In a Santa Maria courtroom on Wednesday, a prosecuting attorney began laying out the case against five defendants accused of committing multiple homicides to benefit a violent criminal gang, revealing that the men referred to their victims as “chickens” and planned killings as “soup.”
Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen said law enforcement officers tapped phone calls and used social media posts and texts to connect the defendants to the killings dating back to 2013 in the Santa Maria Valley.
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 say the men belong to the violent criminal gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
Since grand jury transcripts have been sealed, the start of the trial finally provided details about how law enforcement officers linked the killings to the defendants, including wiretapping suspects’ phones and later sifting through social media posts and texts.
“You will see the defendants and conspirators use the code word chickens for their intended victims,” Bramsen said.
A large screen displayed some of the messages, including one reading, “To see if we can turn the chickens into soup.”
The defendants targeted victims — they include at least two 17-year-old boys plus a pair of cousins — from rival gangs, or those believed to be affiliated with rival gangs.
Bramsen began her opening statement by identifying each victim and the circumstances of when and where they took their last breath, starting with Michel Raygoza Hernandez, 24, in January 2013.
The defendants also have been charged with the killings of Oscar Joaquin, 17, Brayan Mejia Molina, 18, Ulises Garcia-Mendez, 17, Modesto Melendez, 25, Augustin Jamie Montano-Barajas, 29, Donacio Morales Suarez (Alexis Morales), 25, Javier Murillo-Sanchez, 23, Aaron Hernandez Sanchez, 23, and Abrahan Rojas Najera, 21.
Each killing involved extreme violence with victims being shot multiple times — 10 times in at least two instances. Another also had been sliced repeatedly with some sort of weapon, possibly a machete, severing his hand.
Most of the slayings occurred in 2015 and early 2016, with the last double killing occurring Jan. 25, 2016.
“Four days later, Jan. 29, 2016, marks the beginning of the end of the defendants’ and their conspirators’ killing spree,” Bramsen said, adding that law enforcement had received a court-authorized wire tap on two lines and later others.
Before any shooting, a flurry of messages and calls took place between some of the defendants.
“You will see the same patten of rapid phone calls just before each shooting and killing I’ve already talked about,” said Bramsen, who is leading the prosecution team that includes colleague Peter Teleaca.
One conversation revealed a partial license plate number of a would-be victim’s vehicle, providing key information for law enforcement officers who scrambled to track down the new owner of a recently sold car and took the two men into protective custody.
“This is the mistake they made that allowed law enforcement to save those two victims’ lives,” Bramsen said.
She also revealed a number of firearms, some used in multiple killings, according to cartridge cases and bullets removed from victims during autopsies.
Jury selection for the trial, which is expected to span a year, began in August with hundreds of people initially summoned to the Santa Maria Fairpark.
For logistical reasons, decided even before the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc, the case has been broken into two trials with the second occurring in Santa Barbara, where jury selection remains under way.
On Wednesday in the Santa Maria courtroom, everyone — including the judge, jurors, defendants and audience members — sported masks in the courtroom. Additionally, sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizers were plentiful and within reach for jurors.
Opening statements are scheduled to continue Thursday morning in McGregor’s courtroom. Defense attorneys may deliver their opening statements after Bramsen’s but also have the option of waiting until the prosecution presents its evidence.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.