Victims IDed And Suspects Arrested & Charged In Shadow Mountain Killings

In rapid fashion early this week came revelations about the identities of the victims and the perpetrators of the violent murders of six men in a remote area of the Mojave Desert north of Adelanto, together with indications that sheriff’s investigators have solved the primary mystery surrounding the crime.
For at least several hours after the shootings took place on January 23, sheriff’s department investigators were unable to identify five of the six men who were gunned down by five of their criminal accomplices in the early hours of that evening. For five days thereafter, the department withheld the identities of the victims, as they pursued a multiplicity of leads in determining who the killers were.
The department has now identified Baldemar Mondragon-Albarran, 34, of Adelanto; and two brothers, Franklin Noel Bonilla, 22, and Kevin Dariel Bonilla, 25, of Hesperia as three of the victims. The identity of a fourth, a 45-year-old man, has been ascertained, but his name is being withheld pending notification of his next of kin. Two others, whose remains are in the custody of the coroner’s office, have not been identified.
According to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, those six were involved in the unlicensed production of marijuana in one or more locations throughout the High Desert subregion of the Mojave Desert in both San Bernardino and Los Angeles Counties and had a deadly encounter with Toniel Baez-Duarte, 35, and his brother Mateo Baez-Duarte, 24; Jose Nicolas Hernandez-Sarabia, 33, and his brother, Jose Gregorio Hernandez-Sarabia, 36; and Jose Manuel Burgos Parra, 26 some time at or after sundown on January 23.
Like the victims, their five assailants were involved in the trafficking of marijuana.
According to Sheriff Shannon Dicus “Illicit marijuana was the guiding force behind these murders.”
Investigators were able to connect some of those involved to at least one site in the desert where the cultivation of marijuana is known to have occurred. The site of the shooting – proximate to the El Mirage off-road trail 4652 marker not far from the Shadow Mountain Road/Lessing Avenue intersection – is in an area well known is known for illegal marijuana cultivation.
According to Dicus, in the 12 months from January 2023 through December 2023, his department served 11 search warrants relating to marijuana growing operations “in the immediate area of where the murders took place and they served approximately 40 search warrants to the west of what we call the Shadow Mountain area.”
Shadow Mountain Road and Lessing Avenue are dirt roads. That intersection is roughly three miles east of the Shadow Mountain ghost town, where a no-longer active mining operation once flourished, and about three-and-a half miles west of Highway 395, 10 miles northeast of the center of El Mirage, 12 miles west of Helendale, 15 miles west of Silver Lakes, 18 miles north-northwest of Adelanto and 26 miles northwest of Victorville and 50 miles north of San Bernardino.
According to Sergeant Michael Warrick, who headed the specialized investigations division/homicide detail investigation, at 8:16 p.m. Tuesday, January 23, the gravely wounded Franklin Bonilla managed to call 911 and, speaking in Spanish, told a sheriff’s dispatcher he had been shot. He was unable to provide his exact location beyond stating it was near Adelanto. Shortly thereafter, the call went dead. Using the geographic positioning data emanating from Bonilla’s phone, his position was determined to be roughly a quarter of mile from the Lessing Avenue and Shadow Mountain Road intersection.
The sheriff’s department has an air fleet which consists of 11 helicopters as well as other fixed wing aircraft, but no helicopter close to the site was available. A closer California Highway Patrol helicopter was immediately dispatched to the area and was instrumental in helping the first arriving deputy at 8:40 p.m. and then others who swiftly followed to locate the bodies of the victims.
The initial report of the shootings provided to the media was that five men were found dead. The initial television and radio reports were that there were five victims and newspaper reports published the following day gave the same total of five dead.
The five victims other than Franklin Bonilla were found near the Lessing Avenue and Shadow Mountain Road intersection, along with two vehicles, a blue Chevrolet Blazer SUV with Oregon plates and a silver Dodge Caravan van 9HUW954 with a blue 2024 expiration tag. One of those five bodies was found inside the Chevrolet Trailblazer. The other four were on the ground, one close to the Dodge Caravan. All four of the bodies had been burned to some degree, two more thoroughly than the others. An apparent attempt, one which was ultimately unsuccessful, had been made before the sheriff’s department arrived to set the Blazer afire. The body inside the Trailblazer had not been burned.
Five were killed as the result of multiple gunshot wounds, according to the sheriff’s department. Sergeant Warrick suggested but did not state categorically, that Franklin Bonilla might have been shot only once.
It is not clear whether the report of the deaths that originally went out was limited to five because the body inside the Trailblazer was not included in the tally of the dead or if, as has been suggested, the department purposefully withheld from the public that, in fact, all six victims had been located shortly after the response to the scene, most likely on the basis of hope that media reportage of five victims being found might encourage some or all of the perpetrators to return to the area to find the sixth – Franklin Bonilla – out of the belief that he was yet alive to eliminate him as the final witness to what had occurred.
Apprehending the criminals returning to the scene of the crime did not turn out to be necessary in order to solve the case, according to the sheriff’s department.
Sheriff Dicus said, From the moment we started this investigation, we started to receive strong leads, and after I was briefed, I was quite confident that we would be able to get the subjects that were involved in this homicide into custody. We used some human source and technological sources to be able to identify the suspects in this case.”
Of significant assistance in the case was cellphone data gleaned from Bonilla’s phone and cell towers in the area. That information allowed investigators to put together who was in the area of the shooting and to reconstruct an itinerary of both the victims and the suspects on January 23, including the time all nine arrived near the Lessing Avenue and Shadow Mountain Road location and the time the six suspects left, as well as the direction and routes they took in leaving.
That information was augmented with information provided by a walk-in at the Adelanto sheriff’s station as well as a group of what appeared to be three adults and children who came to the site of the shooting and investigation on Wednesday evening January 24 around 5 p.m. At that time as was the case the entire day, a deputy stationed where the dirt Shadow Mountain Road links with paved Highway 395 was preventing members of the public other than the press from moving west. Apparently, however, he let those potential witnesses pass with an escort after he was told that they believed they recognized one of the vehicles that was left near the Lessing Avenue and Shadow Mountain Road intersection based on what those adults saw of an aerial video of the crime scene broadcast by a Los Angeles television station.
Investigators indicated there was evidence to suggest that the victims and the suspects had arranged to meet at the location for a marijuana transaction. The five suspects arrived at the location, apparently after the victims were there. At some point, the six victims were shot. There was no indication that the victims had themselves opened fire on the suspects. The victims, with the possible exception of Franklin Bonilla, were stripped of their identification.
Franklin Bonilla, it appears, eluded the assailants by heading off into the chaparral. He went at least an eighth of a mile from the scene of the shooting, where he made the 911 call that brought the sheriff’s department to the location.
“As far as the motives, we are confident that this appears to be a dispute over marijuana, which resulted in the murders,” said Warrick. “Our investigators combed through evidence collected at the scene and followed up on information provided by the community. Through extensive investigation with the assistance of the sheriff’s narcotics and specialized enforcement division, on Sunday, January 28, 2024, we were able to serve multiple search warrants in the Town of Apple Valley, Adelanto and the Los Angeles County area of Pinon Hills. We arrested five suspects involved in the murder of the six victims.”
During those searches, Warrick said, eight firearms were seized, as well as additional evidence. “Our scientific investigations division will forensically process the evidence and determine if any of those firearms were the firearms used in our murders,” Warrick said.
All of those identified as responsible for the killings have been jailed and are being held on a no-bail hold. There are no further suspects and no further arrest anticipated, according to Warrick. “We are still conducting follow-up investigations but we are confident we have arrested all the suspects in this case.”
Dicus doubled down on that.
“I can guarantee you we got the five right people,” the sheriff said.
The arraignments of the five defendants in the case took place on different days.
On Tuesday, January 30, the Baez-Duarte brothers, both of Apple Valley, pleaded not guilty in Superior Court in Victorville to six counts of murder and six counts of second-degree robbery.
Because of unspecified medical or health considerations, the arraignments of the Hernandez-Sarabia brothers and Parra, all of whom resided in Adelanto, took place in Victorville Court on Thursday, February 1. They too entered not guilty pleas to six counts each of murder and six counts of second-degree robbery.
In trying the case, the district attorney’s office intends to pursue obtaining special circumstance convictions based on the multiple murder aspect of the case. Despite the special circumstance inclusion, it is unclear as to whether the prosecutors will allege first-degree murder or second-degree murder. The former charge would be appropriate and might be accepted by a jury if it can be shown that there were elements to the crime, such as lying in wait or preparations for the slaughter in advance that the defendants engaged in. The latter charge would apply if the evidence or testimony shows that a fatal disagreement erupted after all 11 of the parties had arrived at the fateful rendezvous, and that the murders were not contemplated by any of the defendants in advance.
-Mark Gutglueck

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