The criminal trial for a second group of men charged with murder and other crimes allegedly linked to MS-13 activity will take place in Santa Barbara Superior Court.

Two trials, involving five defendants each, are planned for the case after court administrators determined — even before the COVID-19 crisis — that one North County courtroom couldn’t accommodate all the participants.

Court administrators explored empty retail buildings and public facilities, but ruled them out for various reasons, including expense.

That will mean holding two trials, with Santa Maria Judge John McGregor continuing to preside over one trial with five of the defendants.

McGregor has handled the case since the defendants were first arrested in 2016.

The 10 defendants awaiting trial have been charged with numerous felony crimes, including 10 murders, 14 counts of conspiracy to commit murder, and more.

Prosecutors allege they have ties to the ruthless La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a gang founded in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and consisting primarily of Salvadoran immigrants.

Initially arrested in March 2016 as part of Operation Matador, the defendants later were indicted by a Santa Barbara County criminal grand jury.

The 10 have been charged with the killings of Oscar Joaquin, 17; Ulises Garcia-Mendez, 17; Michel Raygoza Hernandez, 24; Modesto Melendez, 25; Brayan Mejia Molina, 18; Augustin Jamie Montano-Barajas, 29; Javier Murillo-Sanchez, 23; Abrahan Rojas Najera, 21; Aaron Hernandez Sanchez, 23; and Donacio Morales Suarez (Alexis Morales), 25.

While most of the killings occurred in 2015 and early 2016, one dates back to 2013, according to the criminal indictment.

Since the trials will overlap and are expected to each last approximately 12 months. a separate judge, courtroom, prosecuting team and court staff, will be needed.

“I wish that the situation was different than it is,” McGregor said.

On Friday, McGregor announced that his Santa Barbara-based colleague, Judge Michael Carrozzo, will preside over the second trial, which will be held in Santa Barbara.

It’s not clear if potential jurors would come from the North County or the South Coast. Typically, Santa Maria trials have a jury pool of residents from the North County while Santa Barbara trials use South Coast residents.

Trial Group 2 defendants and attorneys were ordered to show up at Carrozzo’s court on Sept. 10 for their next hearing.

That trial has been set to start Oct. 12, but McGregor said any changes would be up to Carrozzo. It appeared the date had been vacated already.

The second group and their attorneys are José Narciso Escobar Hernandez, represented by Meghan Behrens of Santa Barbara; José Balmore Saravia Lainez, with Ron Bobo of Pismo Beach; José Ricardo Lainez, with Billy Redell of Santa Maria; José Juan Sanchez Torres, with Jeff Chambliss of Santa Barbara; and Olvin Serrano, with William Davis of Santa Maria.

McGregor has spent August sorting through hundreds of potential jurors, many of whom declared financial hardships since the trial likely will last a year.

The remaining potential jurors have filled out questionnaires designed to ease the voir dire process and have been instructed that they will be notifed when to return again.

While preliminary jury selection for this case is taking place at the Santa Maria Fairpark, the trial is expected to be held in Santa Maria Department 8, McGregor’s regular courtroom.

The first group set to stand trial would be defendants Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, represented by Adrian Andrade of Santa Maria; Tranquilino Robles Morales, with Andrew Jennings of Santa Maria; Luis Mejia Orellana, with Chris Ames of Lompoc; Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres, with Stephen Dunkle of Santa Maria; and Juan Carlos Serrano Urbina, with Steve Balash.

Two sets of prosecuting attorneys from the District Attorney’s Office, also have been assigned with Ann Bramsen and Peter Telesca handling Trial Group One while Kelly Duncan and Lynmarc Jenkins will be on Trial Group 2.

In other matters Friday, McGregor ruled that the grand jury transcripts should remain sealed for now.

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

A stylized hawk's head on a red background

Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at