Indictments Shed Light on Mountain Murder

On July 27, 2018, the body of 19-year-old Roger Eli Chavez-Barahona was discovered beside Piuma, near Schuren Road, just west of Topanga. The coroner determined that the cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds. 

Now, a recently revealed investigation by federal and local authorities into a local clique of the MS-13 transnational gang appears to have revealed more details in the case, as well as a disturbing pattern of gang-related activity in the local mountains.

The investigation resulted in a federal racketeering case that charges 22 people with a 12-count indictment that includes seven counts of murder. The unsealing of the indictment received national attention because of the brutality used in the killings. One prosecutor connected to the case described the killings as “medieval.”

The 78-page indictment charges all but one of the 22 defendants with conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. The RICO charge alleges nearly 200 “overt acts,” beginning with the transportation of $1.22 million in narcotics proceeds that were seized in Nebraska in 2010, and ending with a series of seven unusually brutal murders over the past two years.   

Most of the victims were members of rival gangs, or individuals “who were perceived to be cooperating with law enforcement,” but one was a homeless man who was temporarily living in a park controlled by the gang, according to the indictment. He was beaten to death.

In one case, the victim was hacked into pieces with a machete. The defendants reportedly then cut the victim’s heart out, before throwing the remains into a ravine in the San Gabriel Mountains.

“Overt Act No. 152” in the indictment states, “On July 21, 2018, in the Malibu Hills of Los Angeles County, four of the defendants together with unindicted co-conspirators, shot and killed “R.C.” The term “Malibu Hills” is an old term for the area of the Santa Monica Mountains around Latigo, Corral and Malibu canyons, north of the beach. It is used on some USGS topographic maps, and by the Civil Defence during WW II, and remains in use by law enforcement and the fire department.

Although the indictment does not spell out the victim’s name, the date, location, cause of death and initials strongly suggests that this was Roger Eli Chavez-Barahona.

The indictment states that one of the defendants implicated in the murder posed for a photograph in the same vicinity. The image, apparently posted on social media, shows the suspect making a hand sign of the gang.

Two of the four indicted men allegedly involved in the killing of Chavez-Barahona were apprehended on September 3, 2018, in the vicinity of Coastline Drive on PCH. The report states that a machete and a 9 mm pistol, loaded with a high capacity magazine containing 17 live rounds, was found in their vehicle.

On January 28 of this year, the other two defendants accused of participating in the murder were intercepted in their vehicle on an undisclosed road in the local mountains, with two unindicted co-conspirators. That vehicle contained handcuffs, a loaded gun, two baseball bats, two knives, ski masks, and two beanies with the gang’s initials embroidered on them.

The federal RICO case is the product of an investigation by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Task Force on Violent Gangs, which is made up of special agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, officers with the Los Angeles Police Department, and deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. A fourth defendant was arrested over the weekend in Oklahoma.

“We have now taken off the streets nearly two dozen people associated with the most violent arm of MS-13 in Los Angeles, where the gang is believed to have killed 24 people over the past two years,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna in a statement. “This investigation has been an unqualified success. The collaborative law enforcement effort solved several murder cases and dealt a severe blow to members of the gang who engaged in acts of brutality not seen in the region for over 20 years.”        

The indictment  contains allegations that the six VICAR murders— “violent crimes committed in aid of racketeering”—were committed “in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner in that [they] involved torture or serious physical abuse to the victim.” 

Those special circumstances make the 16 defendants charged in relation to those six murders, including the killing on Piuma Road, eligible for the federal death penalty, although the government has not indicated whether it will seek such a sentence for any of the defendants if they are convicted. 

An earlier murder does appear to be connected to this group of defendants. In May of 2018, the body of 52-year-old Francisco Reynaldo Cruz was discovered in a ditch by the side of the road opposite Malibu Creek State Park, near the Malibu Hindu Temple. Cruz reportedly died from sharp force injuries to the upper body and blunt force injury to the head. 

The presence of organized crime activity in the Santa Monica Mountains isn’t new, but it is troubling. 

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Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at

  1. That’s a crazy story! Did they jsut use these mountains as a dumping ground or did they have a ‘their business(es)” here? Is there more to the story? Thanks for reporting.

    1. The victim whose body was found on Piuma appears to have been killed on site, not just dumped there.

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