The authorities in Southern California announced on Monday that they had arrested five men in connection with the six people found fatally shot at a remote crossroads in the Mojave Desert last week, a grisly scene that investigators believe stemmed from a dispute over marijuana.
Just days ago, the news of the bodies seemed a stunning mystery, with few details offered to the public.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department received a call on Jan. 23 for a wellness check. That prompted deputies to head toward an intersection off Highway 395 outside El Mirage, a community about 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
There, they discovered the bodies of five men. An additional male victim was found early the next morning. Video captured by television news stations blurred out the graphic images. No updates were offered.
But behind the scenes, the authorities were quickly piecing together clues in an area they said was known for illicit marijuana.
“From the moment we started this investigation, we started to receive strong leads, and after I was briefed, I was quite confident that we’d be able to get the subjects that were involved in this homicide into custody,” Shannon Dicus, the sheriff of San Bernardino County, told reporters on Monday.
The sheriff said dumped bodies connected to illegal marijuana growing were not new to the region. “It isn’t an anomaly,” he said. “The anomaly here is the amount of people that were murdered.”
He said that the department’s marijuana enforcement teams had served a total of 411 search warrants last year for illegal marijuana growing and had seized 655,000 marijuana plants, 74,000 pounds of processed marijuana and $370 million.
The authorities revealed on Monday that the 911 call that prompted their search had come from a man believed to be one of the victims. Dispatchers received a call from a man who said in Spanish that he had been shot but did not know his location. The call ended, but his cell signal was tracked to a remote area in the Mojave Desert.
Because the area is particularly isolated, the Sheriff’s Department sought navigation help from the California Highway Patrol’s aviation division.
After deputies arrived, they found four men with severe burns and another man in a sport utility vehicle. The two vehicles found on the scene were a Dodge Caravan and a Chevrolet Trailblazer, one of which had several bullet holes. The next day, investigators found an additional victim a short distance away.
Four of the six victims have been identified: Baldemar Mondragon-Albarran, 34, of Adelanto; Franklin Noel Bonilla, 22, of Hesperia; Kevin Dariel Bonilla, 25, of Hesperia; and a 45-year-old man whose name was not released, pending notification of his relatives. Franklin Bonilla is believed to have made the 911 call.
On Sunday, the authorities served search warrants in several communities near where the bodies were found. Detectives recovered evidence, including eight firearms that will be analyzed to determine whether they were used in the killings. The suspects were arrested at a compound near what the authorities said appeared to be a future growing operation.
Investigators determined that arrangements had been made for the suspects to meet the victims at the remote location for a marijuana transaction.
The suspects are all area residents: Toniel Baez-Duarte, 34, and Mateo Baez-Duarte, 24, of Apple Valley; and Jose Nicolas Hernandez-Sarabia, 33, Jose Gregorio Hernandez-Sarabia, 34, and Jose Manuel Burgos Parra, 26, of Adelanto. The five men are in custody with no bail, pending a review from the local district attorney’s office.
“We are still conducting a follow-up investigation, but we are confident we have arrested all the suspects in this case,” said Michael Warrick, a sergeant with the homicide detail on the department’s specialized investigations division.
Aimee Ortiz contributed reporting.