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Operation Matador suspect pleads no contest, sentenced to 20 years in prison

Operation Matador suspect pleads no contest, sentenced to 20 years in prison

Ezequiel Escalante-Rivera


One of the alleged MS-13 gang members arrested during the March 2016 Operation Matador sting received more than 19 years in prison after pleading no contest to multiple charges Monday in Santa Maria Superior Court.

Ezequiel Escalante-Rivera, 34, pleaded no contest to two counts of criminal gang conspiracy charges, which he received after his arrest in March 2016 following the major gang sweep in Santa Maria. 

Additionally, Escalante-Rivera admitted to a special allegation of use of a firearm.

Escalante-Rivera was one of 12 defendants -- all alleged members of the transnational criminal organization MS-13 -- who were indicted by a Santa Barbara County grand jury on 50 felony counts, including murder, criminal street gang conspiracy and conspiracy to commit murder. 

Investigators believe the group is responsible for 10 murders that occurred in the Santa Maria Valley over a three-year period.

Escalante-Rivera originally pleaded not guilty to 20 charges of criminal street gang conspiracy and conspiracy to commit a crime, but 18 of those charges were dropped as part of his plea.

Effectively, Escalante-Rivera will serve a 20-year sentence in state prison, according to Santa Barbara County Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen, who is leading prosecution on the case.

Bramsen added Escalante-Rivera asked to be sentenced immediately.

Of the more than a dozen alleged MS-13 defendants in the indictment, Escalante-Rivera was the only one not charged with murder.

“His case, for all intents and purposes, is completed,” Bramsen said.

Robert Bettencourt, Escalante-Rivera’s attorney, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Ten defendants are left in the case, and all have filed motions to sever, according to Bramsen, meaning they’re asking to be tried separately from each other.

When there are multiple defendants in cases, Bramsen said, they typically file motions to separate.

Two additional suspects involved in the case were arrested, including Jose Emedalio Bonilla-Mejia, who was extradited from Ohio in 2016 but returned to face federal racketeering charges related to alleged MS-13 activity in Columbus.

According to court records, Bonilla-Mejia pleaded guilty to racketeering and murder/kidnapping charges on Aug. 5.

Jose Wilfredo Abarca Soriano, who was extradited from Virginia in June 2018, is in custody at the Santa Barbara County Jail and is facing four counts of conspiracy to commit a crime and a criminal gang conspiracy charge in connection with the Matador case. 

The remaining Matador defendants are scheduled to appear in Santa Maria Superior Court at 8:30 a.m. Oct. 18, when Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge John McGregor will oversee the defendants’ motions to sever.


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