MS-13 judge to consider protecting juror identities

Alleged MS-13 gang members appear at Santa Maria Superior Court during a court hearing in March 2016.

A motion to combine two defendant groups in the coming MS-13 trial was filed by Santa Barbara County prosecutors last month in an effort to consolidate the case, which has dragged on for nearly five years. 

In a hearing Friday that was held mostly out of public view, the motion was deferred until March 19 because plans for an offsite venue big enough to hold a socially-distanced trial are still in the early stages, according to Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge John McGregor, who added the court lacked a factual basis to make a decision. 

Court officials could not reveal the venue location because of a November 2017 gag order that prevents those involved in the case from speaking publicly about it outside of open court. 

The motion, filed Jan. 8 by Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen, sought to combine the two groups of five defendants each.

A sting, dubbed Operation Matador, resulted in the arrests of 15 of 17 alleged members of MS-13 in March 2016 for their connection to 10 gang-related homicides in the Santa Maria Valley between 2013 and 2016. 

Of those 17 identified, four were sentenced or have pled out and two others, Jose Wilfredo Abarca Soriano and Jose Eleute Mejia Orellano, are being tried in a lower case that doesn't include murder charges. An additional suspect, Jose Francisco Mejia Orellana, is still on the run. 

The 10 remaining defendants include Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres, Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano, Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, Tranquilino Robles Morales and Luis German Mejia Orellana, who are in the first trial group; and Jose Balmore Saravia Lainez, Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, Jose Juan Sanchez Torres, Jose Narciso Escobar Hernandez and Olvin Serrano, who are in the second trial group. 

Defendants (Marcos) Torres, Membreno and (Juan) Serrano replied to Bramsen's Jan. 8 motion suggesting combining the trials can't yet be determined, while (Olvin) Serrano opposed the motion. 

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The trial start date for the first group remains May 3, with pretrial motions scheduled starting April 5. The second trial group's trial date hasn't been determined. Each trial is expected to last at least one year. 

McGregor approved a motion to split the 10 defendants into two groups in December 2019, citing the space needed to hold each defendant, individual attorneys, interpreters and trial materials. Each defendant is charged with more than four dozen counts, including murder, conspiracy and street gang enhancements. 

Most of Friday's hearing, or more than an hour, was closed to public view before the courtroom was switched. Once switched over, close to a dozen attorneys, bailiffs and news media personnel sat at least six feet apart in the audience and wore masks due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Nine defendants appeared from behind a glass wall in a separate room, while Serrano appeared from the jail via videoconferencing software. 

After resolving technical difficulties with the software and issues with interpreters, the public portion of the hearing lasted less than 10 minutes. 

The hearing was continued to 8:30 a.m. March 19 in Dept. 8 of Superior Court in Santa Maria.