Eleven alleged members of transnational gang MS-13 will stand trial early next year in connection to 10 homicides, 14 attempted murders and other violent crimes that occurred in Santa Maria over a three-year period.
Arrested in March 2016 by local and federal law enforcement during the overnight Operation Matador sting, the defendants face 50 felony counts of murder, conspiracy to commit murder and criminal street gang activity. The men were indicted in July 2016 by a Santa Barbara County criminal grand jury.
On Friday, Judge John McGregor set Feb. 18, 2020, as the start of jury selection amid concerns raised by the defense for more time to sift through the large amounts of evidence. The trial was originally slated to begin this May.
"This gives all parties involved in the case a substantial period of time to get ready for trial on this case that is an old case," McGregor said. "It's the court's intention to proceed to trial on that date."
Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen said prosecutors will be ready for the February 2020 start date.
Prosecutors have estimated the trial will last a year and a half.
On March 3, 2016, 15 alleged members of La Mara Salvatrucha — a transnational criminal street gang better known as MS-13 — were arrested in Santa Maria, Oxnard, Bakersfield and Columbus, Ohio as part of Operation Matador, a joint initiative between local, state and federal law enforcement authorities. According to court records, the men are linked to various violent crimes that occurred between January 2013 and March 2016.
All 12 men who were indicted pleaded not guilty at their February 2018 arraignment.
One of the men named in the indictment, Emedalio Bonilla Mejia, is currently in Ohio and faces charges relating to a separate federal indictment. Last December, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Edmund A. Sargus, who presides over the Southern District of Ohio, ordered Mejia to be brought to Ohio until his federal criminal case is completed.
In January, over defense attorney Tom Allen's objection, McGregor severed Mejia's case from the other defendants. McGregor allowed Allen to remain on the case during Friday's hearing as the court determines the best way to move forward.
Mejia will remain in federal custody in Ohio, awaiting trial for his federal indictment. Federal prosecutors have previously indicated four of the counts he is charged with carry a maximum penalty of death.
As both sides inch toward the new trial start date in Santa Maria, McGregor said he will establish deadlines and set hearing dates for additional motions. Defense attorneys are expected to challenge wiretaps, petition for a change of venue and file for additional severances.
Those hearings will be held at a later date.