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Friday, February 15 , 2019, 4:36 pm | Mostly Cloudy 55º


MS-13 Murder-Conspiracy Defendants Ordered Back to Santa Maria Court In July

A Santa Barbara County Superior Court hearing for 15 of 16 defendants allegedly linked to a violent international street gang reportedly responsible for terrorizing Santa Maria hit a wrinkle Friday when one defendant refused to waive time for a speedy preliminary hearing. 

But after a short break, Judge John McGregor granted an oral motion from another defense attorney, Steve Balash, who noted he had recently joined the case and needed more time.

The case involves defendants allegedly connected to the MS-13 gang, which authorities contend was responsible for a string of violence in the city since last year. 

The proceedings came to a temporary halt after defendant Tranquilino Robles Morales, 28,who is represented by Adrian Galvan, surprised the court by declining to waive time, although earlier defendants had done so.

When the hearing resumed, Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen noted the large amount of discovery awaiting Balash and other attorneys. 

“Your honor, to date we have 48 separate disks that have been provided to most defense counsel, we have almost 6,000 pages of discovery to date, hundreds and hundreds of hours of recordings, 95-plus percent of which are in Spanish,”​ Bramsen said.

Those recordings have been been sent to court interpreters for transcription and translation, she added.

“But due to the volume, the delay has been significant,” Bramsen said. “I don’t expect to have them back for another approximately 60 days.” 

Balash is newly appointed to the case, representing Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano, 30, after the Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office determined it had a conflict and had to step aside.

“Just to be clear, Mr. Balash are you saying that you don’t believe you can be ready for a preliminary hearing until August?” Bramsen asked, and Balash answered affirmatively.

The judge granted the oral motion for an additional 60 days.

“So I’m making a finding of good cause to continue the prelim — good cause being for one is good cause for all,” McGregor said. 

He ordered the defendants, who remain in jail custody, to return to court July 22 for the setting of a preliminary hearing date. 

To accommodate the large number of defendants and defense attorneys, the matters were heard in small groups. 

The case also was temporarily relocated to a downstairs courtroom with a larger security room so defendants could remain behind glass windows with their attorneys and court translators.

Other defendants are: Jose Balmore Lainez Saravia, 31; Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, 24; Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, 27; Jose Narcisco Escobar Hernandez, 25; Luis Mejia Orellana, 22; Olvin Serrano, 30; Ezequiel Rivera Escalante, 30; Enedina Tomas, 33; Mayra Ortega; Jose Juan Torres Sanchez; Rafael Castro Lainez, 30; Marcos Sanchez Torres, 21; and Jose Mejia Orellano, 23.

The defendants were taken into custody as part of the Santa Maria Police Department-led Operation Matador on March 3, with arrests made in Santa Maria, Oxnard, Bakersfield and Ohio.

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. 

Meanwhile, the 16th defendant, Jose Bonilla-Mejia, remains in Ohio, where he was arrested and is fighting extradition to California.

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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