Fourteen defendants, all alleged members of the transnational gang "MS-13" who have been indicted on murder and criminal conspiracy charges, will return to court in Santa Maria on Dec. 15 for arraignment.
Attorneys and their clients have been meeting in Judge John McGregor's courtroom at Santa Maria Superior Court on the third Friday of every month to address procedural matters in the case, but pleas have yet to be entered for all defendants.
Twelve of the defendants were indicted in July 2016 on multiple felony counts of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and criminal street gang allegations. Two men, Rafael Lainez Castro and Jose Eleuterio Mejia Orellana were indicted on counts of criminal conspiracy and street gang allegations.
Lainez Castro and Orellana will join their co-defendants in December for arraignment. Castro's attorney Gary Dunlap said Friday morning that on that date, his client will be entering a plea, but he also "noted a number of factual errors [in the pre-plea report] that would ultimately change probation's final analysis and [sentencing] recommendation."
"I discussed it with [the prosecution] and we're at disagreement about certainty," Dunlap told McGregor. "I'd like to reserve our opportunity to have a hearing on it," to which the judge agreed.
Dunlap indicated that because the matter is being postponed he may no longer be able to privately represent Castro on the case.
"He's unable to continue on private [counsel] retention basis, so we have to make those arrangements, but we'll be ready to enter a plea one way or another, but I hope to have further discussions with his attorney for Dec. 15," said Dunlap.
The defendants were arrested in spring 2016 during the undercover sting referred to as "Operation Matador," that nabbed more than a dozen individuals alleged to have ties to MS-13 and believed to be responsible for numerous unsolved homicides in Santa Maria over a three-year period.
Due to the high profile of the case some attorneys sought a gag order for law enforcement and the prosecution, which would have prevented them from speaking about the case.
One attorney sought to include media in the gag order, arguing that any coverage would taint the jury pool once the matter goes to trial. The judge issued an amended protective order, limiting the release of documents and certain comments by police and the prosecution outside court proceedings, but allowing media to attend each hearing.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen and Deputy District Attorney Tiffany Dix are prosecuting the case.