Marc McNeal was just finishing a hike in the Frederick Watershed at about 6 p.m. when another hiker walked up to his truck and asked for help.
A chief with the United Steam Fire Engine Co., McNeal is always ready to lend a hand, but he quickly realized the severity of the situation when the stranger told him what he had found just a few hundred yards up the trail.
“He stated that he observed some bones that he thought may be human,” McNeal said, responding to The Frederick News-Post‘s questions by email.
Determined to get to the bottom of the bizarre discovery, McNeal followed the man about a quarter-mile up the trail from a parking area off Gambrill Park Road near Hamburg Road. From there, the two men made their way about 75 feet off the unmarked trail to find what McNeal described as a hole in the dirt.
Careful not to infringe too far on the site, the fire chief found signs that an animal had recently uncovered what appeared to be a shallow grave.
“Again, neither of us disturbed the area; however, you could see one of the bones that was exposed was definitely a human leg bone,” McNeal said. “There was what appeared to be pants and a belt that were partially visible in the hole, as well.”
A few minutes later, McNeal was back at the parking area, climbing into his truck to key his radio.
“Chief 3 to Frederick on the admin [channel],” McNeal’s voice cuts in at 6:12 p.m. in recordings obtained through a records request by The Frederick News-Post. “… Is it possible for you to have a patrol deputy give me a call on my cellphone for the area of Gambrill Park Road near Hamburg Road?”
Less than a minute later, a Frederick County sheriff’s deputy was headed up the mountain, followed quickly by a supervisor at 7:05 p.m.
While Frederick County is not immune to such grisly discoveries, the implication that a homicide victim was found in so secluded an area was unusual enough to bring in additional manpower.
A Maryland Natural Resources police officer arrived at the command post at 8 p.m., followed in rapid succession by Frederick police and forensic experts from the sheriff’s office, city police and, eventually, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, according to the records obtained by the News-Post.
Within three months, six men were named in an indictment filed in Frederick County Circuit Court charging them with the murder of the man found in the woods that day, 37-year-old Silver Spring resident Victor Antonio Turcios-Valle.
Even though only one of the men had direct ties to Frederick, all six men were well-known to law enforcement agencies across the region through their suspected involvement in MS-13, one of the most violent and prolific criminal street gangs in the country.
In order to protect the integrity of the investigation, The Frederick News-Post agreed not to publish the names of anyone not yet in police custody, but only one of the six men remained on the loose as of Saturday.
Authorities now believe that man, Oscar Armando Sorto-Romero, is well aware of their efforts to bring him in.
Sorto-Romero, who turned 19 years old on Thursday, stands 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs approximately 145 pounds with brown hair and green eyes, according to a wanted bulletin provided by the U.S. Marshals Service this week.
His last known address was an apartment complex in the 14200 block of Hampshire West Court in Silver Spring, but that address dates back to a separate arrest warrant filed against Sorto-Romero in June 2017.
“We believe he’s still in the United States. He may still be in Maryland, but we just can’t be certain because he’s definitely on the run,” said Rob Fernandez, commander of the Marshals Service’s Capital Area Regional Fugitive Force.
“We’re following up on a multitude of leads, but we need the public’s help,” Fernandez said.
Sorto-Romero was also wanted for an attempted murder and assault committed by several suspected MS-13 members in Wheaton Regional Park on June 14, 2017, according to a warrant filed by the Montgomery County division of the Maryland-National Capital Park Police.
In that case, a group of at least 15 MS-13 members beat and threatened to kill two men in a park bathroom after the other two men were confronted about their suspected ties to a rival gang, court documents state.
Finally, Sorto-Romero is wanted for an armed robbery by Montgomery County police, according to Fernandez, but no court records or warrants appeared for that crime in an online search of state court records Saturday.
When the White House held a formal briefing Tuesday on MS-13 and immigration policy, Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins was one of three sheriffs invited to sit in with the president, congressional leaders, U.S. Department of Justice employees, Homeland Security experts and others.
While Jenkins did not have the opportunity to address the gathering, he said he believes he was invited as recognition of the county’s efforts to address the threat posed by the violent street gang.
Jenkins said he agreed “1,000 percent” with President Donald Trump’s main talking points regarding the need for tougher restrictions to prevent identified gang members from entering the United States.
“As much as it might sound like it’s out there, I think we should treat MS-13 like the international terrorist organization that they are,” Jenkins said. “… Their goal is to come here and commit crimes that cause terror in our communities, so why don’t we designate them as an international terrorist organization like ISIS and Al Qaida?”
Jenkins also supported Trump’s claims during Tuesday’s meeting that the country’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals provision — commonly referred to as DACA — has acted as a de facto recruitment network for MS-13.
“Many are now hardcore adult gang members … and we’re seeing that locally,” Jenkins said, echoing arguments put forth by Trump during Tuesday’s meeting. “A lot of our serious criminals are here protected under the DACA provision.”
Critics of the Trump administration have presented opposing arguments regarding the incarceration rates and crime attributed to DACA recipients in the ongoing debate over U.S. immigration policy.
Jenkins declined to provide details of any specific cases in Frederick County involving DACA recipients charged or convicted of violent crimes.
“We’ve got dozens [of cases],” the sheriff said. “I can’t sit here, off the top of my head, that would be impossible, but I would say dozens of cases.”
It was not immediately clear whether Sorto-Romero or any of his co-defendants were beneficiaries of the DACA provision as of Saturday, but Fernandez said the U.S. Marshals Service does believe Sorto-Romero was in the country illegaly.
Jenkins did not specifically address the Turcios-Valle murder during his conversations with other officials after Tuesday’s meeting, but similar cases from around the country were brought up.
During his remarks, Acting Assistant Attorney General John P. Cronan, of the DOJ’s Criminal Division, referenced killings in which MS-13 members murdered suspected rivals and buried them in shallow graves elsewhere in the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
Cronan also provided photos of gruesome crime scenes attributed to the gang to back up each case.
“One of their mottos is ‘mata, viola, controla,’ which means, ‘kill, rape, control,’” Cronan said during Tuesday’s meeting. “And Mr. President, it is a motto that MS-13 lives by.”
Turcios-Valle was also killed for his perceived ties to a rival gang, according to previous stories published by The Frederick News-Post.
Investigators believe Turcios-Valle was drunk when several MS-13 members approached him near a laundromat in Montgomery County sometime just prior to his being reported missing April 2, said Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith.
Under the pretense of giving him a ride home, the gang members drove Turcios-Valle to the area of Gambrill Park Road, took him into the woods and shot him before burying his body in the grave later discovered by the hiker, Smith told the News-Post previously.
Turcios-Valle was identified by tattoos found on remaining skin fragments as well as the comparison of DNA, according to the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office.
Two of Sorto-Romero’s co-defendants, Darwin Alberto Arias-Meijia, 25, of Greenbelt, and Carlos Javier Hernandez Diaz, 24, of Silver Spring, were taken into custody shortly before the indictment for Turcios-Valle’s death was unsealed in Frederick County Circuit Court on Sept. 19.
Luis Fernando Cruz Rodriguez, 20, of Frederick, was arrested that same afternoon and appeared with Rivas-Aldana and Arias-Meijia at bail review hearings that week. All three men were denied bail.
A fourth suspect, 22-year-old Silver Spring resident Denis Aristides Rivas-Aldana, was arrested Sept. 6 on two unrelated cases involving charges of attempted first-degree murder and first-degree assault and was already being held without bail in the Montgomery County Detention Center.
Jose Daniel Joya-Parada, a 16-year-old Silver Spring resident, was identified as a fifth suspect in Turcios-Valle’s death in the September indictment.
Joya-Parada was originally believed involved in the same attempted murder case Sorto-Romero is wanted for in Wheaton and was arrested in July, according to court records. Montgomery County prosecutors eventually dropped those charges in December, but not before a warrant was served charging Joya-Parada with Turcios-Valle’s death in October, the records state.
Joya-Parada remained in the Frederick County Adult Detention Center without bail as of Saturday, court records indicate.
The sheriff’s office’s investigation into Turcios-Valle’s death remained open as of Saturday, but, due to his ties to Silver Spring as well as his immigration status, the U.S. Marshals Service was taking the lead in the hunt for Sorto-Romero, according to Fernandez.
“We’re eager to apprehend him before he gets out of the country, if that’s his goal, or before he hurts anyone else,” Fernandez said.
While residents were cautioned that Sorto-Romero was believed to be armed and dangerous, Fernandez urged residents to keep an eye out for the fugitive and to immediately report any sightings to either the marshals service or local police.
“The security for our community is not just the responsibility of law enforcement,” Fernandez said. “People need to be aware and take some action if they see him, or if they have information, they need to call us and let us know.”