EL MIRAGE, Calif. (KABC) -- Five suspects have been arrested after six murder victims were found in a remote desert area near the San Bernardino County community of El Mirage, authorities said Monday.
All six victims had been shot, and four of their bodies were found also burned at the scene, officials said. The motive appears to be a dispute over marijuana.
"For all intents and purposes, it looks like illicit marijuana was the driving force behind these murders," said Sheriff Shannon Dicus at a press conference on Monday.
The suspects were identified as five Inland Empire men in their 20s and 30s:
Toniel Baez-Duarte, 34, of Apple Valley; Mateo Baez-Duarte, 24, of Apple Valley; Jose Nicolas Hernandez-Sarabia, 33, of Adelanto; Jose Gregorio Hernandez-Sarabia, 34, of Adelanto; and Jose Manuel Burgos Parra, 26, of Adelanto.
Officials said all five suspects were being held without bail pending a review of potential charges by the district attorney's office.
Investigators say they don't believe there are additional suspects outstanding. Eight firearms were recovered and were being tested to see if they match the weapons used against the six victims.
Officials say they have not yet determined if the suspects were involved with drug cartels.
Sheriff's press conference
The incident started when a call was placed to 911 just after 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 23. The male caller, speaking in Spanish, said he had been shot but didn't give his location before ending the call. Authorities later determined one of the victims found deceased at the scene was the caller.
The sheriff's department was able to track the phone's coordinates to a remote area off Highway 395 outside El Mirage around 8:15 p.m. Jan. 23.
A law enforcement helicopter reached the remote area first and spotted the graphic scene, with multiple gunshot victims and two vehicles - one of which was riddled with bullets.
Investigators on the ground initially found four male bodies in one area, all shot and burned. They then located another body in the bullet-riddled Chevy Trailblazer and found a sixth victim in a separate, nearby location the next morning.
Aerial footage from AIR7 HD showed numerous yellow evidence markers near the dirt crossroads, suggesting a massive amount of gunfire, with shell casings found scattered across the area.
Investigators say after recovering extensive evidence from the scene they served search warrants in Adelanto, Apple Valley and Pinon Hills on Sunday and arrested all five suspects.
Sheriff Dicus said that part of the county is known for the illicit marijuana trade and deputies have made numerous arrests in the region.
In the last year, he said, the county's marijuana teams served 411 search warrants for illegal marijuana grows, uncovered 14 honey oil labs, recovered some 655,000 marijuana plants in addition to 74,000 pounds of processed marijuana and seized $370 million.
In the area near where the murders took place, they served 11 search warrants, and an additional 40 in a nearby area known as Shadow Mountain.
Dicus said since California voters decriminalized marijuana, there has been an increase in organized criminal activity related to the drug.
"By allowing that, we've unleashed a plague in California," Dicus said. "The plague is the black market of marijuana. And certainly cartel activity and a number of victims that are out there."