A police sergeant spent two days of a trial in Santa Maria Superior Court testifying about the inner workings of a transnational criminal gang linked to multiple murders in the Santa Maria Valley.
Sgt. Scott Casey of the Santa Maria Police Department appeared on the stand Monday morning and continued on Tuesday as the first person to testify in the trial of five men accused of crimes allegedly linked to Mara Salvatrucha, or the MS-13 gang.
The defendants were arrested in March 2016. They were then indicted by a Santa Barbara County criminal grand jury with 10 homicides, 14 attempted homicides and other crimes.
The five defendants, their gang nicknames and their lawyers are: Luis Mejia Orellana (âSmileyâ), represented by lawyer Chris Ames; Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres (âSilentâ) with lawyer Stephen Dunkle; Tranquilino Robles Morales (âBanditâ), represented by lawyer Andrew Jennings; Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano (âPeligroâ) with lawyer Steve Balash; and Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno (“Psycho”) with lawyer Adrian Andrade.
Casey provided an overview of the structure of MS-13, noting that the local group could be called a clique that responded to a regional organization dubbed a program.
Locally, the MS-13 clique is called Santa Maria Little Salvy (sometimes spelled Salvi), or SMLS, he said, although this has proven to be controversial due to a different clique in El Salvador using the same name. . This led the Central Coast clique to become Santa Maria Little Salvy Locos Salvatruchos, abbreviated as SMLS’LS. They use the hand sign to symbolize the horns.
The long list of people mentioned included defendants and conspirators – some of whom have entered into plea deals while others are awaiting a separate trial in Santa Barbara. A separate case for another accused continues to make its way through the courts.
A flowchart shows the links between some of the defendants, conspirators and others linked to an ongoing multiple homicide trial in Santa Maria. (Photo by Janene Scully / Noozhawk)
Brothers, cousins ââand an uncle as well as girlfriends connect some of the participants, according to an organization chart displayed in court.
Text and verbal conversations, along with lists, helped police identify the members of Little Salvy, as well as rap songs that included what Casey said, including a salutation to the leader and member nicknames.
In an exchange of messages, Serrano or Peligro revealed membership in a contact in El Salvador, listing the names, custody status and location of members mentioning his first.
“He’s the leader of the clique,” Casey said in response to the question about the importance of being named early on the list.
Of the 25 named homeboys, most were in Santa Maria, but others were in Oxnard and Salinas. Another was in Ohio, the same location he was in when he was arrested for the Santa Maria case and later taken into custody for a federal MS-13 homicide case.
At the time of the discussion in early 2016, some members were locked up on the East Coast, California and El Salvador, Serrano said.
The messages show an accused communicating directly with a runner, or leader, and discussions about sending money or the clique tax.
Another set of messages refers to sending a Moneygram to a high-ranking gang member in El Salvador.
With five defendants and defense attorneys, as well as the prosecution team, the area in front of the bench of Santa Maria Superior Court Judge John McGregor is full for the trial allegedly linked to the MS-13 gang and to the multiple murders in the valley of Santa Maria. Masks are worn by everyone in the courtroom due to concerns about COVID-19. (Photo by Janene Scully / Noozhawk)
âThe meaning is that Mr. Serrano is in direct communication with one of the runners and is sending him money,â Casey said.
Another post referred to the addition of a member, identified as Membreno or Psycho, to the Santa Maria clique.
Often, messages between gang members involve code words.
âSome codes are more sophisticated than others, I guess you could tell. Some are more basic,â Casey said.
During the opening statement, Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen told jurors members of MS-13 called their victims “chickens” and the murders “soup”.
Casey is expected to continue testifying Wednesday morning in Judge John McGregor’s courtroom. Once Bramsen is finished, the five defense attorneys will have the opportunity to question Casey.
Meanwhile, a Santa Barbara judge continues to consider hardship claims from a separate panel of jurors for a different trial involving five other indicted men in the case. The voir dire for this trial may not take place until January.
Lawyers estimated that each trial would last about a year.