A Santa Barbara County criminal grand jury has indicted 17 members of a violent international criminal gang for committing specific murders, most of which occurred within the past year in Santa Maria.
The indictments, handed down Friday, cover defendants arrested March 3 during Operation Matador, a multiagency effort that led to 16 people being taken into custody.
Twelve of those indicted face 10 counts of first-degree murder, according to a statement released Monday by District Attorney Joyce Dudley.
That indictment contains 50 felony counts, Dudley said, including special-circumstances allegations of lying in wait, multiple murders, committing the killings for the benefit of criminal street gang, torture and use of a firearm causing death.
There also are 14 counts of conspiracy to commit murder, five counts of attempted murder, plus allegations of criminal street gang conspiracy, witness intimidation and street terrorism.
During a court hearing Monday morning, Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen said prosecutors intend to seek life in prison without possibility of parole rather than the death penalty for those defendants.
Five others were charged in a separate indictment with four counts of conspiracy to commit murder, with the special allegation that the crimes were done for the benefit of the MS-13 criminal street gang, as well as related conspiracy counts, and one weapons charge.
At the time, law enforcement officers said those arrested were primarily charged with conspiracy to commit murder, saying the operation prevented several slayings.
Law enforcement officers originally did not connect any of the defendants specifically to any of the homicides that occurred during a spike in violence in the city.
Outside of the courtroom, Bramsen said Monday the defendants have been connected to 10 murders between January 2013 and January 2016.
About 20 family members of the victims were in court Monday morning for the hearing.
Prosecutors said those allegedly killed by the 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.
The indictments mark the first time suspects are have been linked to specific slayings in the city.
“Santa Maria Police Department detectives did an amazing job in their investigation which allowed me to present the evidence to the criminal grand jury and the criminal grand jury made the decision on what charges and what defendants to indict,” Bramsen said.
However, the criminal case is at the beginning stages.
“I hope the victims’ families are able to get justice when we’re all done,” Bramsen said. “But between now and then the defendants all have a right to a fair trial and their attorneys are going to need time to look at all the evidence.”
Those indicted on murder charges include Jose Balmore Saravia Lainez, Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres, Tranquilino Robles Morales, Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, Jose Narcisco Escobar Hernandez, Luis German Mejia Orellana, Jose Juan Sanchez Torres, Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano, Olvin Serrano, Emedalio Mejia Bonilla and Ezequiel Escalante-Rivera.
Those indicted on the conspiracy charges include Jose Eleuteria Mejia Orellana, Jose Francisco Mejia Orellana, Jose Wilfredo Abarca Soriano, Rafael Lainez Castro and Mayra Ortega.
Since their arrests earlier this year, the defendants have remained in Santa Barbara County Jail with bail set as high as $9 million.
Speculation that a grand jury — which meets in secret — had been convened has circulated around the Santa Maria Court Complex for several weeks.
Charges against another woman, Enedina Tomas, initially arrested as part of Operation Matador, are expected to be dismissed after she was not indicted by the grand jury, Bramsen said.
The defendants made their first appearances in Santa Barbara County Superior Court in Santa Maria on Monday morning.
With the agreement of the attorneys, Judge Patricia Kelly continued the arraignment hearing to July 22 in Department 9.
One defendant who had been arrested in Ohio in March has since been extradited to Santa Barbara County and appeared in court Monday.
Because of the indictments, the original charges filed in March against the defendants will be dismissed, Bramsen said.