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Marijuana dispute led to desert massacre in San Bernardino that killed 6

Adelanto, CA - January 24: San Bernardino sheriff's department officials investigate scene where five were found dead in a remote area of SanBernardino county north of Adelato January 24, 2024. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department officials investigate a scene Wednesday where six people were found dead in the community of El Mirage. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Five men have been arrested in a gruesome multiple slaying in a remote part of the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County. Six men were fatally shot — and four of them were also severely burned — in Tuesday's incident, authorities say. Their bodies were left scattered amid the desert landscape.

The motive behind the violence was a dispute over marijuana, investigators say. Possible connections to cartel activity are being explored.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department served search warrants in Apple Valley, Adelanto and the Los Angeles County area of Piñon Hills, identifying five suspects in the slayings, which took place in the community of El Mirage, authorities said Monday.

Investigators arrested Toniel Baez-Duarte, 34; Mateo Baez-Duarte, 24; Jose Nicolas Hernandez-Sarabia, 33; Jose Gregorio Hernandez-Sarabia, 34; and Jose Manuel Burgos Parra. 26.

"The moment we started this investigation, we started to receive strong leads," San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus said at a news conference Monday evening.

On Tuesday at 8:16 p.m., dispatchers received a 911 call, according to Michael Warrick, a sergeant in the specialized investigation division for the Sheriff's Department.

The caller, speaking in Spanish, "told dispatchers he was shot," Warrick said, "but he did not know the location he was at, and it appeared the call ended."

Dispatchers tracked the coordinates of the phone call to an area near Lessing Avenue and Shadow Mountain Road, off U.S. Highway 395. A long north-south corridor, U.S. Highway 395 runs from Interstate 15 in Hesperia, Calif., through Carson City, Nev., to the Canadian border.

With the assistance of the California Highway Patrol air operations unit, officers discovered a crime scene with multiple shooting victims and two vehicles, a Dodge Caravan and a Chevy Trailblazer. One of the vehicles was pocked with bullet holes. The desolate area surrounding the crime scene, about 50 miles northeast of Los Angeles, was littered with cardboard, rubber tires and broken bottles.

About an hour later, deputies from the sheriff's Victor Valley station arrived and found four slain men with severe burns, a fifth deceased man in the Chevy Trailblazer and a sixth deceased victim a short distance away.

Four of the six have been identified. The name of one, a 45-year-old man, is being withheld pending next-of-kin notification. The last two victims have yet to be identified.

Those who have been identified are Baldemar Mondragon-Albarran, 34; Franklin Noel Bonilla, 22; and Kevin Dariel Bonilla, 25.

Warrick said Franklin Bonilla was the person who called 911 for help.

The identified victims were Latino, possibly Honduran nationals. They lived in Adelanto and Hesperia, authorities said.

Investigators said all victims sustained fatal gunshot injuries; it is believed four of the men were burned by the suspects at the location.

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"We are still conducting follow-up investigation, but we are confident we have arrested all the suspects in this case," Warrick said.

When serving warrants, detectives recovered eight firearms, which will undergo a forensic examination to determine whether any were used in the slayings, he said.

Asked whether the slayings could be cartel-related, Warrick said that he couldn't yet comment but that there were "certain things at the scene that show a level of violence that obviously raises some interesting questions for us."

The five suspects were arrested Sunday on suspicion of murder and are being held without bail pending a review of the case by the San Bernardino County district attorney's office.

Illegal marijuana grows are an issue in the area, Dicus said during Monday's news conference.

Recreational marijuana and registered marijuana grows are legal in California. Dicus, however, cited the marijuana black market as a cause of violence.

"The plague is the black market of marijuana and certainly cartel activity, and a number of victims are out there," he said.

Read more: 6 people found shot to death in El Mirage in San Bernardino County desert

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.