Criminologist doubts cartels are responsible for slaying of 6 in California desert

As the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department continues to investigate the discovery Tuesday night of six bodies near a bullet-riddled van on a remote dirt road in the desert, a spokeswoman said Thursday that no other agencies have joined the probe.

That prompted an Inland criminologist to say that he doubts, absent new information, that a Mexican cartel was involved as has been widely speculated on social media.

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Sheriff’s spokeswoman Mara Rodriguez also said Thursday, Jan. 25, that the department is not likely to release additional information this week, including the causes of death and the genders, approximate ages and identities of the dead.

Peter Hanink, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Cal Poly Pomona, said Thursday the cartels are the “boogeyman” that sometimes automatically get blamed by the public for what they suspect are drug crimes.

“If there were some international drug smuggling you would expect to see some involvement with the (Drug Enforcement Administration) or (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), or the FBI. The fact that there is not, it’s something that’s internal to San Bernardino County,” Hanink said in an interview. “This could all change tomorrow if they uncover evidence of something else.”

The Sheriff’s Department said deputies were sent to an area off of Highway 395 outside the community of El Mirage for a wellness check around 8:15 p.m. and found five bodies. The sixth was found Wednesday morning, Rodriguez said.

A Fire Department spokesman said medics were dispatched to a report of a possible shooting, but the Sheriff’s Department has not confirmed the victims were shot despite obvious bullet holes seen in one of the two vans found parked at the scene.

— San Bernardino County Sheriff (@sbcountysheriff) January 25, 2024

Hanink said it’s possible that because sounds carry for miles in the open desert, someone far away might have called 911 to report gunshots without knowing about the slayings.

“One of the things we know is that homicides are usually committed by people who know each other,” Hanink said. “The circumstances being what they are, from what we can tell, people in a car riddled with dozens and dozens of bullets, this doesn’t have the appearance of strangers. There’s a kind of audacity that there’s no attempt to hide it other than being out in the middle of nowhere. No attempt to hide the bodies, put the vehicles somewhere.

“It’s suggestive of trying to send some sort of message,” he said.

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