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5 suspects arrested in California desert killings in dispute over marijuana, sheriff’s officials say

By Associated Press
Published: January 29, 2024, 7:22pm

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Five people have been arrested in the investigation surrounding six bodies found last week at a remote dirt crossroads in the Southern California desert in a dispute over marijuana, sheriff’s officials said Monday.

Authorities discovered the bodies in the Mojave Desert outside El Mirage after someone called 911 and said in Spanish that he had been shot, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Warrick said. Five bodies were found late Tuesday and a sixth the following morning.

Five suspects were arrested and eight firearms were seized after deputies served search warrants Sunday in the Adelanto and Apple Valley areas of San Bernardino County and the Pinyon Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles County, Warrick said at a news conference.

“We are confident that this appears to be a dispute over marijuana,” he said.

Officials said investigators believe all the suspects in the case are in custody. The five men, ranging in age from 24 to 34, were held without bail.

All the victims were likely shot to death and four of the bodies had been partially burned together, Warrick said. A fifth victim was found inside a Chevy Trailblazer, and the sixth was discovered the following day in the desert a short distance away, he said.

Authorities identified four of the victims as: 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 identity was withheld pending family notification. Coroner’s officials were trying to identify the remaining two men.

Investigators believe Franklin Bonilla was the man who called 911, Warrick said.

The scene showed a “level of violence” reminiscent of drug cartels, but investigators couldn’t immediately confirm that cartels were involved, officials said.

“It looks like illicit marijuana was the driving force behind these murders,” Sheriff Shannon Dicus said, adding that the area is known for illegal marijuana grow operations.

California voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2016, and the state has become the world’s largest legal cannabis marketplace since then, with billions in annual sales. But the illegal market continues to thrive.

Dicus called the black market “a plague” that results in violence, and he called on lawmakers to reform cannabis laws to “keep legalization but revert to harsher penalties for users of illegal pot.”

Overhead footage from TV stations last week showed a dark blue SUV with a passenger window blown out and another door open, with part of the image blurred. The footage also showed numerous yellow evidence markers in the scrubby desert.

The area, some 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Los Angeles, is so remote that the sheriff’s department called in help from the California Highway Patrol’s Aviation Division to find the scene.

In 2020, seven people were fatally shot at an illegal marijuana growing operation in a small, rural town in neighboring Riverside County. More than 20 people lived on the property, which had several makeshift dwellings used for the production of honey oil, a potent cannabis concentrate.