Waking up early because they worked in broccoli fields, the young men seemingly led normal lives — except for the fact that they hunted and executed rival and perceived rival gang members.
They led such normal lives that the police wiretap operations actually paused for hours overnight because members slept, a bit of a surprise for law enforcement officers used to tracking methamphetamine-fueled criminals with erratic sleeping schedules.
After the final defendants’ sentencing, two detectives and a top prosecutor spoke about the effort to end the terror imposed by members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, in Santa Barbara County. The law enforcement officers have worked under the umbrella of a broad court-issued gag order that had shielded many details about the killings.
“They hunted, targeted and executed them either because they thought they had 18th Street (gang) ties or because they were walking in their territory and no other reason than that,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen said.
“That’s what was so hard to understand for us,” said Michael Huffman, formerly with the Santa Maria Police Department and now an investigator for the District Attorney’s Office. “There was no provocation. It was simply because they perceived this.”
The criminal defendants in the case were linked to 10 homicides and 14 attempted killings in the Santa Maria Valley and Oxnard by the time they were arrested in 2016. More than once, they committed double killings.
MS-13 members weren’t allowed to use drugs or drink alcohol, again quite different from other local gangs, which have multiple generations — up to four — from families that have claimed membership. MS-13 members also don’t sport visible tattoos or clothing typically associated with the gang life.
“They’re very disciplined,” Bramsen said, noting that a member posting as a woman on Facebook began flirting with one victim in January 2015 and carried out the execution in May 2015. “The planning, and the organizations and the restraint until the right moment.”
As killings occurred, police investigated each homicide but say the men ultimately arrested didn’t initially stand out to law enforcement officers.
So, how did they tie the defendants to the crime spree?
“Little tiny pieces of puzzles that were put together, and then the wiretap is what ultimately put everything together for us,” Bramsen said.
Huffman assembled a list of possible suspects from other cases through the years. The extreme violence of each killing also ended up being a strong signature.
“These weren’t wild shots,” Bramsen said, adding that in some instances police found vehicle windows with tiny holes made as the defendants shot victims multiple times.
“Their goal was to execute. It wasn’t to gang bang and let people know MS was here,” Santa Maria police Sgt. Scott Casey said.
As the delicate investigation heated up, a cloak of secrecy existed even in the Police Department as a precaution.
“We had an idea but we didn’t really know who was all involved. It wasn’t until we got up on the wiretap that were able to put some faces to names and identify people. We didn’t know who we were looking for,” Huffman said.
Wiretap operations began when police had the names of two likely suspects in the string of killings, allowing them to begin monitoring communications in hopes of learning others.
“We knew it was more than two. We knew it was a group of people but we didn’t know who they were,” Bramsen said.
As the wiretap operation continued, investigators had to balance collecting enough evidence against defendants to prove a criminal case with not wanting to pull the plug too soon.
“We had people dying,” Bramsen said. “We had a double murder four days before the wire went live. We had people dying every couple weeks and nothing to go on. We had to do something to stop the violence.”
Investigators worked backward once they determined names and phone numbers. Cellphone location data helped pinpoint defendants near the scene of killings. Ballistics matched guns to some shootings.
“It was a very difficult investigation, and it’s really incredible that they were able to put all the pieces together like they did,” Bramsen said.
One defendant unwittingly provided a helpful roster by posting a rap video on YouTube spelling out the SMLS clique’s membership.
The criminal trials — two occurred because of the number of participants and no facility to handle the crowd — finally neared along with a pandemic that added another year to the waiting.
In the Santa Maria trial, prosecutors had to reschedule 200 witnesses five weeks in a row because COVID-related delays, Bramsen said.
“Everything you never could have predicted happened,” Bramsen said. “But despite that we were able to run the two trials and have two different juries see it basically the same way — find them guilty.”
Since the takedown with mass arrests on March 3, 2016, the Santa Maria MS-13 clique has been “disrupted big time,” according to Santa Maria police detectives who led the investigation.
“They’re not going away, that’s the bottom line. Just like other gangs you can’t erradicate them. Let’s say they’re suppressed right now,” Casey said.
Traditionally, MS-13 doesn’t give up territory, so law enforcement officers expect the Santa Maria Little Salvy clique will re-establish or form a new clique at some point.
“We definitely put a large large dent in this clique,” Casey said, estimating the SMLS clique likely has less than five members along California’s coast.
— 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.