Following a longer-than-expected break, testimony resumed Tuesday morning in the Santa Maria Superior Court trial for five men accused of murder and other crimes allegedly for the benefit of a violent criminal gang.
The trial had paused for a planned two-week break at the holidays but then had to wait another four weeks because of the COVID-19 cases and exposures spiking in the community — and including the jurors.
But Tuesday morning, jurors again began hearing calls intercepted during wiretap operations in early 2016 as prosecuting attorneys worked to link the defendants and criminal activity.
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”), represented by attorney Andrew Jennings; Juan Carlos Serrano Urbina (“Peligro”) with attorney Steve Balash; and Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno (“Psycho”) with attorney Adrian Andrade.
The trial, in Judge John McGregor’s courtroom, stems from the multiple-agency law enforcement effort dubbed Operation Matador and led by the Santa Maria Police Department in March 2016. Months later, a Santa Barbara County Criminal Grand Jury handed down indictments.
In all, 10 homicides and 14 attempted murders have been linked to the defendants, officials said.
Law enforcement officers contend the men belong to the violent criminal gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
During several calls, the defendants and others discussed an Oxnard traffic stop involving a man who was taken into custody.
“They took him away and they took a piece of iron from him, dog,” defendant Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres said in Spanish in a recorded call with transcrips to the English version displayed on large screens in the courtoom.
Santa Maria police Sgt. Scott Casey said “iron” referred to a firearm.
Officers went to Torres’ residence since the vehicle involved in the Oxnard stop was registered to him.
Another conversation referred to police catching their friend with a toy, also a nickname for a gun, Casey said.
While police didn’t talk to Torres, the visit sparked more chatter captured in the wiretap operation.
Other phone calls centered on trying to sell the green Honda involved in the traffic stop, speaking in code at one point by referring to the vehicle as “green apple.”
A different conversation mentioned “taco.”
“In your opinion, what is taco code for?” Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen asked.
“Quantity of drugs,” Casey answered.
Another phone call included “two taquitos,” which Casey said referred to drugs and quantities.
Those weren’t the only coded conversations captured by the wiretaps, During her opening statement, Bramsen said the defendants referred to their victims as “chickens” and killings as “making soup.”
In a different call, two men discussed where to meet, ruling out an apartment where they usually gathered because “there’s too many gang members in one location.” They ended up convening at Avila Beach.
After the arrests on March 3, 2016, police found photos on one man’s phone showing “SMLS” in green paint on a rock.
“It marked their presence at that location,” Casey said of the graffiti.
SMLS stands from Santa Maria Little Salvy, the name of their MS-13 clique.
Since the pre-holiday phase of the trial, the courtroom now features more safety measures aimed at protecting participants from the coronavirus. For instance, additional space has been placed among jurors and alternates pushing more into the audience seats as a precaution.
The trial, expected to last a year, began with jury selection in August.
Meanwhile, jury selection is underway in Judge Michael Carrozzo’s courtroom in Santa Barbara for three other defendants in the case.
Court administrators deemed two trials necessary because of logistical reasons even before the pandemic began altering court operations.