s hearing, the court heard that when officers found the mutilated victim’s body they observed gaping wounds on his knees and ankles with his head nearly severed from his body. The investigation led police to Zamora who ultimately confessed his role in the crime, implicating Romero and Lara. All three admitted to being members of the transnational MS-13 gang. They explained that a gang leader had ordered them to kill the victim, because he had supposedly cooperated with police in El Salvador, leading to the arrests of several MS-13 gang members. 

After Bonilla-Romero struck the first blow, the other two butchered the victim’s body with machetes. 

The medical examiner noted that the victim suffered deep cutting and chopping wounds, some all the way to the spinal cord with others causing partial decapitation.

Bonilla-Romero has been and will remain in custody pending transfer to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility to be determined in near future.

The FBI, Houston Police Department, Texas Rangers, Walker County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Forest Service conducted the investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Mark E. Donnelly and Casey MacDonald prosecuted the case.

Topic(s): 
Violent Crime
Component(s): 
Updated September 6, 2019