A Santa Maria Superior Court jury on Thursday returned multiple guilty verdicts in the complex criminal case involving five men accused of killing nine people and attempting to kill more than a dozen others on behalf of the MS-13 criminal street gang.
Judge John McGregor’s clerks began reading the verdicts Thursday afternoon, filling about three hours as they detailed decisions regarding the dozens of charges against each defendant.
The five men faced 41 charges in connection with nine homicides and attempts to kill 14 other people in the Santa Maria Valley plus Oxnard between mid-2015 and early 2016. Charges linked to a 10th homicide from 2013 were dropped for legal reasons, but the case still came up in prosecution efforts to prove a pattern of criminal activity.
The defendants, their gang monikers and attorneys are:
» Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano (“Peligro”), 33, represented by Steve Balash
» Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres (“Silent”), 27, represented by Stephen Dunkle
» Luis Mejia Orellana (“Smiley”), 28, with attorney Chris Ames
» Tranquilino Robles Morales (“Bandit”), 37, with attorney Andrew Jennings
» Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno (“Psycho”), 34, represented by Adrian Andrade
The five defendants plus several other people were arrested in March 2016 under a Santa Maria Police Department-led effort dubbed Operation Matador and involving multiple law enforcement agencies.
A full courtroom including victims’ families and law enforcement officers sat silent as the clerks read the verdicts for each defendant found guilty of most charges.
In addition to first-degree murder, the defendants were found guilty of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and criminal street gang conspiracy.
Jurors also found several sentencing enhancements, including lying in wait and committing a crime for the benefit of MS-13 as true. An allegation of torture in one killing also was deemed true for defendant Orellana.
For a few defendants, the panel returned not guilty verdicts regarding some specific killings or attempts to kill some victims.
Throughout the trial, the prosecution — Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen and colleague Peter Telesca — presented evidence showing various text messages, phone calls, and social media activity.
Those conversations revealed the defendants used code words including calling their targets “chicken” and killings as “soup,” prosecutors said.
Bramsen pointed out the pattern of activity surrounding each killing blamed on defendants, all linked to the MS-13 criminal gang law enforcement officers said was intent on taking over the city.
“It’s time for justice. It’s time for you, the jury, to apply the law to the facts that we know to be true, hold them accountable and find them guilty,” Bramsen said during her closing argument, before listing the nine people murdered.
They are: Oscar Joaquin, 17, Brayan Mejia Molina, 18, Ulises Garcia-Mendez, 17, Modesto Melendez, 25, Augustin Jamie Montano-Barajas, 29, Donacio Morales Suarez (Alexis Morales), 25, Javier Murillo-Sanchez, 23, Aaron Hernandez Sanchez, 23, and Abrahan Rojas Najera, 21.
Many of the victims had ties to rival gangs in the area, prosecutors said.
The defendants belonged to the MS-13 criminal street gang clique dubbed Santa Maria Little Salvy, and members routinely communicated with and sent money to MS-13 leaders in El Salvador and the East Coast, according to trial testimony.
Most of the killings were notable for their extreme violence, which Bramsen said showed an “intent to kill” — multiple gunshot wounds, several double killings, and one victim’s hand was amputated.
As the killings added up, Santa Maria police received permission for wiretap operations intercepting phone calls that prevented at least six murders in the weeks before the March 3, 2016, arrest day.
Defense attorneys tried to create reasonable doubt by pointing out the lack of direct evidence connecting their clients to the killings.
They also contended the phone calls and messages did not prove their clients’ involvement in the crimes, and maintained the men communicated frequently because they were immigrants and in some cases relatives.
The panel began deliberating Monday, spending slightly more than three days before reaching the verdicts. However, their work is not done.
The judge told the panel that due to a new law, he had to divide some matters for the jurors to decide once verdicts had been reached.
“Ladies and gentleman of the jury. you put in so much time and effort in this case and I know that it’s been a challenge,” the judge told the panel. “Based on the law, I ruled that certain issues would be bifurcated and heard after the returns of the verdicts.”
Jurors will use the same evidence introduced during the trial as they determine the issues, the judge added.
Those matters related to criminal street gang activity and use of firearms.
Attorneys for the prosecution and defense are expected to present closing arguments for those matters on Monday before the jury begins another round on deliberations.
The defendants face life in prison without the possibility of parole after the prosecution decided early in the case not to seek the death penalty.
Months after their March 2016 arrests, a Santa Barbara County Criminal Grand Jury handed down indictments in the case. Transcripts from the grand jury proceedings have been sealed so the trial marked the first time much of the evidence became public.
Three additional defendants from the case currently are on trial in a Santa Barbara courtroom after officials determined, even before COVID-19, they would need two trials due a lack of a facility to fit the many participants.
Four other defendants from this case took plea deals ahead of trial. That includes one of the top-ranking members, who was in Ohio and linked to killings there in a federal case.
— 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.