Watch CBS News

Gruesome murders in Mojave Desert connected to illicit marijuana grow operation, sheriff says

Dispute over illicit marijuana led to gruesome killings in Mojave Desert, sheriff said
Dispute over illicit marijuana led to gruesome killings in Mojave Desert, sheriff said 02:45

Authorities said they have arrested suspects in connection to the six people found dead in a remote area of the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County last week, which apparently stemmed from a dispute over marijuana. 

Aerial view of the scene of the shooting via SkyCal.  KCAL News

The killings happened on January 23, 2024, in El Mirage, just 10 miles north of Adelanto, around 8:15 p.m., according to the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department.

When crews arrived at the scene, near Lessing Avenue and Shadow Mountain Road, they originally found five deceased individuals. A sixth individual was discovered in the morning.

Sergeant Michael Warrick, with SBSD's Specialized Investigations Division's Homicide Detail, spoke at a press conference on Monday to provide additional information on the investigation. 

"Dispatchers received a 911 call from a subject who spoke Spanish. The caller told dispatchers that he was shot, but he did not know the location he was at," Warrick said. The call ended before they could get further information, but the dispatchers were able to trace the phone's location to where the bodies were found. 

Due to the remote location, SBSD requested assistance from California Highway Patrol, who lent an airship to their search for the scene of the report. 

"Once overhead the area, officers discovered a crime scene and what appeared to be multiple gunshot wound victims, two vehicles and one of the vehicles ... had multiple gunshot strikes in it," Warrick said. 

They found the bodies of four males, all of which were severely burned, a body inside of the two cars and a sixth victim a short distance away suffering from a gunshot wound. 

Three of the victims were identified at Monday's press conference. A fourth has been identified but investigators are working to inform next of kin before providing their identity. 

They have been identified as Baldomar Mondragon-Albarran, 34 of Adelanto, Franklin Noel Bonilla, 22 of Hesperia and Kevin Dariel Bonilla, 25 of Hesperia. The fourth is a 45-year-old man. The fifth and sixth victims have not yet been identified. 

"As far as the motives, we are confident that this appears to be a dispute over marijuana, which resulted in the murders," Warrick said. "Through extensive investigation ... on Sunday, January 28, 2023, we were able to search multiple search warrants in the town of Apple Valley, Adelanto and the Los Angeles County area of Pinon Hills."

The five suspects have been identified as Apple Valley and Adelanto residents Toniel Baez-Duarte, 34, Mateo Baez-Duarte, 24, Jose Nicolas Hernandez-Sarabia, 33, Jose Gregorio Hernandez-Sabaria, 34, and Jose Manual Burgos Parra, 26. 

"We are confident we have arrested all the suspects in this case," Warrick said. "They are currently in custody with no bail."

Warrick said that detectives recovered evidence, including eight firearms during the search warrants. Forensic scientists will work to determine if they were used in the murders. He would not disclose whether investigators believed the incident was cartel-related. 

San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus claimed "illicit marijuana is the driving force behind these murders."

"I think we need to acknowledge really why we're here and why we're talking about illegal marijuana," he added.

Amid his public statement, he criticized Proposition 64, a 2016 law that legalized nonmedical use of cannabis by people 21 and older. However, it also reduced the punishment for marijuana-related offenses.

"The reality of this is, by allowing that we've unleashed a plague. The plague is the black market of marijuana and cartel activity," Dicus said. 

With SkyCal overhead, two cars could be seen near where the bodies were located, one of which appeared to be riddled with bullet holes. Dozens of evidence markers surrounded the cars. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.