A Sunday playing soccer in Guadalupe ended abruptly for Marino Melendez in February 2016 after detectives told him and a relative they had been targeted to be killed, he testified Monday in Santa Maria Superior Court.
Police detectives showed up at the park where he, his cousins and others were playing soccer, Melendez said, recalling being told he and his uncle, Santos Melendez, were at risk but wondering if it was a prank.
“Since I didn’t have any problems with anyone I couldn’t believe someone was looking to kill me,” Melendez said through a court interpreter under questioning from Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen.
While on the witness stand, Melendez sported a clear mask after Judge John McGregor earlier directed that option while denying a defense motion seeking maskless witnesses. Witness stands also have plastic on three sides as an added precaution due to the pandemic.
The testimony came during the trial in a Santa Maria courtroom for five men \accused of committing multiple murders and attempting to kill more than a dozen other people.
The discovery of the plot against Melendez occurred while law enforcement officers attempted to end a spike in homicides in the Santa Maria Valley. During a wiretap operation, police intercepted a conversation revealing the risk to Marino and Santos Melendez.
Operation Matador, led by the Santa Maria Police Department, involved several law enforcement agencies and led to multiple arrests in March 2016.
Months later, a Santa Barbara County Criminal Grand Jury handed down indictments that included the five defendants now on trial in Santa Maria.
The defendants allegedly have ties to the trans-national criminal gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
Another relative, Modesto Melendez, 25, of Guadalupe, was a victim of a May 2015 homicide linked to the defendants.
Marino Melendez and Santos Melendez were taken to the police station where they learned more about the threat, the witness said.
“I stayed with them so they would protect me,” said Marino Melendez, who immigrated from El Salvador in 2012 and worked in the fields picking lettuce and broccoli.
“Because I feared for my life. They had information they were looking for me,” he added.
Under questioning from defense attorney Adrian Andrade, Melendez confirmed he is in the witness protection program, where he was given money for various living expenses.
Later Monday, Officer Andy Brice, formerly a detective now working in the Traffic Bureau, spoke about the efforts to identify and locate the would-be victims referred to in wiretap conversations.
“It can’t be overstated how important it was to find these people,” Brice said, adding that police believed the targets they identified as Marino Melendez and Santos Melendez were in imminent danger.
As colleagues worked to identify the would-be victims, police Sgt. Felix Diaz said he recalled seeing their names and pictures in a social media messages among 180,000 pages obtained via a warrant.
Photos of the would-be targets had been exchanged among alleged conspirators in the case, along with messages allegedly using code words such as “soup” for killings.
“Later, when we fish them, we will make soup,” one message said about efforts to locate the Melendezes.
Before jurors entered the courtroom, the judge began the day considering a defense motion seeking to prohibit witnesses from wearing masks.
Andrade filed the motion contending face coverings would hide expressions of witnesses answering attorneys’ various questions.
But Bramsen said the mask didn’t interfere with the defense right to confront witnesses, and noted witnesses with full beards and mustaches or wearing sunglasses have testified in other cases.
Both the court and the prosecution acquired clear masks for consideration, with Marino Melendez sporting one while testifying.
McGregor also granted the prosecution team’s request that defendants briefly remove their face masks for identification purposes by the witness.
While issuing his ruling, McGregor noted the pandemic has meant responding to ever-changing conditions, and said all sides need to be flexible depending upon conditions.
“One thing we’ve learned during this time is that change is inevitable…” McGregor said, adding that it “boggles the mind” for long-time attorneys that the courts have extended emergency orders so many times.