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Two Men Charged with Murdering Witnesses and Burying Their Remains to Thwart Investigation of Drug Trafficking Organization

NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – March 5, 2024

SAN DIEGO – A superseding indictment was partially unsealed in the Southern District of California today charging Benjamin Madrigal-Birrueta, an alleged drug trafficker, with murdering two people to prevent them from testifying in drug trafficking prosecutions that were pending in federal court in San Diego.

The victims were identified as Cesar Armando Murillo, 44, and Maira Sofia Hernandez, 33, residents of Yakima, Washington. Court filings indicate Hernandez was six-months pregnant when she was killed, and the superseding indictment includes a separate count charging Madrigal-Birrueta with the death of her in utero child.

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

“The cartels and drug trafficking organizations have reached beyond our borders, bringing their criminality to every city and small town in our interior,” said Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer, who oversees HSI operations in the Pacific Northwest. “The murder of witnesses is an afront to our rule of law but HSI, along with our law enforcement partners, have the resources to uncover these horrible crimes and the dedication to dismantle the organizations harming our population, wherever they may be located.”

“HSI continues to tirelessly investigate criminal organizations who traffic dangerous drugs across our border and into the interior of the United States. In this pursuit we will ensure that anyone who is responsible for causing harm to a witness in one of our investigations is held accountable for these actions,” said HSI San Diego SAC Chad Plantz. “Fear or harm caused to those who report a crime or testify diminishes the public’s trust in the criminal justice system and erodes the foundation of the rule of law. HSI and its partners are committed to ensuring that anyone who tampers with witnesses or breaks the laws in place to protect them are brought to justice.”

The superseding indictment also charges Ricardo Orizaba with being an accessory after the fact to murder. Court filings indicate both victims were buried in a remote high-desert location near Yakima and that these charges follow a year-long search culminating in the discovery of their remains in September 2023. Hernandez is survived by her three minor children and Murillo is survived by two minor children.

The superseding indictment alleges Defendant Madrigal-Birrueta was a leader in a criminal enterprise that committed a series of felony violations of federal drug laws. According to court filings, the investigation originated with the seizure of drugs from vehicles using San Diego area ports of entry between August and October of 2021. The organization used late model stolen vehicles to smuggle drugs.  The superseding indictment alleges that Madrigal-Birrueta is responsible for the importation of those drugs.

According to court filings, by August of 2022, the investigation led agents to a group of individuals operating out of Yakima. Special Agents with Homeland Security Investigations interviewed Murillo and Hernandez, and within days of those interviews, Murillo and Hernandez were murdered and their bodies were buried in the high desert. Court filings describe how these charges follow an exhaustive, year-long investigation that employed geophysicists, ground penetrating radar, aircraft, laser imaging, chemical testing of the soil, numerous cadaver dogs, and other law enforcement techniques to search for the victims’ remains. HSI Special Agents successfully recovered the remains on September 13, 2023, aided by a Washington State Police Crime Scene Investigations team.

Special Agents with Homeland Security Investigations working with Washington State Police to exhume remains on September 13, 2023.

Court filings further indicate that, based on autopsy reports, both victims died of multiple gunshot wounds to the head.

During the investigation agents seized methamphetamine, cocaine, fentanyl, multiple firearms — including a machine gun — and body armor from Madrigal-Birrueta’s drug trafficking organization.  In addition to the homicides, the superseding indictment charges Madrigal-Birrueta with possessing a machine gun in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

Federal courts in California and Washington state have ordered that Madrigal-Birrueta and Orizaba be detained pending trial, and both are in custody.

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