A police sergeant spent two days of a Santa Maria Superior Court trial testifying about the inner workings of a transnational criminal gang linked to multiple murders in the Santa Maria Valley.
Sgt. Scott Casey with the Santa Maria Police Department took the witness stand on Monday morning and continued Tuesday as the first person to testify in the trial of five men charged with crimes allegedly linked to Mara Salvatrucha, or the MS-13 gang.
The defendants were arrested in March 2016. They later were indicted by a Santa Barbara County Criminal Grand Jury in connection with 10 homicides, 14 attempted homicides and other crimes.
The five defendants, their gang monikers and their attorneys are: Luis Mejia Orellana (“Smiley”), represented by attorney Chris Ames; Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres (“Silent”) with attorney Stephen Dunkle; Tranquilino Robles Morales (“Bandit”), represented by attorney Andrew Jennings; Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano (“Peligro”) with attorney Steve Balash; and Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno (“Psycho”) with attorney Adrian Andrade.
Casey provided a rundown of MS-13’s structure, noting that the local group could be called a clique that answered to a regional organization dubbed a program.
Locally, the MS-13 clique goes by Santa Maria Little Salvy (sometimes spelled Salvi), or SMLS, he said, although it proved controversial because of a different clique in El Salvador using the same name. That led the Central Coast clique to become Santa Maria Little Salvy Locos Salvatruchos, shortened to SMLS’LS. They use the hand sign sybolizing horns.
The lengthy list of people mentioned included defendants and conspirators — some of whom have taken plea deals while others await a separate trial in Santa Barbara. A separate case for another defendant continues to make its way through court.
Brothers, cousins and an uncle along with girlfriends connect some of the participants, according to a flow chart displayed in court.
Text and verbal conversations, complete with rosters, helped police identify Little Salvy members, along with rap songs that included what Casey said included a salutation to the leader plus monikers of members.
In one exchange of messages, Serrano or Peligro revealed the membership to a contact in El Salvador, listing names, custody status and location of members mentioning his first.
“He’s the leader of the clique,” Casey said in response to the question about the significance of naming himself as the roster starts.
Of the “25 homeboys” named, most were in Santa Maria, but others were in Oxnard and Salinas. Another was in Ohio, the same place he was when he was arrested for the Santa Maria case and later taken into custody for a federal MS-13 homicide case.
At the time of the early 2016 chat, some members were locked up on the East Coast, in California and in El Salvador, Serrano said.
Messages show one defendant directly communicating with a runner, or leader, and discussions about sending him money, or the tax required of cliques.
Another set of messages refers to sending a Moneygram to a high-ranking gang member in El Salvador.
“The significance is Mr. Serrano is in direct communication with one of the runners and he is sending him money,” Casey said.
Another message referred to the addition of a member, identified as Membreno or Psycho, to the clique in Santa Maria
Often the messages between gang members involve code words.
“Some codes are more sophisticated than others, I guess you could say. Some are more basic,” Casey said.
During the opening statement, Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen told jurors that the MS-13 members referred to their victims as “chickens” and killings as “soup.”
Casey is expected to continue testifying on Wednesday morning in Judge John McGregor’s courtroom. Once Bramsen is done, the five defense attorneys will get a chance to question Casey.
Attorneys have estimated that the trial will last for about a year.