Warm-hearted or icy killer? Judge urged to grant bail to alleged Mexican Mafia leader

Johnny Martinez.
Johnny Martinez, shown here in a 2015 photograph from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, is asking to be released on bail pending his trial on charges of racketeering, murder and drug trafficking.
(California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

Good morning. It’s Wednesday, May 22. I’m Carol Cormaci bringing you this week’s TimesOC newsletter with a look at some of the latest local news and events.

An alleged leader of the Mexican Mafia, 48-year-old Johnny Martinez, is charged with ordering several murders that had the effect of allowing him to be the overlord of Orange County gangs and inmates. But he and a host of others, including two commissioners of the Los Angeles County Probation Department, believe a judge should grant him bail while he awaits a trial that’s expected to get underway next year.

I learned this from a fascinating look at those efforts to see Martinez released, written by Los Angeles Times reporter Mathew Ormseth and published over the weekend. Those who support Martinez and are urging that he be given bail find him to be “warm-hearted,” according to the story, while prosecutors might characterize him as someone who has ice coursing through his veins.


In addition to the two probation department commissioners (one of whom is his mother), Martinez has gained the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, law professors, a pastor and a high school principal.

His lawyers “filed a dozen letters that portray Martinez as a champion for civil rights, skillful litigator and advocate for peace,” according to the story.

“Except Martinez is no ordinary defendant,” Ormseth explains.

Prosecutors say Martinez was caught on a wiretap threatening to have someone shot in the head and boasting of several murders.

Martinez became eligible for bail in December after a 1995 murder conviction was overturned, according to the story. Prosecutors have countered efforts to spring him from prison by filing court transcripts of calls that Martinez allegedly made from a smuggled phone that had been tapped by the FBI, Ormseth reports.

“If you ever interrupt me ever again,” Martinez said, according to a transcript, “your career is over, and I am going to have you killed on the spot, OK? My homeboy is going to put a gun to your head and f—ing shoot you.”

“If he thinks for one second that he can go against the Mexican Mafia — hey, I already put four people 6 feet under,” Martinez said. “If he wants to be the fifth, let’s go.”

That paints just part of the prosecutors’ portrait of the man. Here’s more: “Martinez is accused of ordering the robbery of a drug dealer in Placentia who was killed when he resisted the assailants,” Ormseth writes. “Martinez also allegedly directed the beating of an inmate whose throat was slit and a thwarted hit on a man named Rick who Martinez believed was hitting on a female friend.”

Prosecutors also allege he raked in illegal profits from gangs, drug dealers and jail inmates across Orange County.

Martinez’s supporters see redeeming qualities in him, portraying him in their letters to the court “as a champion for civil rights, skillful litigator and advocate for peace,” Ormseth reports. He made an impression when he persuaded two Placentia gang members “to set aside their grievances and became the ‘architect’ of a countywide gang truce,” one of them wrote on his behalf.

The reporter found in court records mention of Martinez having received an award for “leadership development” last year from Orange County Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento.

In a statement Ormseth received from Sarmiento, the supervisor said he supports programs that help “justice-impacted individuals” change their lives. Though the “vast majority” don’t commit new crimes, he said, “unfortunately, we know that not all who participate in such efforts will be successful.”

His supporters, in their letters to the judge, urged that Martinez be seen “not as a threat to society but an asset,” Ormseth writes. “Angélica Camacho, assistant professor of criminal justice at San Francisco State, called Martinez a ‘highly ethical and principled man,’ ‘strong champion of justice’ and ‘warmhearted, caring individual with an amicable personal character.

But Ormseth leaves us with this:

“Prosecutors say Martinez was caught on a wiretap warning an old friend about talking to police. He brought up [two men who were murdered]. ‘I got both of them guys like nothing,’ he said, according to a transcript.

“‘Now don’t think for one second,’ Martinez told the friend, ‘that I couldn’t have that done to you.’


Protesters toss pallets and other debris to form a barrier between them and police on May 15 at UC Irvine.
Protesters toss pallets and other debris to form a barrier between them and police on May 15 at UC Irvine.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

• Dozens of protesters were arrested by police in riot gear last week at UC Irvine after a contingent of demonstrators occupied and barricaded a university building Wednesday afternoon, raising tensions over an encampment UCI’s leaders had tolerated for weeks, according to The Times’ coverage of the incident. “UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman said he was ‘brokenhearted’ at the end of the day, explaining that he had been ‘prepared to allow a peaceful encampment to exist on the campus without resorting to police intervention,’ despite the setup violating policies and distressing many in the community,” The Times reported. A photo gallery of the scene that day can be found here, featuring the work of L.A. Times photographers Allen J. Schaben and Robert Gauthier.

• No sooner had a Corona del Mar couple rebuilt their home after it was flooded with 500,000 gallons of water and destroyed due to a city water main break, than it happened again, with the same pipe bursting and flooding their home. Although their house has been reconstructed following the second disastrous incident, Amy and Marshall Senk say they’re hesitant to move back in for fear it will happen yet a third time. The couple have sued the city of Newport Beach, accusing it of negligence.

• Huntington Beach’s ongoing feud with the state continues over the current City Council majority’s stance they don’t need to allow for mandated housing units in their general plan. Last Wednesday, San Diego Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal ruled that Huntington Beach must pass a housing element compliant with state law within 120 days. True to form, the fight will go on, as city leaders vowed to appeal.

• As the city of Tustin continues to deal with the aftermath of the massive hangar fire six months after it was extinguished, the City Council heard at a meeting this month some hopeful news. Brian Hitchens, a hydrologist with Geosyntec who was reporting the outcome of a city-commissioned study told the council members that no evidence had been found that the blaze “resulted in increased lead or asbestos within the study area,” which was comprised of 50 homes near the hangar site and 30 homes in Irvine and Santa Ana.

• Gathering around a wood-burning fire pit on a sandy beach is a long-held tradition for many Southern Californians. The pits used to be available at Aliso Beach in Laguna Beach, but time and tides led to their demise when the beach was under county control. It’s under city control now, and the Laguna Beach City Council last week approved the expenditure of $20,000 for the installation of up to seven of those fire pits in time for summer.


Police at the scene of a May 16 fatal shooting of a UPS driver in Irvine on Thursday.
The Irvine Police Department responded to a report of shots fired Thursday afternoon. When units arrived, they found a UPS truck and its driver on the ground next to the truck. A man has been charged in the case.

• The UPS driver who was shot down in Irvine Thursday was identified Friday as 50-year-old Expedito Cuesta De Leon of Aliso Viejo. The man arrested in connection with his death was identified as 46-year-old Rhean Jalipa Fontanoza, of the same city. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department later found Fontanoza in his silver pickup in the area of Santiago Canyon and Jamboree roads; it took a SWAT team to get him out of the truck. Prosecutors on Tuesday said the two men were co-workers and childhood friends. Fontanoza, 46, was charged Monday with murder with a special circumstances allegation of a drive-by shooting and murder by lying in wait. He also faces a sentencing enhancement for shooting a gun causing death. No possible motive for the killing had been released by authorities as of Tuesday.

• A 34-year-old woman from Santa Ana has been charged with beating her 5-week-old son who sustained 16 broken bones, including a fractured knee and skull. Mirian Jimenez-Olivera was charged Thursday by the Orange County district attorney’s office with repeatedly beating the child when he refused to stop crying, according to The Times’ reporting on this story. The baby’s father, Edgar Busto-Rodriguez, 35, has been charged with being an accessory after the fact for trying to cover up his wife’s alleged abuse

• When police investigated a 1 a.m. robbery Monday at a Circle K on Riverdale Avenue in Anaheim, they realized it might have been committed by people involved in other such incidents in the same city that took place just hours earlier. According to a City News Service report, several suspects wearing dark clothing had been running off with stores’ cash registers into a dark-colored SUV getaway car. The other hold-ups were at a 7-Eleven on North East Street about 10 p.m. Sunday and, 21 minutes later, at a Shell Gas Station on East La Palma Avenue. Investigators suspect the robberies are connected to one in Fullerton at 10:30 p.m. on West Orangethorpe Avenue. On Monday afternoon, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies arrested three suspects in Lakewood who may be linked to the O.C. robberies.


Huntington Beach's Sara Freyre at the ISA World Junior Surfing Championships in El Salvador.
Huntington Beach’s Sara Freyre had a competition to remember at the ISA World Junior Surfing Championships in El Salvador.
(Courtesy of Sara Freyre)

• Sara Freyre, a 17-year-old junior at Huntington Beach High, on Sunday captured bronze in the girls’ Under-18 division on the final day of the ISA World Junior Surfing Championships held in El Salvador. Her third-place individual finish helped Team USA take fourth place overall as a team, for the copper medal. Eden Walla of San Clemente also made the girls’ U16 final, finishing fourth. In the boys’ Under 16 competition, Quaid Fahrion of Costa Mesa finished tied for 13th.

• Top-seeded Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander won the men’s championship, defeating former Newport Harbor High standout Cody Caldwell and Seain Cook, 21-15, 21-15, in the title match of the AVP (Assn. of Volleyball Professionals) Huntington Beach Open, held May 17 through 19. In the women’s final, Canada’s Melissa Humana-Paredes and Brandie Wilkerson beat top-seeded Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss of the United States 23-21, 18-21, 15-13

• The Angels on Friday night gave Ron Washington a victory in his first game as a visiting manager. The Halos beat the Rangers, the team he most recently managed, 9-3 in Texas. Washington is the winningest manager in Rangers’ history with his 664 wins from 2007-14, and took them to their first two World Series in 2010 and 2011. In less upbeat news that also came out Friday night, ESPN reported that, according to sources, former Angel infielder David Fletcher had placed bets with Mathew Bowyer, the same bookie used by Shohei Ohtani’s ex-interpreter.


Ryan Hoge holds the very collectable grade 10 Pikachu trading card.
Ryan Hoge holds a very collectable grade 10 Pikachu trading card, part of the Pokémon card game series, at the new Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) facility in Santa Ana.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

• Who would’ve thought Pokémon trading cards would become bigger than baseball cards among collectors? Santa Ana-based Professional Sports Authenticators, better known as PSA, has made a name for itself over the years for rating and grading hobbyists’ holdings, especially baseball cards. My colleague Sara Cardine last week interviewed its president, Ryan Hoge, who told her authenticating Pokémon cards has doubled PSA’s overall business in the past two years, from 7 million cards graded in 2022 to 14 million in 2023. In fact, Pokémon cards have officially outpaced baseball cards as the company’s largest category and necessitated the opening last year of a PSA office in Tokyo.

Cal State Fullerton alumnus Roy Choi is a restaurateur and New York Times best-selling author.
(Travis Jensen)

• Today’s the day Roy Choi, a Cal State Fullerton alumnus, Korean American chef and Kogi BBQ food truck creator is receiving an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree during the university’s College of Business and Economics Commencement ceremony at Titan Stadium, where he will also be the guest speaker.

Strong Water Anaheim is a nautical-inspired “tik-easy” bar that plays into a ship-wrecked narrative.
Strong Water Anaheim is a nautical-inspired “tik-easy” bar that plays into a ship-wrecked narrative.
(Sarah King)

• Strong Water, a tiki bar and restaurant in Anaheim, has been gaining a lot of attention. Most recently, it was named a 2024 James Beard Award nominee for “Outstanding Wine & Other Beverages Program,” the only business in O.C. to earn a nomination in any category. Its owners, the husband-and-wife team of Ying Chang and Robert Adamson, also learned this year their nautical-themed bar earned recognition at the 2024 Tales Spirited Awards for “Best U.S. Bar Team – U.S. West” and “Best U.S. Restaurant Bar – U.S. West.” My colleague Sarah Mosqueda soaked up the ambiance of the Clementine Street establishment for this TimesOC feature.

Executive Director Scott LaFleur introduces the new plans for the Sherman Gardens botanical gardens.
Executive Director Scott LaFleur introduces the new plans for the Sherman Gardens botanical gardens during the “Grow the Gardens” party at the Sherman Gardens last Thursday evening in Newport Beach.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

• Supporters of the Sherman Library & Gardens in Corona del Mar were invited to a special party last Thursday evening where plans for $13-million expansion of the facilities were shared. Executive Director Scott LaFleur told the guests the gardens are undergoing a “renaissance” and that one of the most exciting changes will be to create a “front door” for the facility. “How many of you have driven by countless times and never realized what was behind the wall? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone tell me, ‘I’ve driven by or lived in town for 10, 20, 30 years and I didn’t know where to come in,” LaFleur said. “We’re going to change that.”

• The OC Fair & Event Center, organizer of the annual Orange County Fair, is searching for 750 seasonal employees 16 years or older for this summer’s fair, themed “Always a Good Time.” A hiring event is scheduled for June 8, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. outside the fairgrounds’ administration building in Costa Mesa. Employees receive free admission throughout the fair and the option to purchase discounted tickets for friends and family. For more information, visit ocfair.com/jobs or call (714) 708-1563, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Lauretta Stansfield of the Exchange Club of Newport Beach.
Lauretta Stansfield of the Exchange Club of Newport Beach poses for a photo while setting up the Field of Honor at Castaways Park in Newport Beach on May 17.
(Eric Licas)

• Since last Friday the annual Field of Honor featuring 1,776 flags has been on display at Castaways Park, 700 Dover Drive in Newport Beach, to recognize U.S. service members as well as first responders for their sacrifices in the line of duty. It’s the 15th year the Exchange Club of Newport Harbor has organized the display, which will remain in place through this coming Monday, Memorial Day. Here’s a roundup of some of the other Memorial Day observances in the county:
Capistrano Beach: VFW Memorial Day Ceremony, 10 a.m. Monday, Pines Park, 34941 Camino Capistrano;
Fountain Valley: VFW Memorial Day Ceremony, 10 a.m. Monday, 17635 Los Alamos St.;
Fullerton: American Veterans Memorial Assn., 10 a.m. Monday, Loma Vista Memorial Park, 701 E. Bastanchury Road;
Huntington Beach: H.B. Memorial Day Ceremony, 11 a.m. Monday, Huntington Beach Pier, 325 Pacific Coast Highway, Pier Plaza;
Irvine: City of Irvine Memorial Day Ceremony, 10 a.m. Monday, Formal Garden of Northwood Community Park, 4531 Bryan Ave.;
Laguna Hills: Memorial Day Half Marathon, Opening ceremonies begin at 6:50 a.m. Monday, with races getting underway at 7 a.m. at Laguna Hills Mall;
San Clemente: Memorial Day Observance, 11 a.m. Monday, Community Center, 100 N. Calle Seville.

• The 64th annual Garden Grove Strawberry Festival runs this Friday through Monday, with the theme “Celebrating Our Hometown.” The festival’s parade of floats, bands, equestrians and cartoon characters will hit the streets at 10 a.m. on Saturday following the parade route down Chapman Avenue to Euclid Avenue. The Grand Marshals are Wahoo’s Fish Taco co-founders Wing Lam, Ed Lee and Mingo Lee. More details can be found in this TimesOC feature story on the event as well as at the festival’s website.

• Meritage Vocal Arts Ensemble, under the direction of Brian Dehn, will present “The Vast Eternal Sky” featuring music for voices and strings in two upcoming performances. The first will be held Sunday, June 2 at 4 p.m. Anaheim United Methodist Church, 1000 S. State College Blvd., Anaheim. They’ll also appear Saturday, June 8 at 4 p.m. Laguna Presbyterian Church, 415 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach. Tickets, priced at $25, can be purchased here.


Thank you for reading today’s newsletter. If you have a memory or story about Orange County, I would love to read and share it in this space. Please try to keep your submission to 100 words or less and include your name and current city of residence.

I appreciate your help in making this the best newsletter it can be. Please send news tips, your memory of life in O.C. (photos welcome!) or comments to carol.cormaci@latimes.com.