William K. Gamble explains why he needs to be removed from the case involving a group of alleged MS-13 gang members accused of murder conspiracy in connection with a string of killings and other violence in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully /Noozhawk photo)

Citing public safety and flight risk, a Santa Barbara County judge on Friday refused to reduce the $9 million bail for one of 15 defendants accused of participating in an international gang linked to killings and other violence in Santa Maria.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge James Iwasko handled the arraignment hearing in Santa Maria, dealing with the 15 defendants in small groups.

He accepted the not-guilty pleas, and ordered attorneys and defendants to return to court March 24 to assess readiness for a planned March 30 preliminary hearing.

The men and women were arrested in the months-long, multi-agency Operation Matador, led by the Santa Maria Police Department and undertaken March 3 in Santa Maria, Oxnard, Bakersfield and Ohio. 

While Friday’s hearing was mostly procedural, one defense attorney asked for lower bail for his client. 

Stephen Dunkle, who represents 21-year-old Marcos Sanchez Torres, sought a reduction of the $9 million bail, calling it “outrageously high.”

Tranquilino Robles Morales appeared in court Friday along with 14 other people accused of murder conspiracy in connection with a string of killings and other violence in Santa Maria.

Tranquilino Robles Morales appeared in court Friday along with 14 other people accused of murder conspiracy in connection with a string of killings and other violence in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully /Noozhawk photo)

His client was a hardworking field worker who has lived in the community for the past six years and apparently has no criminal record, Dunkle added. 

Dunkle also contended the bail was calculated incorrectly. 

But Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen argued against a reduction, referring to a detective’s declaration that spelled out in “great detail the plans of this defendant, along with the others, to kill six people over a period of a couple of months.”

The defendants reportedly are connected to the homicides and shootings where victims survived in recent months in Santa Maria. 

Most of the defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit murder along with special allegations.

Law enforcement officers have said that during the course of the  investigation, they halted six other murders. 

In opposing bail, Bramsen noted the seriousness of the offense and the fact the defendant faces multiple life sentences in convicted.

“The conduct in this case is very sophisticated,” Bramsen said. “The defendants had firearms, they surveiled their victims on multiple days, they were lying in wait to kill six people in a period of less than 60 days.

‘I have yet to yet to see a more dangerous group of people that caused a more significant risk to public safety,” Bramsen added. “Nine million dollars is a conservative amount when you look at the terror they were inflicting on our community just in that very short time.”

The judge agreed. 

“I do have a ultimate and grave concerns for public safety as to what’s been happening in this community,” Iwasko said.

With defendants facing “a long long, long prison sentence if convicted” and having ties to El Salvador, Iwasko expressed concern that the man would have incentive to flee before trial. 

Bail for most of the defendants has been set at $9 million or $3 million, with one lower. 

Other attorneys left open the possibility they will seek reduced bail at future hearings. 

Other defendants who entered pleas Friday are Jose Balmore Lainez Saravia, 31; Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, 24; Tranquilino Robles Morales, 28;  Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, 27; Jose Narciso Escobar Hernandez, 25; Luis Mejia Orellana, 22; Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano, 30; Olvin Serrano, 30; Ezequiel Rivera Escalante, 30; Enedina Tomas, 33; Mayra Ortega;  Rafael Castro Lainez, 30; and  Jose Mejia Orellano, 23.

The case appears to be on an especially fast track compared to many criminal cases involving felony charges where the preliminary hearing can occur months or even years after the crime.

None of the defendants waived time in the case, and under law they are entitled to a preliminary hearing within days of their arrest.

“I don’t think it’s particularly unusual,” Bramsen said after the hearing. “They have that right, and some defendants choose to exercise that, and we’ll accommodate them.”

In other matters, attorneys were formally appointed for defendants who had not been assigned one at an earlier hearing.

The large number of defendants requires an equal number of attorneys, with assignments complicated by avoiding assorted possible conflicts involving other cases and potential witnesses. To meet the need, attorneys from San Luis Obispo and southern Santa Barbara County have been appointed.

Meanwhile, the 16th defendant, Jose Bonilla-Mejia, remains in Ohio, where he was arrested and is fighting extradition to California. Local prosecutors are seeking a governor’s warrant, but the process can take a couple months. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.