After nearly two years since the initial arrests and 17 months since their grand jury indictment, 14 men believed to be connected to the MS-13 gang in Santa Maria and a string of unsolved homicides finally will enter pleas in February. 

The case for the men will reach its next step Feb. 16, when the defendants, with their attorneys, are expected to plead not guilty to 50 felony counts of murder, criminal conspiracy and street gang enhancements.

Twelve of the men, alleged to be participants in the infamous transnational gang MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, are linked to 10 unsolved homicides that occurred from 2013 to 2016. It is also alleged that the group conspired to kill more than a dozen people. 

All defendants were indicted by a criminal grand jury in July 2016. The Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office is not seeking the death penalty but a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole for the defendants.

In the coming weeks, the court may set some schedules and future dates for some attorneys seeking to dispute parts of the grand jury indictment. Issues related to sealing some documents will be revisited Jan. 19, when the case next returns to court, county Superior Court Judge John McGregor said Friday morning in Santa Maria. 

The second group of men, Rafael Lainez Castro and Jose Eleuterio Mejia Orellana, indicted on conspiracy to commit a crime and criminal street gang conspiracy, also will return to court Jan. 19 for further arraignment. 

During Friday's brief hearing, attorney Gary Dunlap, who began representing Castro this summer, said that he will be filing a motion to withdraw from serving as Castro's attorney, to which the prosecution did not object.

Dunlap could not comment on why he wished to no longer represent his client. 

Dunlap's request will be heard Jan. 12, and the court also will determine if his court-appointed attorney is available to represent him again. 

Castro's previous attorney, Tom Barnard, was relieved from the case nearly a year ago.

Last year, the Santa Maria Police launched a sting -- referred to as Operation Matador -- that netted over a dozen arrests in the city and surrounding outer areas, including Bakersfield, Oxnard and Ventura.

Law enforcement wiretapped many of the suspects' phones, tailed them as they traveled around the county before finally arresting them during the early morning hours of March 3, 2016.

Law enforcement began noticing MS-13 presence in the city around the mid-2000s, according to Santa Maria Police.

In Santa Maria, MS-13 is believed to control the territories surrounding the 1000 blocks of Boone, Orange and Cook streets, according to a gang expert detective's declaration profiling the gang found in court documents. 

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