Jurors in a Santa Maria Superior Court trial for five men accused of multiple killings and other crimes are learning about autopsy findings and saw messages showing suspects discussing the gym habits of two victims who were later shot multiple times.
Testimony on Thursday centered on the 2016 double-homicide of 29-year-old Augustin Jamie Montano-Barajas and 25-year-old Donacio Morales Suarez (Alexis Morales) near the intersection of Cook and Elizabeth streets, three blocks east of Santa Maria Town Center.
The Jan. 25 killings were the last pair of double homicides before the defendants’ arrests a few weeks later.
The defendants, all suspected members of the notorious MS-13 gang, have been accused of committing 10 homicides and multiple attempted murders in the Santa Maria Valley.
Initially arrested in March 2016 as part of Operation Matador, the defendants later were indicted by a Santa Barbara County Criminal Grand Jury.
The five defendants, their gang monikers and their attorneys are Luis Mejia Orellana (“Smiley”), represented by attorney Chris Ames; Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres (“Silent”) with attorney Stephen Dunkle; Tranquilino Robles Morales (“Bandit”) with attorney Andrew Jennings; Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano (“Peligro”) with attorney Steve Balash; and Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno (“Psycho”) with attorney Adrian Andrade.
After weeks of testimony on gang lifestyle, unsuccessful attempts to kill other victims and wiretap operations leading to defendants’ arrests, Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen and colleague Peter Telesca began presenting evidence about killings allegedly connected to the defendants.
Dr. Manny Montez, a forensic pathologist from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, testified about the autopsies he conducted on the bodies of Montano-Barajas and Morales.
Montano-Barjas, sitting in the passenger seat, had been shot 13 times, and several of the wounds alone would have killed him, said Montez, who revealed the damage done by each bullet.
He said Morales, the driver, had been shot two or three times.
Messages from some suspects’ phones revealed conversations about the victims’ habits of going to a local gym in the evening.
“Hey look fool, I’m here at the gym and there is a girl here from the alley,” Sgt. Scott Casey said, reading a message from one defendant to another.
The next day, another message between two defendants said, “The girls didn’t show.”
Casey testified that that MS-13 gang members refer to rival as females.
“It’s done as a lack of respect for rivals for rivals to refer to them in the feminine form,” Casey explained.
Authorities have said the rivals had referred to their victims as “chicken” and killings as “making soup.”
Other conversations said “The chicken fell down,” with a reply “Alright I’m going now,” according to evidence presented at the end of the day.
Autopsy photos revealed Montano-Barajas had several tattoos indicating an affiliation with the 18th Street gang, fierce rivals of MS-13.
Casey also talked about one large clown tattoo with ruffled collar that Montano-Barajas had on his torso.
“Oftentimes the smile now, cry later symbology is used in the gang lifestyle,” he testified.
Earlier, neighbors talked about hearing gunshots and seeing people getting into a vehicle to leave the scene. Recordings of emergency dispatch calls reporting the shootings also were played in court.
Testimony will resume Monday morning before Judge John McGregor.
Meanwhile, selection of 12 jurors and 12 alternatives continues in a second trial for three defendants in Santa Barbara.
Both trials have been estimated to last approximately a year.