Five men have been arrested and charged in connection with the grisly killings of six people discovered shot – and some of whom were also burned – last week in a remote area of Southern California’s Mojave Desert.
All six had apparent fatal gunshot wounds – and four of the bodies had also been burned, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Michael Warrick said during a Monday evening news conference. The killings appear to be connected to illegal marijuana, authorities said.
“This mass murder, done in a dark secluded desert, clearly illuminates the violence and crime that exists as a direct consequence of illegal marijuana operations,” San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson said in a Tuesday news release announcing murder charges for the suspects.
The victims, all men, were discovered last Tuesday night after dispatchers received a 911 call from one of them. Warrick said the man told them in Spanish he had been shot but did not know where he was.
“Dispatchers tracked the phone via latitude and longitude coordinates to a remote area in unincorporated Adelanto,” Warrick said. Adelanto, in the desert, is about 60 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
Deputies with the sheriff’s office and an air-operations unit from the California Highway Patrol searched the area until they discovered a crime scene with “multiple gunshot wound victims” and two vehicles, one of which had multiple gunshots in it, Warrick said.
Four of the victims were discovered with severe burns, a fifth man was found inside a vehicle and a sixth man – believed to be the one who called 911 – was found a little further away with a gunshot wound. Aerial footage from CNN affiliates last week showed remnants of what appeared to be a brutal crime scene.
Four of the victims have been identified so far, authorities said Monday. They are Baldemar Mondragon-Albarran, 34; Franklin Noel Bonilla, 22, who authorities identified as the 911 caller; Kevin Dariel Bonilla, 25; and a 45-year-old man whose next of kin is still being notified, according to a news release from the sheriff’s office.
Authorities served multiple search warrants throughout the investigation and recovered several firearms and other evidence, the sheriff’s office said.
The five suspects in the killings, who were arrested Sunday, were identified as Toniel Baez-Duarte, 34; Mateo Baez-Duarte, 24; Jose Nicolas Hernandez-Sarabia, 33; Jose Gregorio Hernandez-Sarabia, 36, who authorities had previously said was 34; and Jose Manuel Burgos Parra, 26. CNN is working to identify attorneys for the defendants.
All five men were charged with six felony counts of murder, with the special circumstance allegation of multiple murders, as well as six felony counts of robbery, according to the Tuesday news release from the DA’s office. In addition, all except Toniel Baez-Duarte were charged with six special allegations of use of a firearm in commission of a felony.
Investigators believe the victims had arranged to meet at the remote location for a “marijuana transaction,” but the suspects arrived at the locations and shot at them for “reasons still under investigation,” according to the sheriff’s office.
“We are confident that this appears to be a dispute over marijuana, which resulted in the murders,” Warrick said. “Our investigators combed through evidence collected at the scene and followed up on information provided by the community.”
The investigation is still ongoing, the sergeant said. All five suspects remain in custody with no bail and were expected to be arraigned Tuesday, the DA’s office said.
When asked whether the case appeared to be gang or cartel-related, Warrick said while this is still an open probe, “there’s certain things at the scene that show a level of violence that obviously raises some interesting questions for us, but at this point in the investigation, we can’t comment on if we believe if this is cartel-related or not.”
San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon D. Dicus said the illegal marijuana market in the area has led to brutal crime scenes including killings, sharing that in the last year alone, marijuana enforcement teams served more than 400 search warrants for illegal marijuana grows and recovered more than 650,000 marijuana plants and $370 million.
“It looks like illicit marijuana was the driving force behind these murders, and that’s all we really know at this point.”
CNN’s Cheri Mossburg contributed to this report.
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