A Santa Maria man charged in connection with killings in two states as a leader in the MS-13 criminal gang has been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of release.

Jose Bonilla-Mejia, 31, pleaded guilty in August 2019 to participating in a racketeering conspiracy and two counts of murder in aid of racketeering in the federal case from Ohio.

After several delays in the past few months, sentencing for that case occurred Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio.

Bonilla-Mejia, also known Emedalio Bonilla-Mejia, was among a dozen men facing trial in Santa Barbara County Superior Court in connection with 10 homicides and other crimes.

The gang member known by the moniker of Espia initially was arrested in Ohio in connection with the Santa Maria case, and later was returned to Ohio due to the federal charges. 

Bonilla-Mejia, who was born in El Salvador, participated in the 2015 murders of two men who were stabbed and beat to death before being buried in shallow graves in an Ohio park, according to federal officials.

Jose Bonilla-Mejia

Jose Bonilla-Mejia

He also played a role in planning a 2016 murder at an apartment complex in Columbus, authorities said.

“This is a violent transnational criminal organization that victimizes the citizens of the United States and Central America,” U.S. Attorney David M. DeVillers said in a statement. “Mr. Bonilla-Mejia personally participated in the murders and mutilations of victims with the purpose of sending a message from MS-13. 

“With this sentence, we are sending a message back. Mr. Bonilla-Mejia and many of his coconspirators will die in prison,” DeVillers added.

The defendant is one of 23 individuals charged in federal court in a February 2018 second superseding indictment. The defendants are alleged to be members and associates of MS-13 in Columbus.

MS-13 has become one of the largest criminal organizations in the United States, with more than 10,000 members and associates estimated to be operating in at least 40 states, federal law enforcement officials said.

“Mr. Bonilla-Mejia had a leadership position in the organization, a fact made clear by his participation in a meeting of high-ranking MS-13 members in Richmond, Virginia, in December 2015 – a meeting that included the attendees receiving direction (via telephone) from a gang leader in El Salvador who wielded authority over a number of MS-13 cliques in the eastern half of the United States,” according to legal documents.

The murders often involved defendants using weapons like machetes, knives and hammers to attack and beat their victims to death, federal officials said.

In March 2016, law enforcement officers arrested Bonilla-Mejia in Akron, Ohio in connection with an outstanding warrant issued in California as part of a multi-agency law enforcement operation known as Operation Matador and led by the Santa Maria Police Department.

Shortly thereafter, he was transported to California and detained in the Santa Barbara County Jail before returning to Ohio to face his federal charges.

Ten of his co-defendants in the California case are awaiting trial, which was set to begin this month for five of them. All trials have been delayed due to pandemic-related court closures. 

In the Santa Maria case, Bonilla-Mejia faced 10  counts of first-degree murder and 10 counts of conspiracy to commit murder in the time period between January 2013 and February 2016.

After the sentencing, the U.S. Attorney commended the assistance of Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce E. Dudley’s office.

Due to the life sentence in the federal case, the Santa Barbara County charges against Bonilla-Mejia are expected to be dismissed.

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.