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Arrested in 1 killing, man says he was a cartel hit man for decades

Crime, Law and JusticeLaw EnforcementHomicideCrimeVeterans DayMarion County (Florida)

RICHGROVE, Calif. — In March 2013, a man with brooding, mahogany eyes and a walrus mustache traveled from his home in California to visit relatives in Alabama. The trip did not end well. When a business acquaintance insulted Jose Manuel Martinez's daughter, Martinez put two bullets in the man's head, officials said.

It was a matter "of family honor," Errek Jett, an Alabama prosecutor, said Wednesday. But it was not, it turned out, the first time he had killed — far from it, authorities believe.

Martinez, 51, was charged Tuesday with killing nine men mostly in California's Central Valley, part of a grisly run that may have left more than 30 people dead over 32 years.

Once Martinez was arrested in connection with the Alabama slaying, he appears to have concluded that the gig was up. It was time, as he told the authorities, to come clean.

The tales he began to tell sounded far-fetched at first. Even fanciful.

He'd signed on as a professional killer when he was 16. He was employed by a drug cartel. No, he told investigators in a pleasant manner — he had no intention of revealing which one.

He was paid on an incentive basis — when he was able to collect debts owed to the cartel, he was permitted to pocket 25% of the money.

Many of the deals, he told authorities, ended in violence. The bodies had been found over the years in Florida, in Alabama, in California; tied up inside a pickup truck, in ditches that ran along country roads, in fertile farm fields. They were all his, he told the authorities.

He wasn't just a hit man, he reported.

"They hired the best," he told an investigator, according to a Florida probable cause affidavit. He was unrepentant: "If I didn't do the job, someone would have."

Then, officials said, came a surprising development — Martinez's story began to add up.

Time and again, he offered details of killings or confirmed his unique knowledge of old, unsolved cases. He identified one pair of dead men from a photograph showed to him by a detective. He was surprised to learn that two men in Florida had been killed back in 2006 — but he did remember that they were killed close to Veterans Day that year.

"They were able to match up times and dates and places with his stories," Jett, the district attorney in Lawrence County, Ala., said in an interview. "He was pretty forthright. In essence, he told them he had had a long life of it and now he was ready to 'fess up."

The case, and the criminal charges, unfolded against Martinez across the country over the past several months.

A significant development came Tuesday, when authorities in California said Martinez has been charged with one count of attempted murder and nine counts of murder, six in Tulare County, two in Kern County and one in Santa Barbara County.

The California killings began in 1980 and ended, it appears, in 2011. The victims ranged in age from 22 to 56. Martinez, who was in custody on Wednesday in Alabama, could face the death penalty in California, said Tulare County Dist. Atty. Tim Ward.

"No victim of crime shall be forgotten," Ward said.

Martinez was questioned in the aftermath of the March 2013 killing of Jose Ruiz, 32, in Alabama — the killing that authorities now say took place when Ruiz suggested that Martinez's daughter was not a good mother.

But officials did not have sufficient evidence to charge him at the time, and Martinez returned to his home in Richgrove, a remote farm town 40 miles north of Bakersfield.

The case began to unspool three months later. Martinez traveled to Mexico, then reentered the United States through a border crossing near Yuma, Ariz. In the interim, authorities had built up enough evidence to charge him in the Alabama case. He was arrested, and authorities took him from Arizona to Alabama.

Once in custody, Martinez began to explain his history. His candid revelations, authorities said, appear to have been prompted in part by Martinez learning that DNA tests from a cigarette butt had linked him to a 2006 cold case in Marion County, Fla., where two men were found shot to death in the back of a pickup truck.

Martinez confessed, officials said, reporting that he had killed the men because they had stolen 10 kilograms of cocaine from another associate.

Days later, authorities in Alabama called Tulare County officials to say that Martinez wanted to talk — not to just anyone, but to Sheriff's Det. Christal Derington.

Martinez did not know the detective well, but their one chance encounter had stuck with him. Earlier in 2013, Derington had been investigating a rash of home invasions in the southern end of Tulare County. Martinez happened to be at a home that was searched during that investigation, and although he was never considered a suspect in the home invasions, he was questioned by Derington.

Derington was flown three times to Alabama to interview Martinez, an important piece of the work that resulted in the charges that were announced this week, said acting Sheriff Mike Boudreaux.

"There is plenty of work to be done," Boudreaux said. "The investigations will continue."

For all his confidence, Martinez's vocation does not appear to have brought him prosperity. In recent years, he lived largely with his mother in Richgrove, surrounded as far as the eye can see by farm fields and packing houses.

At their beige stucco home Wednesday afternoon, a walker belonging to Martinez's mother was out front, Christmas lights were strung up on the porch and the awning of the carport sagged toward the driveway.

Loreta Fernandez, Martinez's mother, said the last time she spoke with her son was when he was detained in Arizona.

"This is hard for me — really hard. I'm still shaking, I'm not in a condition to deal with this," Fernandez said. "I'm just the mother of my son.... All I can say is God bless him and that not everything he's saying is true. He's saying things that aren't true."

Martinez kept to himself, a neighbor said, and mowed his own lawn.

When word began to seep through the community of criminal charges against Martinez, "we thought that maybe he was selling drugs," said Jesus Rodriguez, a driver for a Styrofoam packaging company.

"We didn't expect for him to be killing people," Rodriguez said. "We were shocked.... He was a normal person. We didn't believe it at first. It's too weird."

diana.marcum@latimes.com

scott.gold@latimes.com

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

Marcum reported from Richgrove, Gold and Gerber from Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Crime, Law and JusticeLaw EnforcementHomicideCrimeVeterans DayMarion County (Florida)
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