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Thursday, February 21 , 2019, 11:30 pm | Fair 44º


Multiple Defendants Plead Not Guilty in Santa Maria MS-13 Gang Murder Cases

One by one, 12 defendants pleaded not guilty and denied allegations Friday morning in a Santa Maria courtroom for a case connected to 10 slayings leading to 50 felony charges that authorities say were committed by members of a violent international criminal gang. 

Judge John McGregor presided over the arraignment hearing for the case stemming from the multiagency Operator Matador conducted in March 2016 and followed by criminal grand jury indictments in July 2016. Two defendants remaining in a smaller case with lesser charges were handled in a separate hearing.

For what’s believed to be the first time, the names of those allegedly killed in connection with the case were said aloud in court as a clerk read the charges faced by the 12 defendants, allegedly members of the MS-13 gang.

The defendants have been charged with the killings of Oscar Joaquin, 17; Brayan Mejia Molina, 18; Ulises Garcia-Mendez, 17; Modesto Melendez, 25; Michel Raygoza Hernandez, 24; Augustin Jamie Montano-Barajas, 29; Donacio Morales Suarez (Alexis Morales), 25; Javier Murillo-Sanchez, 23; Aaron Hernandez Sanchez, 23; and Abrahan Rojas Najera, 21.

While most of the slayings occurred in 2015 and early 2016, one dates back to 2013, according to the criminal indictment.

Additionally, the indictment alleges several conspiracies to commit murder and attempted murder involving 14 other potential victims referred to only by their initials. 

The defendants had previously entered not-guilty pleas to lesser charges weeks after being arrested in Operation Matador on March 3, 2016. That case became inactive after the grand jury indicted defendants on more serious charges.

The new case's lengthy list of charges, although they were lumped into smaller groups, took 15 minutes to read aloud in court.

Two attorneys who joined the case late, Jeff Chambliss, representing Jose Torres Sanchez, 28, and Andrew Jennings, representing Tranquilino Robles Morales, 32, balked at their clients entering pleas during Friday's hearing.

Chambliss said the grand jury transcripts alone total 4,000 pages while other discovery tops 28,000 pages featuring the Bates numbering system with 100,000 more unstamped pages. 

“I’m at an even more crunch predicament than Mr. Chambliss,” Jennings said. 

While Chambliss joined the case in September, Jennings took over from another attorney in October but received discovery in November.

Both attorneys objected to entering pleas, prompting the judge to enter them on behalf of the clients while noting the concerns. 

The voluminous discovery prompted the unusually long delay from the time of the indictment to entering pleas.

During the arraignment hearing, the defendants took the unusual step of waiving their time for a speedy trial through the end of 2018, a longer-than-normal delay also revealing the complexities of the case. 

In addition to the 50 counts, a number of charges include special allegations such as torture, street terrorism, lying in wait and more. 

The prosecution team was led by Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen, who was joined by Chief Deputy District Attorney Kelly Scott and Deputy District Attorney Tiffany Dix. 

Others charged in the case are: 

» Emedalio Mejia Bonilla, 29, who was extradited from Ohio and is represented by defense attorney Tom Allen.

» Luis Mejia Orellana, 24, represented by defense attorney Chris Ames.

» Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, 29, who is represented by defense attorney Adrian Andrade.

» Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, 26, represented by defense attorney William Redell.

» Jose Balmore Lainez Saravia, 33, represented by defense attorney Josh Webb. However, Redell stood in for Webb during Friday’s hearing.

» Marcos Sanchez Torres, 23, represented by defense attorney Stephen Dunkle.

» Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano, 29, represented by Steve Balash.

» Jose Narcisco Escobar Hernandez, 27, represented by defense attorney Michael Carty. However, Balash filled in for Friday’s hearing.

» Olvin Serrano, 32, represented by defense attorney Adam Perlman.

» Ezequiel Escalante Rivera, 32, who is represented by defense attorney Robert Bettencourt. 

In a related case, two other men, Rafael Lainez Castro and Jose Mejia Orellana, pleaded not guilty to lesser charges and denied the special allegations. Castro is represented by defense attorney Gary Dunlap while Orellana is represented by Harold Mesick.

All 14 defendants in both cases are scheduled to return to court March 16.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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