A Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge has decided to wait until the fall to rule whether or not media will be prohibited from covering a high-profile murder case involving over a dozen men with reported ties to the international criminal street gang MS-13. 

On Friday, Superior Court Judge John McGregor continued the hearing to Sept. 8 for two defense attorneys seeking a gag order against all media. In addition, attorney Stephen Dunkle hopes to have his motion to dismiss his client's indictment sealed from the public.

Earlier this week, attorney Tom Allen filed a motion to continue the media gag order hearing, stating that he needed more time to properly prepare responses to effectively argue all issues. 

All legal counsel, without their respective clients, will meet again July 21 in Department 6 for a private case management conference. 

The hearing Friday was split into two segments. The first was held just before 11 a.m. for the dozen men indicted by the grand jury for multiple murder, attempted murder, lying in wait, conspiracy to commit street terrorism, intimidation by force or threat, along with firearm and criminal street gang enhancements. 

Media attorney Guylyn Cummins made a telephonic appearance through a conference call during the brief hearing. The attorney is expected to attend the Sept. 8 arraignment to argue against the media gag order.

Shortly after 11:30 a.m., the second group, indicted on the charges of conspiracy to commit a crime, were brought in for a brief hearing to set future court dates. Both defendants will also carry on with continued arraignment Sept. 8. 

Gary Dunlap, who represents Rafael Lainez Castro, has filed a demurrer and a motion to have separate hearings from co-defendant Jose Eleuterio Orellana. The hearing to argue both motions was continued to 8:30 a.m. July 21.

None of the 14 defendants in the case have entered pleas to the charges. 

Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen and Deputy District Attorney Tiffany Dix are prosecuting the case. 

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In early April, Dunkle and Allen filed a motion for a gag order on law enforcement, prosecution and media from speaking about the case, citing that it may be difficult to recruit a good cross-section of the community for a potential jury pool due to the high publicity surrounding the case. 

"It just depends on how much that right gets versus the accused's right to a fair trial. We do not want to taint the jury pool," Allen said outside the courtroom after the April 7 hearing.

Last summer, over a dozen individuals believed to have ties to MS-13 were indicted on first-degree murder charges related to numerous unsolved murders in Santa Maria over a three-year period from January 2013 through March 2016.

The July 8 indictment by the Santa Barbara criminal grand jury relates to March 2016's Operation Matador sweep, where the alleged gang members, associates were arrested during a collaborative multi-agency effort that involved search warrants being served and arrests being made simultaneously in Santa Maria, Bakersfield and other cities. 

Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210


Courts/Public Safety Reporter