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December 3, 2023

Suspects in two high-profile homicides to appear in court

Three murder suspects in high-profile local cases will appear in court this coming week.

Jose A. Barajas faces an arraignment hearing at 9 a.m. Thursday in courtroom 3 before Judge Steven Sanders.

That hearing follows an April 15 preliminary examination where a judge ruled there’s enough evidence to move forward toward a jury trial, a routine step in court cases before the trial proceedings.

At an arraignment, a suspect is formally informed of the charges against him and a plea is entered. A judge can also release the defendant pending a trial. It’s likely a formality in the Barajas case and just another step toward a jury trial, the timing of which is uncertain.

Barajas, 24, is accused in the 2014 murder of 18-year-old Ariana Zendejas.

In a separate murder case, for the death of Hollister’s Yoon Ji, the victim’s estranged husband and mistress will have separate appearances at the same 11 a.m. session Wednesday in courtroom 3 before Sanders.

Sang Ji, 49, will appear for a doctor’s report on whether he is mentally capable of facing a trial after his attorney argued he is not. The other defendant in the murder case, Jung Choi, 45, will appear at the same time for a trial setting. There are customarily several cases handled at once during a given time frame like the session planned for Tuesday.

Jung Choi is a suspect in the murder case.

The two suspects in the 2017 murder of Hollister’s Yoon Ji are headed toward separate jury trials after a ruling in the late March hearing. Ji is represented by attorney Greg LaForge, with Choi represented by Harry Damkar.

They have been charged with the homicide and remain in custody at the county jail on more than $2 million in bail each.

The case started Dec. 2 of 2017 when one of the two daughters – Serena Ji – contacted authorities from Los Angeles where she lives to report her mother as missing after not hearing from her since Nov. 27. On the day before, the daughter had received “an odd message from her father, Sang Ji, stating her mother went to South Korea unexpectedly,” according to a prior sheriff’s office statement.

Sang Ji

Afterward, Serena Ji filed the missing person’s report on her mother. The sheriff’s office issued a search warrant and served it on Dec. 6 of that year.  JI and Choi were arrested and booked in the San Benito County Jail on suspicion of murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

On Dec. 20 of 2017, authorities discovered Yoon Ji’s body buried in a ravine in the 2300 block of Salinas Grade Road near San Juan Bautista with the remains stuffed in a suitcase.

Barajas was detained last summer by authorities in Mexico and has been charged by local prosecutors with murder, two counts of kidnapping, shooting at an inhabited dwelling, and three counts of assault with a firearm, according to court records.

The San Benito County District Attorney’s Office filed the charges July 16 along with special allegations that could enhance any possible penalties.

If convicted of murder, Barajas would face up to life in prison. He has remained at the San Benito County Jail during the court proceedings.

Barajas fled Hollister that night in 2014 and remained a fugitive until July 12, 2018.

In 2017, Hollister police detectives learned specific and actionable information regarding the whereabouts of Barajas in Mexico, which they passed to the FBI. In January of 2018, HPD detectives and FBI agents confirmed that information through multiple local sources and sources abroad. That information led the FBI and Mexican law enforcement to a specific house in Guadalajara, Mexico, according to police. Hollister police booked him into the San Benito County Jail after Barajas was transported from Mexico.