Five MS-13 gang members convicted of murder and other crimes will spend the rest of their lives in state prison after a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge handed down lengthy sentences — 313 years to life — for their roles in the cold, calculated killing spree that left nine people dead.
Judge John McGregor in Santa Maria also sentenced the men to multiple life terms without the possibility of parole during the all-day hearing Monday, having harsh words for the men linked to the killings and attempted killings of 23 people in Santa Maria and Oxnard in 2015 and 2016.
A jury returned multiple guilty verdicts last month for the trial that began with jury selection on Aug. 1.
McGregor handed down sentences for up to 41 charges, ordering most of the five to spend 313 years to life in state prison followed by six to nine life-without-parole sentences.
He noted that the case is “simply like no other” seen in his 42-year criminal law career, 19 of which have been as a judge.
“The pain inflicted on the families and the victims is immeasurable and irreparable,” McGregor said. “The loss of young lives, the emotional scarring of the survivors can’t be relieved by any sentence.
“The impact on the community, the fear caused by defendants’ actions was obvious throughout this case,” he added, blaming “a warped ideology” pitting defendants against neighbors who were rival or perceived rival gang members.
“The defendants’ actions were cold, calculated, showed a degree of sophistication and organization, and resulted in senseless violence that was repeated time and time and time and time again,” McGregor said.
“The interest of justice requires that the defendants are sentenced to the maximum sentence allowed by law. Such a sentence at least recognizes the pain inflicted by the defendants’ actions onto each and every victim and each and every survivor and their families.”
The defendants, their gang monikers, sentences and attorneys are:
» Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano (“Peligro”), 33, 313 years to life plus nine life-without-parole sentences, represented by Steve Balash
» Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres (“Silent”), 27, 313 years to life plus seven life-without-parole sentences, represented by Stephen Dunkle
» Tranquilino Robles Morales (“Bandit”), 37, 313 years to life plus six life-without-parole sentences, with attorney Andrew Jennings
» Luis Mejia Orellana (“Smiley”), 28, 313 years to live plus eight life-without-parole sentences, with attorney Chris Ames
» Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno (“Psycho”), 34, 288 years to life plus six life-without-parole sentences, represented by Adrian Andrade
They were among those arrested in March 2016 during the Santa Maria police-led Operation Matador and indicted months later by a county criminal grand jury.
The five defendants, plus others, were charged with killing nine men ranging in age from 17 to 29 in the Santa Maria Valley between May 2015 and January 2016.
Several family members of the men killed and victims whose lives changed due the defendants’ violence spoke during the sentencing hearing or submitted statements read by Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen as sounds of crying could be heard in the courtroom.
They shared about one victim’s signature smile, another’s big heart and a third victim’s enthusiasm and joy.
The mother of 17-year-old Ulises Garcia-Mendez said she remained “a mother full of sorrow” at the loss of her only son, adding she has prayed to God for justice.
“They don’t know how much damage they caused,” she said. “They destroyed my family. They destroyed half of my life.”
The father of victim 17-year-old Oscar Joaquin wrote he will miss out being a grandfather due to the killing of his son.
“I miss Oscar every single day,” he wrote.
“Oscar should still be here,” said Oscar’s mom, Rebekah Spicuglia, who organized a vigil in front of the court complex to spotlight youth violence. “Words fail utterly to describe his beautiful soul and the catastrophic loss for me and his family and our community here in Santa Maria.”
Videos and pictures displayed revealed the essence of his life, she added.
“If Oscar were still here this world would be a much better place,” she said wearing Oscar’s sweatshirt from UC Berkeley, her alma mater.
The father of 18-year-old Brayan Mejia Molina remembered him as “full of a lot of enthusiasm and joy.
“He didn’t deserve what they did to my baby,” the elder Molina wrote in a letter read in court. “He was a good boy.”
Brayan was killed on his father’s birthday.
“In spite of this I can’t hate you,” Molina added. “One cannot live with so much hate in their heart. May God forgive you.”
One shooting killed cousins Javier Murillo-Sanchez and Aaron Hernandez Sanchez, both 23.
“The pain that my family has through the past six years has been so immense,” the sister of Javier Sanchez said of the brutal murder of the brother she remembered as a “kind, brave, hard-working, handsome human being.”
The sentencing hearing occurred on the anniversary of 25-year-old Modesto Melendez’s killing, according to Bramsen, who also noted the murders of 29-year-old Augustin Jamie Montano-Barajas, 25-year-old Donacio Morales Suarez (Alexis Morales) and 21-year-old Abrahan Rojas Najera.
Bramsen and colleague Peter Telesca also provided information from victims who survived “defendants’ violent predatory attacks.”
One victim shot multiple times told about being rejected by his father after losing a leg and kidney amid other wounds, due to the defendant’s shooting that resulted in multiple surgeries.
Beyond the physical injuries, he also dealt with emotional and mental trauma.
“I am seen as worthless and lazy and incapable, and no one wants to hire me,” he wrote, adding that he works as a street vendor, is vulnerable to attack, feels less of a man and broke his prosthetic leg defending himself.
“My life will never be the same” he said. “The scars, trauma and missing leg will always be a reminder of that horrific night. In spite of all this, I still value my life and feel fortunate to be alive.”
McGregor also ordered the defendants to pay thousands of dollars in restittution, plus fines, and to register with the state as gang members.
Before the victim impact statements began, McGregor confirmed that one defendant had agreed to allow his attorney to appear remotely via Zoom after Balash confirmed he had tested positive for COVID-19.
McGregor also rejected a defense motion for a new trial Monday morning.
Meanwhile, a second trial for the case, involving three other defendants, will resume testimony Tuesday 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.