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One of the men charged in the high-profile, multidefendant Operation Matador case remains in County Jail in lieu of $1 million bail, despite his attorney arguing Friday for his release.

Rafael Lainez Castro, 31, was indicted last summer along with several others, alleged to be MS-13 gang members, for conspiracy to commit street terrorism and criminal street gang conspiracy. Castro is also accused of selling firearms to his co-defendants.

Gary Dunlap, who is now representing Castro, on Friday at the Santa Maria Superior Court sought to have his client released on his own recognizance or to reduce his bail. Dunlap claimed that the pretrial official who filed his assessment report misunderstood the nature of Castro's charges, and that the counts he faces do not rise to the level of murder, or conspiracy to commit murder. 

Deputy District Attorney Tiffany Dix and Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen, however, maintained that the $1 million bail was appropriate for Castro, as the underlying charge he faces is murder.

"There is an indication that he's alleged to have negotiated these sales [knowing] they'd be used for killing, but I don't find anything in the grand jury transcript where it's reported that he had such knowledge," Dunlap began.  

The attorney also pointed out that the grand jury indictment doesn't specifically charge him with murder, and only that his co-defendants are accused of the crime.

Furthermore, the counts Castro does face only rise to the level of ranging from a misdemeanor to a maximum penalty sentence of three-year prison sentence, Dunlap argued.

The grand jury indicted him for "conspiracy to commit a crime" but not specifically for murder. 

Dunlap also maintained that his client had minimal prior records, no convictions, was gainfully employed as the proprietor of his Bakersfield auto body shop, which had been debilitating since his arrest, and has since married his fiancée.  

One of the most vital factors of conducting risk assessments is to check whether a defendant poses a flight or public safety risk, neither of which Castro appears to be, contended Dunlap.

While public safety is not the only factor considered during risk assessment, it's certainly the most important factor, he continued. 

In fact, Castro has been held in protective custody for the past year, away from any of his co-defendants, as he had disclosed to detectives during interviews that he was afraid that he'd be threatened for cooperating with officials, according to Dunlap. 

The attorney also offered the court a plethora of options in which to ensure Castro will have his day in court if he were to be released on his own recognizance, including electronic monitoring; daily in-person check-ins with probation; surrendering any and all weapons he may have or have access to; and be subject to search and seizure. 

Dix responded that that there was no good cause to modify bail based on legal changes in circumstances to the defendant or the legal proceedings. 

Bail first was set at $1 million at Castro's first appearance on the indictment charges July 11, 2016, and has remained in further arraignment status since. There is no lawful change of circumstances in his case to call for a bail modification, Dix said. 

Bail was set after considering all the facts addressing Castro's family history, employment status, prior residency and upbringing prior to the indictment, the prosecutor argued.

The changes in Castro's marriage and employment status "aren't lawful changes of circumstances for the court to consider [reducing bail]," Dix said. "The bail is clearly appropriate." 

Dunlap, however, persisted. 

"What is a lawful change of circumstances?" he asked. "Are there certain gross changes of circumstances that are legal or illegal? That’s preposterous.”

He repeated that Castro only was charged with facilitating the illegal sales of firearms, adding, "It's not up to the DA to announce as a matter of law or what we have to accept that the underlying charge is murder. The grand jury in this case were silent as to that crime." 

After listening carefully to both sides, Judge John McGregor ruled that Castro remain in custody with bail at $1 million, and ordered all parties to return June 2 for a hearing on a demurrer, during which his attorney will argue to have Castro’s charges be modified.

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


Courts/Public Safety Reporter