A defendant indicted on murder and other charges allegedly linked to violent international gang activity in the Santa Maria Valley has pleaded guilty in a federal MS-13 racketeering case in Ohio.

Jose Emedalio Bonilla-Mejia, 31, entered his plea, admitting three slayings, last month in the U.S. District Court’s Southern Ohio District and is expected to spend life in prison.

In February 2018, he was among 23 individuals charged in a superseding indictment and alleged to be members and associates of MS-13 in Columbus, Ohio.

The federal defendants were charged in a racketeering conspiracy that included five murders as well as attempted murder, extortion, money laundering, drug trafficking, assault, obstruction of justice, witness intimidation, weapons offenses and immigration-related violations, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Before the federal case, the defendant, referred to in local court records as Emedalio Mejia Bonilla, was among more than a dozen people arrested in Operation Matador, a Santa Maria police-led, multiagency operation launched on March 3, 2016.

Four months later, a Santa Barbara County Criminal Grand Jury handed down indictments in two cases with more than 50 felony charges stemming from 10 homicides, multiple attempted murders and other crimes in the Santa Maria area between 2013 and 2016.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen declined to comment about the changed plea in the federal case and its effect on the Santa Barbara County charges against him in the California case. However, the prosecuting team has requested to take the case off the calendar in a motion expected to be handled by the judge in mid-November, according to local court documents. 

Near the start of the local cases, Santa Barbara County Judge John McGregor issued a gag order restricting what prosecuting and defense attorneys say about the case outside the courtroom. 

Additionally, grand jury transcripts spelling out details of the allegations have been sealed since the start.

The criminal complaint stated that those allegedly killed by the 12 Santa Barbara County defendants were: 

» Michel Raygoza Hernandez, 24, who was gunned down in January 2013 in the 500 block of West Mill Street. 

» Modesto Melendez, 25, of Guadalupe, who was found dead in a car in May 2015 in the 400 block of West Williams Street.

» Oscar Daniel Joaquin, 17, of Santa Maria, who was killed in what police called a violent attack July 28, 2015, near Western Avenue and Barrett Street.

» Abrahan Rojas, 21, who was fatally wounded near West Cook and South Smith streets in October.

» Ulises Garcia Mendez, 17, who was fatally wounded in one of three shootings Nov. 20, 2015, that injured several others.

» Brayan Arturo Molina Mejia, 18, who was fatally shot shortly after 9:30 p.m. Dec. 4, 2015, in the 500 block of West Sonya Lane. 

» Cousins Aaron Sanchez-Hernandez and Javier Murillo-Sanchez, both 23, who were shot Jan. 12, 2016, near West Main Street and South Oakley Avenue.

» Agustin Jaime Montano-Barajas, 29, and Alexis Morales, 25, who were found with fatal gunshot wounds in a vehicle in the 100 block of South Elizabeth Street on Jan. 25, 2016.

Bonilla-Mejia initially was arrested in Ohio and later arrived in Santa Barbara County after being extradited to California. However, he was returned to Ohio in 2018 to face charges in the federal case as the Santa Maria case proceeded with plans for the trial to start in February 2020.

In the Ohio case, the man known by his gang moniker of Espia accepted responsibility for his role in the murders of three men in Ohio.

Those Ohio killings include the mid-2015 murder of Carlos Serrano-Ramos, a suspected rival gang member; the November 2015 murder of Wilson Villeda; and the December 2016 murder of Salvador Martinez-Diaz, a suspected rival gang member. All three of the slayings occurred in Columbus, Ohio.

Federal authorities say the killings often involved defendants using weapons such as machetes, knives and hammers to attack and beat their victims to death. 

As part of his plea, Bonilla-Mejia will serve life in prison without the possibility of release, according to federal prosecutors. 

At the time of the changed plea, U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman commended a number of federal and Ohio agencies involved in the investigation as well as the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office for their assistance with Bonilla-Mejia’s resolution.

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.