5 men arrested in Mojave Desert murders that remained a mystery for days

Authorities in Southern California announced Monday that they have arrested five men in connection with six people found fatally shot at a remote Mojave Desert intersection last week, a gruesome scene that investigators believe stemmed from a dispute over marijuana.

Just a few days ago, news of the bodies seemed like an astonishing mystery, with few details being offered to the public.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department received a call Jan. 23 for a well-being check. That prompted deputies to head to the Interstate 395 intersection outside El Mirage, a community about 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

There they discovered the bodies of five men. Another male victim was found early the next morning. Video taken by television stations obscured the graphic images. No updates offered.

But behind the scenes, authorities were quickly piecing together leads in an area they said was known for illegal marijuana.

“From the moment we started this investigation, we started getting strong leads, and once I was notified, I was pretty confident that we would be able to bring the subjects involved in this homicide into custody,” San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus, he told reporters on Monday.

The sheriff said dumped bodies linked to illegal marijuana cultivation are nothing new in the region. “It’s not an anomaly,” he said. “The anomaly here is the amount of people who were killed.”

He said the ministry’s marijuana enforcement teams issued a total of 411 search warrants last year for illegal marijuana cultivation and seized 655,000 marijuana plants, 74,000 pounds of processed marijuana and $370 million.

Authorities revealed Monday that the 911 call that led to their search came 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 where he was. The call ended, but his cell phone signal was traced to a remote area in the Mojave Desert.

Because this area is particularly isolated, the Sheriff’s Department requested navigational assistance from the California Highway Patrol’s aviation division.

When deputies arrived, they found four men with severe burns and another man in an SUV. The two vehicles found at the scene were a Dodge Caravan and a Chevrolet Trailblazer, one of which had several bullet holes. The next day, investigators found another 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 has not been released, pending notification of his next of kin. Franklin Bonilla is believed to have called 911.

On Sunday, 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 if they were used in the murders. The suspects were arrested at a nearby property in what authorities said appeared to be a prospective grow operation.

Investigators determined that an arrangement had been made for the suspects to meet the victims at a remote location to transact marijuana.

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 being held without bail pending a review by the local district attorney.

“We are still investigating, but we are confident that we have arrested all the suspects in this case,” said Michael Warrick, a homicide detail sergeant in the department’s specialized investigations division.

Aimee Ortiz contributed to the reporting.

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