After eight months, dozens of witnesses and thousands of exhibits, jurors this week began hearing closing arguments in the Santa Maria Superior Court trial of five men charged with multiple murders and other crimes linked to a violent transnational gang.
The five men, allegedly members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, face 41 charges in connection with nine homicides and attempts to kill 14 other people in the Santa Maria Valley plus Oxnard between mid-2015 and early 2016.
The five defendants and their gang monikers are: Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano (“Peligro”), Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres (“Silent”), Luis Mejia Orellana (“Smiley”), Tranquilino Robles Morales (“Bandit”) and Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno (“Psycho”).
The defendants, plus several other people, were arrested in March 2016 under a Santa Maria Police Department-led operation dubbed Operation Matador and involving multiple law enforcement agencies.
Throughout the trial, Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen and colleague Peter Telesca methodically presented a case showing an organized group of MS-13 gang members from the clique dubbed Santa Maria Little Salvi and allegedly responsible for a spike in killings.
On Wednesday, she referred to the defendants as “a group of serial killers,” noting the extreme violence displayed in many of the deaths, including shooting at victims after they apparently fell to the ground.
Using code words such as chicken for victims and soup for killing, defendants exchanged messages about the intended targets, many being rival gang members or mistaken as having ties to rival gangs.
“We have seen throughout this trial pattern after pattern after pattern,” said Bramsen, who began her closing argument Tuesday afternoon and continued Wednesday. “The evidence is, quite frankly, overwhelming showing their guilt. The evidence buries them. The guns bury them.
“MS-13 was trying to take over the city. They’re claiming territory right outside this courthouse. They terrorized this community. They killed nine people and tried to kill 14 more. These defendants need accountability.
“It’s time for justice. It’s time for you, the jury, to apply the law to the facts that we know to be true, hold them accountable and find them guilty.”
Bramsen then listed the nine men killed. They are: Oscar Joaquin, 17, Brayan Mejia Molina, 18, Ulises Garcia-Mendez, 17, Modesto Melendez, 25, 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 police officers prevented the killings of six intended targets because of wiretap operations that intercepted phone calls about those plans, some of the other victims received significant injuries after being shot.
One man lost a leg and a kidney along with part of his liver and intestines, surviving only because the first officer to arrive at the scene previously worked as a paramedic for one man, Bramsen said.
“Hold them accountable and find them guilty — the first step in achieving justice,” Bramsen said.
Autopsies revealed that the victims received multiple gunshot wounds, 13 for one man. Several had “downshots,” or those after they had fallen to the ground.
“The intent to kill is overwhelming in each and every one of these murders,” Bramsen said. “They don’t just shoot once and run away. They shoot over and over and over, even when their victim is down.”
In the death of Joaquin, whose hand was amputated by a sharp weapon that also caused other significant injuries, jurors must decide whether the killing involved torture.
“His injuries are almost indescribable,” Bramsen said, later replaying a video captured by a neighbor.
Before and after each killing, the various members exchanged phone calls and messages, sometimes with congratulations for the latest fatal interaction, employing remarkable communication and coordination, Bramsen said.
Those messages plus online rap songs also provided a roster of the members making up MS-13’s Santa Maria Little Salvi clique.
Other searches centered on media stories about the various killings later attributed to the defendants.
Cellphone tracking data placed the defendants in the area of the crimes, Bramsen said. Multiple guns used in the killings were recovered from the defendants or otherwise linked to them, she added.
Various messages refer to victims in code, such as one saying, “Let’s turn the chicken into soup.”
Another message from a conspirator discussed a gun confiscated during a traffic stop in Oxnard, with one man fretting about the weapon because of “all the deaths those guns have on them.”
The start of wiretap operations — Jan. 29, 2018 — marked the beginning of the end for the defendants, Bramsen said.
She noted the intense efforts of Santa Maria police detectives working to identify and save intended targets, using a partial license plate number picked up on wiretap operations.
In contacting the registered owner, police learned that the vehicle recently had been sold, leaving them still frantically trying to reach the intended victims who lived in Guadalupe and were related to an earlier homicide victim. They eventually identified the intended targets and got them to safety.
Multiple witnesses called to testify about various shootings often gave similar descriptions of subjects.
“They reason why these defendants are so successful is because they look like normal people. They don’t have tattoos blasted on their face. They don’t wear baggy pants and big oversized shirts looking like gangsters,” Bramsen said.
She called witnesses to testify about killings in Virginia, Los Angeles and Ohio to help show the pattern of MS-13 gang activity.
“Their mission statement is to be largest most violent gang in the world,” Bramsen said. “And they worked hard to achieve that in this particular case.”
The final witnesses testified Monday in the trial, with the final for the prosecution being a police officer from El Salvador.
Four of the five defendants rested their cases without calling witnesses on Monday. Only attorney Chris Ames, representing Smiley, called a witness, a leasing agent to confirm his client lived on West Cook Street.
He was trying to counteract cellphone tracking date showing him in the area where homicides occurred, but it also led to identifying his roommate, who was later stopped in Salinas and found with a gun used in some of the Santa Maria killings.
The five defense attorneys — Ames along with Steve Balash, Stephen Dunkle, Andrew Jennings and Adrian Andrade — are expected to present their closing arguments starting Thursday morning in Judge John McGregor’s courtroom.
Once the case lands in their hands, jurors will have a lengthy list of charges and allegations to consider for each of the five defendants.
After delays because of the complexity of the case and then COVID-19, the case got back on track last summer with attorneys and the judge meeting in July to deal with trial-related motions.
Jury selection began Aug. 1, with hundreds of candidates summoned to the Santa Maria Fairpark. The trial’s predicted length, estimated to be a year, and large number of participants prompted court executives to plan for hundreds of jury candidates declaring hardship or otherwise being unable to serve.
Opening statements by prosecuting and defense attorneys in the Santa Maria trial occurred in mid-November.
Several other defendants in the two cases stemming from a Santa Barbara County Grand Jury indictment handed down in July 2016 took plea deals ahead of the trial.
At the time, the case included an older killing, but that 10th murder charge was dropped for legal technicalities, although the death of Michel Raygoza Hernandez, 24, in January 2013 helped connect the pattern of MS-13 killings during the trial.
When the case had 10 defendants and even before the COVID-19 pandemic, court officials determined that two trials would need to occur because of logistics.
That second trial, now with three defendants facing similar charges, is under way in a Santa Barbara courtroom.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.