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

By Associated Press
Published: January 30, 2024, 8:52am

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) — The six men found dead at a remote dirt crossroads in the Southern California desert last week were likely shot to death in a dispute over marijuana, sheriff’s officials said Monday as they announced the arrests of five men suspected in the violence.

Authorities discovered the bodies Tuesday 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 during a news conference.

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 nearby the following day, he 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 growing operations.

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

Five men, ranging in age from 24 to 34, 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.

Officials said investigators believe all the suspects in the case are in custody. They were held without bail.

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 name 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.

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 kilometers) 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.