Feds: Drug trafficker ‘executed’ 2 witnesses, including pregnant mother, in San Diego-based drug prosecutions

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

The alleged leader of a drug-trafficking cell that used pricey stolen cars and San Diego border crossings to import narcotics from Mexico has been charged with murdering two witnesses, including a pregnant mother of three, to prevent them from testifying in San Diego drug prosecutions.

Benjamin Madrigal-Birrueta, a 22-year-old resident of Yakima, Wash., is facing a 15-count federal indictment in San Diego related to the alleged murders, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California announced Tuesday. The charges include two counts of first-degree murder related to witness tampering and two counts of murder in furtherance of a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Madrigal-Birrueta pleaded not guilty to the charges Tuesday in San Diego federal court. The indictment indicates that at least one co-conspirator, and potentially as many as three, also took part in the slayings.

Special agents with Homeland Security Investigations work with a forensic evidence team from the Washington State Police in September 2023 in the desert outside Yakima, Wash., to exhume the bodies of two people who spoke with investigators about a drug-trafficking operation.

(via U.S. District Court filing)

Madrigal-Birrueta and his unnamed co-conspirator are accused of killing Cesar Armando Murillo, a 44-year-old father of two minor children, and Maira Sofia Hernandez, a 33-year-old mother of three minor children who was six months pregnant when she was slain. The victims, both residents of Yakima, disappeared just days after federal agents interviewed them in relation to a drug-trafficking investigation.

More than a year after their disappearance, authorities finally discovered their remains buried in the high desert outside Yakima with the help of ground penetrating radar and other high-tech tools. Citing autopsy reports, prosecutors said both had been shot twice in the head.

Madrigal-Birrueta allegedly admitted to investigators last year that he shot Murillo, though he claimed he did so in self-defense, according to prosecutors. He also allegedly claimed he was present when Hernandez was shot, though he said someone else pulled the trigger.

His attorney declined to comment Wednesday.

“These executions were an assault on our justice system, designed to silence witnesses and instill fear,” San Diego-area U.S. Attorney Tara McGrath said in a statement. “The obligation to protect witnesses is paramount and the United States will fully prosecute intimidation and violence designed to interfere with the justice system.”

Ricardo Orizaba, a 21-year-old Yakima resident, was charged in the indictment as being an accessory to murder after the fact. Prosecutors said he and Madrigal-Birrueta are both in custody.

Prosecutors filed a document Tuesday that laid out some of the key allegations against Madrigal-Birrueta. It alleges that in summer 2021, special agents with Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego began investigating a smuggling cell that was bringing methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine from Mexico into the U.S. through San Diego ports of entry.

According to documents from several related cases, members of the group would steal newer model, high-end vehicles — such as a 2019 Ford F-150 Raptor, a 2020 Ford Mustang, a 2021 Acura RDX SUV — in the U.S. and then take them to Mexico, where they would change the VIN numbers of the vehicles. Then the group would load the vehicles with drugs and drive them across the border.

Prosecutors allege that over an 11-month period in 2021 and 2022, Madrigal-Birrueta was responsible for the drugs seized from at least six vehicles, writing that he was “linked to the seizures through phone records and through his own admissions.”

By August 2022, the Homeland Security Investigations agents believed that a group of people from Yakima was responsible for the drug-laden stolen vehicles they were finding at the border. They also learned that Murillo and Hernandez allegedly had some sort of link to the group through wire transfers and vehicle registrations.

On consecutive days in late August, agents interviewed the duo. A few weeks later, in early September, agents returned with a pair of warrants to search a Yakima residence and a ranch outside the city. The agents discovered dozens of firearms, including high-powered rifles and a machine gun, but Murillo and Hernandez had disappeared.

Authorities seized these weapons in September 2022 while serving a pair of warrants in Yakima, Wash., related to a drug-trafficking group that operated in San Diego.

(via U.S. District Court filing)

Early in 2023, federal authorities in Oregon issued a warrant for Madrigal-Birrueta’s arrest in connection with a 2021 highway traffic stop in which he was a passenger in a car loaded with more than 55 pounds of methamphetamine. Law enforcement officials arrested Madrigal-Birrueta on that warrant in early April in or near Fresno.

Prosecutors say that on the day he was arrested, Madrigal-Birrueta admitted to overseeing smugglers caught at the San Diego-Tijuana border and elsewhere. He also allegedly admitted to shooting Murillo, claiming it was self defense, and witnessing the shooting of Hernandez. He told agents he buried their bodies at the high-desert ranch where they had previously served the warrant.

Even with that information, it took investigators until September 2023 to locate the unmarked grave. A Washington State Police forensic evidence team exhumed the bodies. Prosecutors said two forensic pathologists examined the remains separately, both concluding the victims died from gunshots to the head.

“Murillo sustained multiple shots to the chest and two shots to the head,” prosecutors wrote. “Hernandez sustained two shots to the head and had one bullet lodged in her lung.”

A forensic anthropologist who examined the fetal remains concluded Hernandez was 26 weeks pregnant.

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.