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A Superior Court judge in Santa Maria approved a motion Friday for a defense attorney to withdraw as counsel in the Operation Matador case.

Judge John McGregor approved attorney Michael Carty’s motion to withdraw as counsel for defendant Juan Narciso Escobar Hernandez, effective Dec. 13.

Hernandez is one of 11 defendants — alleged members of the transnational criminal organization MS-13 — who were indicted by a Santa Barbara County grand jury on dozens of criminal charges that include murder, criminal gang conspiracy and conspiracy to commit murder.

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

Ten of the defendants are in custody at the Santa Barbara County Jail. An additional defendant, Jose Bonilla-Mejia, is in an Ohio jail awaiting sentencing on a federal racketeering and murder case in the Southern District.

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The reason for Carty’s withdrawal was not specified during a court hearing Friday. McGregor issued a gag order on the case in 2017 that prevents attorneys, law enforcement and court staff from publicly speaking about the case other than what's discussed in open court and, also, limits the release of documents.

A call to Carty’s office in Santa Barbara wasn’t immediately returned Monday.

The court will issue an order to appoint new counsel and direct Carty to meet with the new attorney and Hernandez “to ensure as seamless as a transition as possible,” McGregor said.

The court authorized compensation of up to 30 hours for Carty, who was appointed by the court, to make “all efforts to provide information” to new counsel that’s subject to the gag order.

The 10 defendants are set to appear again at 8:30 a.m. Dec. 13 and 20 for case management and motion conferences in Department 6 of the Superior Court in Santa Maria. 

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