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Inside Santa Maria’s biggest gang bust

Last year was the most violent in memory for Santa Maria. There were 13 killings in a city that averages three or four murders a year. In January of this year, there were six homicides, five of them attributed to street violence.

In March, police arrested 17 alleged MS-13 gang members, and have brought murder charges on 10 of those killings. Since then, the murder rate has gone back to the norm for the city of just over 100,000 people.

As the court case appears headed for what could be the largest trial in Santa Barbara County history, Police Chief Ralph Martin sat down with KCOY 12 for an extensive interview on how they put a stop to a crime wave like no other.

Scroll to the bottom to watch Scott Hennessee’s special report.

“They’re ruthless,” Martin said. “They are absolutely ruthless and they are a killing machine.”

Police Chief Ralph Martin doesn’t mince words when describing the MS-13 street gang.

“They just started their wave of terror. It’s the only way you can really describe it,” he said.

The chief reviews a chart showing 10 homicides in Santa Maria from December of 2014 to December of 2015. Nine of the killings on the chart have been attributed by police to MS-13. In January of 2016, there were five street killings in the city, which is more than Santa Maria averages in a year.

“We saw an unprecedented amount of shootings starting in June of ’15 and culminating all the way up to January or February of this year,” Martin said.

Over a period of months Santa Maria Police conducted surveillance on multiple people they believe to be members of MS-13. Martin says 15 detectives worked full-time, intercepting phone calls and text messages, and monitoring social media activity.

With the help of neighboring law enforcement, the FBI and the ATF, Santa Maria Police conducted Operation Matador. In the early morning hours of March 3rd, 16 arrests were made in multiple locations over the course of three hours without incident. Another suspect was arrested the next day. The operation involved 150 officers, with some of the arrests being made outside of the area.

“I think it was an operation like no other that’s ever been undertaken on the Central Coast,” Martin said.

In nearly nine months since Operation Matador, there have been three killings in Santa Maria, none of them connected to MS-13.

“I feel the Santa Maria Police Department did a great job in cleaning up the MS-13 gang violence,” local resident Georgianna Hernandez said. “I feel much safer now.”

While the murder rate has stabilized since Operation Matador, others still fell unsafe at times in Santa Maria.

“I won’t go certain places at night,” Orcutt resident, Jeanne Lethbridge said. “(I’m) always nervous when I come out of the movies, and park real close to the theater.”

Chief Martin sees Operation Matador as a turning point against crime in the city. Seventeen defendants with street names like Smiley, Psycho, and Bandit now face charges brought by a Grand Jury.

“The defendants appeared in court on those charging documents,” Assistant District Attorney Ann Bramsen said. “Their attorney’s asked to continue their arraignment to December 2nd.”

The Grand Jury heard enough evidence to bring forth 10 murder charges and 14 attempted murder, or conspiracy to commit murder charges against the alleged members of MS-13. Those court documents are sealed, but we did obtain other court documents that outline a series of targeted killings.

“It’s our opinion,” Police Chief Martin said, “That they were stalking their prey, and we were following them.”

A declaration filed at a bail reduction hearing by District Attorney Joyce Dudley describes the “sophisticated techniques” the suspects used to track, identify and scout their victims. It also asserts the only reason six attempted murder victims are alive is because police had the suspects on a wire tap and stepped in.

“Most of their victims we could see were targeted,” Martin said. “They were targeted gang members. A lot of people say well they were just killing other gang members. But you know what, no. We had to intervene.”

Martin says some of the victims were associated with the 18th Street Gang, the sworn enemy of MS-13. Both originated in Los Angeles from Salvadorian Civil War exiles in the 1980’s.

Many were sent home to El Salvador after the war and gang culture went with them. El Salvador know has the highest murder rate in the world.

Chief Martin says MS-13 has 40,000 members and is in 40 states across the country.

“I’m hoping that the FBI will one day label them as a terrorist organization,” Martin said.

It’s Ann Bramsen’s job to prosecute them in what could be the biggest trial in Santa Barbara County history.

There could be 17 or more lawyers in the courtroom. Each defendant can also have a translator and investigator, making for a potentially difficult logistical situation. A venue for a potential trial has not yet been chosen.

Bramsen successfully prosecuted 5 of 6 gang members in the so called U-Haul murder trial, a case involving unpaid drug debts. That was one murder. This is at least 10, and Chief Martin emphasizes, these suspects are not products of Santa Maria.

“I try to tell people the city gets a bad rap you know with this tremendous crime rate going on,” Martin says. “But the reality is, this group just moved in. It’d be like the Mafia in Chicago just moving in to your city and all of a sudden taxing people and really committing horrendous acts.”

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