Thirteen of 16 defendants arrested in a sweep targeting the violent MS-13 gang face exceptionally high bail amounts as the criminal complaint filed Friday spelled out more details of the alleged conspiracy to commit murder.
The arraignment hearing before Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Patricia Kelly was continued until March 18. None of the defendants entered pleas to the charges, which include conspiracy to commit murder and refers to six unnamed men as victims.
Bail for the bulk of the defendants was set at $9 million each, while bail for some others remained at $3 million or $1 million.
The court appearance, with most defendants kept behind glass windows in the courtroom, came a day after the men and women were taken into custody in a massive law enforcement effort dubbed “Operation Matador,” led by the Santa Maria Police Department.
Before dawn Thursday, some 150 law enforcement officers from multiple agencies served search and arrest warrants at a dozen locations in Santa Maria, Bakersfield, Oxnard and Ohio in connection with a string of recetn shootings in Santa Maria.
While police said 15 had been arrested, a 16th defendant was added by the time the first amended complaint was filed Friday morning.
The criminal complaint refers to the victims as John Doe No. 1 through John Doe No. 6, and prosecutors declined to name them.
“The purpose is to ensure confidentiality and security,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen said outside the courtroom.
She added it is too soon to say whether the prosecution team will present the case to a criminal grand jury in secret as they did in other recent gang-related cases with multiple defendants.
The other option is a preliminary hearing, which is conducted in open court, during which a judge rules whether there is enough evidence for the defendants to stand trial.
So far, none of the men or women has been charged with murder.
“I know that the Police Department is working diligently on all of the murders that occurred, and they are putting together cases,” Bramsen said. “Once their investigation is done, the District Attorney’s Office will review those cases and make a decision on whether there is enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
“I don’t have a timetable on that. It just depends on when their investigation is finished.”
In the first two counts, the complaint says 12 of the defendants conspired to commit murder between Dec. 2, 2015, and Feb. 12, 2016, by sending pictures over Facebook, providing information regarding the victim’s schedule, conducting surveillance of John Doe No. 1, being armed with a firearm, and waiting at the victim’s home.
Those counts also include a special allegation the actions involved criminal street gang activity.
Four other conspiracy-to-commit-murder counts for John Does No. 3, No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 referred to incidents between Feb. 13 and March 2, and involved driving to Oxnard from Santa Maria along with claiming gun involvement.
At a Thursday afternoon press conference about the case, Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin said investigators likely prevented additional murders in recent weeks.
MS-13 — also known as Mara Salvatrucha — is an international gang notorious for its violence, the chief said. The gang reportedly has 50,000 members in 40 states.
Those arrested are from Honduras and El Salvador, according to Martin.
Other charges faced by various defendants include criminal street gang conspiracy and conspiracy to commit street terrorism.
Friday’s hearing primarily involved logistics — appointing an attorney to represent each defendant, many of whom also relied court interpreters to understand what was occurring.
With many of the defendants having bail as high as $9 million, the judge agreed to defense attorneys’ requests to hold a hearing on whether to release them on their own recognizance or lower the bail.
Another defendant is expected to appear in court Monday morning.
The defendant arrested in Ohio will have to be extradited to Santa Barbara County and could fight the transfer.
“I don’t know at this time how long the extradition process will take,” Bramsen said, adding that she isn’t aware of the defendant’s stance regarding extradition.
Some of the defendants are related, but Bramsen declined to outline their family connections.
Specifically, Jose Balmore Lain Saravia, 31; Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, 24; Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres, 21; Tranquilino Robles Morales, 28;Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, 27; Jose Narcisco Escobar Hernandez, 25; Luis Mejia Orellana, 22; and Juan Carlos Serrano Urbina, 27, are charged with six counts of conspiracy to commit murder, with the criminal street gang special allegation on each count.
They also are charged with criminal street gang conspiracy.
In addition, Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez is charged with conspiracy to be an active participant in a criminal street gang.
Jose Mejia Orellano, 23, is charged with four counts of conspiracy to commit murder, with the criminal street gang special allegation on each count. He is also charged with conspiracy to commit active participation in a criminal street gang and criminal street gang conspiracy.
Jose Bonilla Mejia, 27; Enedina Tomas, 33; Olvin Serrano, 30 and Jose Juan Torres Sanchez, 26, are charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit murder, with the criminal street gang special allegation on each count. Mejia and Serrano are also charged with criminal street gang conspiracy.
Rafael Castro Lainez, 30, and Ezequiel Escalante-Rivera, 30, are charged with conspiracy to commit active participation in a criminal street gang, and criminal street gang conspiracy.
Finally, Mayra Ortega, 24, is charged with possession of a concealed firearm with the criminal street gang penalty provision. Her bail is set at $135,000.
After objections from defense attorneys in chambers, the judge banned media from taking photos and videos of the proceeding Friday.
However, Kelly said she would order that the defendants appear in civilian clothing for the next hearing and could allow photos and videos at that time.
The Santa Maria Court Complex is familiar with multiple defendant cases, where the challenge involves aligning schedules for court appearance involving multiple attorneys and interpreters, Bramsen said.
“It’s just mostly a coordination and space issue. But we’ve done it a couple of times before so I don’t expect this one to be any different,” Bramsen added.