Pixel Tracker

Thursday, February 21 , 2019, 2:39 am | Fair 45º


Judge Keeps High Bail for MS-13 Defendants Accused of Murder Conspiracy

Preliminary hearing set for March 30 for 15 alleged members of violent international gang operating in Santa Maria

William K. Gamble explains why he needs to be removed from the case involving a group of alleged MS-13 gang members accused of murder conspiracy in connection with a string of killings and other violence in Santa Maria.
William K. Gamble explains why he needs to be removed from the case involving a group of alleged MS-13 gang members accused of murder conspiracy in connection with a string of killings and other violence in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully /Noozhawk photo)

Citing public safety and flight risk, a Santa Barbara County judge on Friday refused to reduce the $9 million bail for one of 15 defendants accused of participating in an international gang linked to killings and other violence in Santa Maria.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge James Iwasko handled the arraignment hearing in Santa Maria, dealing with the 15 defendants in small groups.

He accepted the not-guilty pleas, and ordered attorneys and defendants to return to court March 24 to assess readiness for a planned March 30 preliminary hearing.

The men and women were arrested in the months-long, multi-agency Operation Matador, led by the Santa Maria Police Department and undertaken March 3 in Santa Maria, Oxnard, Bakersfield and Ohio. 

While Friday’s hearing was mostly procedural, one defense attorney asked for lower bail for his client. 

Stephen Dunkle, who represents 21-year-old Marcos Sanchez Torres, sought a reduction of the $9 million bail, calling it “outrageously high.”

Tranquilino Robles Morales appeared in court Friday along with 14 other people accused of murder conspiracy in connection with a string of killings and other violence in Santa Maria. Click to view larger
Tranquilino Robles Morales appeared in court Friday along with 14 other people accused of murder conspiracy in connection with a string of killings and other violence in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully /Noozhawk photo)

His client was a hardworking field worker who has lived in the community for the past six years and apparently has no criminal record, Dunkle added. 

Dunkle also contended the bail was calculated incorrectly. 

But Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen argued against a reduction, referring to a detective’s declaration that spelled out in “great detail the plans of this defendant, along with the others, to kill six people over a period of a couple of months.”

The defendants reportedly are connected to the homicides and shootings where victims survived in recent months in Santa Maria. 

Most of the defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit murder along with special allegations.

Law enforcement officers have said that during the course of the  investigation, they halted six other murders. 

In opposing bail, Bramsen noted the seriousness of the offense and the fact the defendant faces multiple life sentences in convicted.

“The conduct in this case is very sophisticated,” Bramsen said. “The defendants had firearms, they surveiled their victims on multiple days, they were lying in wait to kill six people in a period of less than 60 days.

‘I have yet to yet to see a more dangerous group of people that caused a more significant risk to public safety,” Bramsen added. “Nine million dollars is a conservative amount when you look at the terror they were inflicting on our community just in that very short time.”

The judge agreed. 

“I do have a ultimate and grave concerns for public safety as to what’s been happening in this community,” Iwasko said.

With defendants facing “a long long, long prison sentence if convicted” and having ties to El Salvador, Iwasko expressed concern that the man would have incentive to flee before trial. 

Bail for most of the defendants has been set at $9 million or $3 million, with one lower. 

Other attorneys left open the possibility they will seek reduced bail at future hearings. 

Other defendants who entered pleas Friday are Jose Balmore Lainez Saravia, 31; Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, 24; Tranquilino Robles Morales, 28;  Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, 27; Jose Narciso Escobar Hernandez, 25; Luis Mejia Orellana, 22; Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano, 30; Olvin Serrano, 30; Ezequiel Rivera Escalante, 30; Enedina Tomas, 33; Mayra Ortega;  Rafael Castro Lainez, 30; and  Jose Mejia Orellano, 23.

The case appears to be on an especially fast track compared to many criminal cases involving felony charges where the preliminary hearing can occur months or even years after the crime.

None of the defendants waived time in the case, and under law they are entitled to a preliminary hearing within days of their arrest.

“I don’t think it’s particularly unusual,” Bramsen said after the hearing. “They have that right, and some defendants choose to exercise that, and we’ll accommodate them.”

In other matters, attorneys were formally appointed for defendants who had not been assigned one at an earlier hearing.

The large number of defendants requires an equal number of attorneys, with assignments complicated by avoiding assorted possible conflicts involving other cases and potential witnesses. To meet the need, attorneys from San Luis Obispo and southern Santa Barbara County have been appointed.

Meanwhile, the 16th defendant, Jose Bonilla-Mejia, remains in Ohio, where he was arrested and is fighting extradition to California. Local prosecutors are seeking a governor’s warrant, but the process can take a couple months. 

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.

Talk to Us!

Please take Noozhawk's audience survey to help us understand what you expect — and want — from us. It'll take you just a few minutes. Thank you!

Get Started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >