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Newsletter: A contract killer in the Central Valley

Fields line Highway 99 in Tulare County in California's Central Valley.
Fields line Highway 99 in Tulare County in California’s Central Valley.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Sept. 4, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Jessica Garrison was a morning assignment editor at the Los Angeles Times when she first came across the story that would eventually become the book “The Devil’s Harvest.”

It’s a role that she likened to being a bit like an air traffic controller. You log on early in the morning and immediately begin to send reporters in various directions — toward fires, floods, freak accidents and whatever else might cross the transom.

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Scanning the news wires for the stories of the day, an item about a prolific contract killer being extradited from Alabama to the Central Valley caught her eye one morning in April 2014.

The brief was short. It may not have even given the man’s name. But it did specify that he lived in the Tulare County town of Earlimart, a place that Garrison knew to be particularly small and tight-knit.

“I just was like, ‘How on Earth can you be a contract killer for 30 years living in one of these towns and never get caught?’” she recalled thinking. So she dispatched the paper’s Fresno correspondent down Highway 99 to Tulare County to see what they could learn.

Soon after, Garrison moved from The Times to BuzzFeed and settled in as an investigative reporter and editor. But she kept thinking about the case, and how a contract killer could operate with such impunity, terrorizing farmworker communities for decades.

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Her meticulously researched new book “The Devil’s Harvest” charts the improbable story of Jose Manuel Martinez, or “El Mano Negra,” as he was known. The doting Central Valley patriarch also claims to have killed at least 36 people over three decades, making him one of America’s deadliest contract killers.

The book is a portrait of a place as much as it’s a true-crime narrative, with Garrison tracing the forces and events that shaped decades of life in the San Joaquin Valley. As Garrison writes, Martinez’s story “follows the sweep of nearly a half century of Central Valley history — the epic grape strikes of the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of drug cartels in the 1980s, the anti-immigrant sentiment of the 1990s, and the growing opportunities for political, economic, and social change of the 2000s.” It’s also a story about Martinez’s victims and their families, and the systems that failed them.

I spoke to Jessica about the book and her reporting. Here’s some of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

What turned this story into a book?

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The first thing that happened was that I was able to get all of the police files on all of the cases, going back to 1980. Police files are seldom if ever available in California. These were incredible, because they were kind of minute by minute. It was like a whodunit except you know who did it, but they didn’t.

The second thing that happened is that I wrote Jose Martinez a letter. I’ve written a lot of letters to prisons in my time as a reporter and usually they don’t get answered. But in this case, one day my phone rang. It was Jose Martinez, and it was pretty clear that he wanted to tell his story.

And then a third thing happened, which is that I started reaching out to family members of his victims. They were very different people in very different places. But what I got from them, almost to a person, was that it felt like nobody had cared about their father, husband, brother or son.

It was an insane crime story, which we had the kind of documentation for that you almost never get. But it’s also a story about a place and how farmworkers in that place are treated. And part of why he got away with it, I think, has to do with the structure of what life has been like in that place.

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Why did you want to explore the history of Earlimart and these other farm towns in Tulare through the lens of this story?

To me, the reason for writing the book was that [people are often like] “I’ve never heard of this place,” and I often say to them, “What did you eat today?” Because I guarantee you, a lot of what you ate was grown in this area, picked by these people. Without this place and these people, you wouldn’t eat. This place is really important and also gets utterly forgotten by people outside of California, and often forgotten by people inside California, right? But ... it’s essential to who and what California is.

I know you were raised in the Central Valley, but what other books and sources were essential to your understanding?

I think Mark Arax is one of the best living writers on the Valley as a place. I read Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s “Golden Gulag,” which is about the prison system in the Valley. I finally read “The Grapes of Wrath.” I read a lot of academic histories about the Valley, and obviously Miriam Pawel on Cesar Chavez.

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The other thing is that these were vibrant newspaper places for a lot of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. I must have read thousands of articles in the Tulare Advance-Register, the Visalia Times-Delta, the Bakersfield Californian and the Santa Maria Times. They covered everything and really gave a sense of the day-to-day, [at least in terms of] what the newspaper cared about. A lot of these murders never made the paper.

[Read an excerpt from “The Devil’s Harvest” on Buzzfeed]

Before we get to the news, a reminder that this newsletter will be off for Labor Day and back in your inboxes on Tuesday.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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The next big test of whether Californians can slow the spread of the coronavirus will come this holiday weekend, with officials hoping the public will refrain from the large gatherings and risky behavior that contributed to a spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths after a disastrous Memorial Day weekend. California spent much of the summer paying the price for a rapid reopening of the economy in late May and early June, with a coronavirus surge from mid-June through the weeks after the Fourth of July that led to record deaths and new concerns about the virus spreading among young people and essential workers.

Health officials are hoping the shock of the summer will prompt people to play it safe this weekend, in part because so much is riding on keeping numbers down and to prevent history from repeating itself. If infections continue to decline, some classrooms could reopen this fall. Los Angeles Times

California will again be in the crosshairs of a potentially historic heat wave over Labor Day weekend — prompting officials to warn of heightened fire risk and urge residents to protect themselves from the dangerous temperatures. Forecasters say the weather system will bring higher temperatures than August’s heat wave and potentially a slew of record-breaking highs. Los Angeles Times

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

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L.A. STORIES

L.A., meet your new streetlight. This winning design marks the first revamp since the 1950s. Los Angeles Times

Detail of the winner in L.A.'s streetlight competition — a design that tips its hat to the past while looking to the future.
(Project Room)

Luxury hotels have become home for some rich folks looking for a COVID haven. The Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air have seen an uptick in 90-day bookings since the advent of COVID-19 — mostly from L.A. natives. Los Angeles Times

[See also: “Hotel, healthcare workers protest alleged lack of coronavirus protections” in the L.A. Daily News]

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You can now print things for free and borrow laptops and mobile Wi-Fi hot spots from select L.A. County Library locations. Los Angeles Times

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

In his bid to take back his old seat from the Democrat who turned the district blue in 2018, former Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) is running ads citing his work with the Obama administration. Obama’s team said they condemned the “distortion,” especially given Obama’s endorsement of Valadao’s opponent Rep. T.J. Cox (D-Fresno). Fresno Bee

The “country has been going downhill for 100 years” since women’s suffrage, according to a Visalia school board member. He later clarified in an email that he was being facetious, but community members were not amused. Visalia Times-Delta

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CRIME, COPS AND COURTS

A House subcommittee seeks a federal probe of “criminal gangs” among L.A. County deputies: A congressional subcommittee has requested that the Department of Justice investigate allegations of systemic abuses by “gangs” within the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department that employ aggressive policing tactics. Los Angeles Times

Eviction court is back. But financially struggling tenants remain protected, for now. Los Angeles Times

Santa Ana embraced a “defund the police” movement. Then came the police union backlash. Los Angeles Times

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Southern California sees a mountain lion baby boom: Thirteen kittens were born to five mountain lion mothers between May and August in the Santa Monica Mountains and Simi Hills west of Los Angeles. Associated Press

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Mountain lion kittens in the Santa Monica Mountains in May 2020.
(Associated Press)

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

California author Octavia Butler has finally made the New York Times bestseller list, fulfilling her own prophesy more than a decade after her death. LitHub

Sales of fishing licenses have skyrocketed through the pandemic, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Redding Record Searchlight

“The Batman” shoot shut down after a positive COVID-19 case on set, reportedly Robert Pattinson. The action movie, which is filming in Britain, is one of the biggest productions to restart since the global shutdown of the industry in March. Los Angeles Times

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Yet Bun Heong Bakery has been serving up Asian favorites for nearly 100 years in Stockton. While his father farmed potatoes on a Delta island, the restaurant’s late founder King S. Lee helped his mother as she baked Chinese pastries irresistible to Stockton’s Cantonese immigrants. Lee’s 70-year-old daughter now runs the bakery, which eventually moved from Stockton’s old Chinatown to downtown’s Filipino Plaza. Stockton Record

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 89. San Diego: sunny, 78. San Francisco: partly sunny, 69. San Jose: partly sunny, 78. Fresno: sunny, 100. Sacramento: sunny, 93. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Robert Freeman:

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Dad was in the military and had just gotten orders to the newly named Vandenberg Air Force Base, a beautiful and unspoiled spot on the central coast. Today they still launch rockets out of there. I was so excited to be coming to California because I knew that’s where Disneyland was located. My first recollection was hitting the state line in the Mojave Desert and asking my parents, “Well, where is Disneyland?”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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