120121 matador trial dave minsky 3

Booking photos of the five alleged MS-13 defendants were shown during their trial in Santa Maria court.

A witness in the Matador trial recalled on Monday noticing two El Salvadoran men — including one with a “503” tattoo on his hand — who joined the 12-person work crew he was on cutting broccoli near Sisquoc sometime in mid-January 2016, not too long after he was hired.

Jose Marino Melendez, 29, also remembered two women who suddenly showed up on the job.

But what Melendez did not know at the time was that he and his uncle were being hunted by the four — alleged members of MS-13 who were also under surveillance by Santa Maria Police investigators via wiretaps.

Weeks later, on Feb. 7, 2016, plain-clothes police officers located them at a Guadalupe park and took them into protective custody. At the police station, investigators revealed the alleged plot to murder Melendez and his uncle.

“I couldn’t believe somebody was looking for me to kill me,” Melendez testified on Monday.

Police showed the two pictures of their alleged stalkers, which included the man with the “503” tattoo – allegedly identified as Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres.

Torres, along with Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, Traquilino Robles Morales, Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano and Luis German Mejia Orellana are on trial and are each accused of several charges that include murder, gang conspiracy and firearms offenses. Opening arguments in their trial began Nov. 16.

The eight defendants were arrested as part of Operation Matador in March 2016, the result of a years-long investigation into 10 killings across the Santa Maria Valley from 2013 to 2016. All have pleaded not guilty.

Melendez’ appearance was the second time in Santa Maria since July 2016, when he testified before a criminal grand jury. After police found them, Melendez and his uncle were placed in a witness protection program, where they remain.

Melendez is the cousin of 25-year-old Modesto Melendez, who was found shot to death inside of his vehicle in the 400 block of West Williams Street in Santa Maria on May 16, 2015. His death is one of the homicides that Santa Maria Police have attributed to the local clique of MS-13, also known as Santa Maria Little Salvy Locos Salvatruchos.

Speaking in Spanish and with the help of a translator, Melendez appeared wearing a transparent face mask due to COVID-19 protocols so that the defendants could see him. In return, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge John McGregor at one point ordered the five defendants to remove their masks for a brief moment so that their accuser could identify them.

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On the stand, Melendez provided a summarized history of his life in El Salvador before migrating to the U.S. with his cousin in June 2012. Melendez was 15 years old when his cousin Modesto first went north and returned a few years later with several tattoos on his body, including the letters “M” and “S,” he testified.

“I didn’t hang out with him anymore,” Melendez said. “I didn’t want to cause confusion that I belonged to any gang.”

The cousins assimilated into the region and settled in Guadalupe, finding work in the nearby fields. On Sundays, the witness testified he regularly went to a field located along Stowell Road, where he’d watch soccer teams with other Salvadoran players.

One of those players was 17-year-old Brayan Molina-Mejia, who was shot and killed on Dec. 4, 2015 and who Santa Maria Police believe is another MS-13 victim, according to testimony.

Additionally, Melendez testified that he also recognized defendant Hernandez from the Sunday games and recalled seeing Jose Juan Sanchez Torres and his girlfriend, Enedina Tomas, on one particular occasion at Los Comadres, a Salvadoran restaurant on Main Street.

Torres pleaded guilty to attempted murder charges Nov. 15 and was sentenced to more than 24 years in prison. Tomas’ case has remained inactive since July 2016, according to court records.

In court, Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen showed what appeared to be a brief cell phone video taken of Melendez’ green Toyota and played several alleged wiretapped audio recordings of the suspects trying to find their targets so they can turn them into “chicken soup,” an alleged coded word for murder.

Over the wiretaps, the defendants were unaware that Melendez and his uncle were taken into custody and continued searching for them the next day, Feb. 8, 2016, according to District Attorney’s Office Investigator Michael Huffman

“[The] chickens flew the coop,” said Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez over the wire. “They are somewhere.”

The trial resumes at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday in Department 8 of Superior Court in Santa Maria.

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