The murder confessions came so fast the officers interrogating Jose Martinez found they could barely keep track.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” the genial-seeming grandfather told one detective from Tulare County, California, one afternoon in June of 2013. “I killed a lot of, several people, in your county, OK? There was a reason for them and somebody had to take them out.” Many of his victims, he insisted, had hurt women and children.
Another victim, he told a detective from Florida, had stolen 10 kilos of cocaine. The person they stole it from, in response, went out and “hired the best.”
“They hired who?” the detective asked, just to be sure.
“They hired me,” Martinez answered. “And I went and got them.”
He was a professional, he said. “If I didn’t do the job, somebody was going to do it. And I’m going to be honest with you, we do not all think the same thing.” Some hit men, he said, will “knock the door down and kill everybody.” He wasn’t like that. “I respect family.”
In fact, he had just one request for the police officers as they fanned out across the country, trying to close the dozens of murders he had just confessed to: Please don’t drag his family into it. “That’s all I’m asking you, OK?” His family, he later explained, thought he was the nicest person in the world.
I first heard of Jose Manuel Martinez in the spring of 2014. The Associated Press reported that a man accused of murdering nine men over a span of three decades — and suspected of killing many more — was being extradited from Alabama to California. Police believed they had caught a professional hitman.
At the time, I was an editor for the Los Angeles Times, and the paper dispatched the Fresno correspondent 70 miles south down Highway 99 to Tulare County — the heart of California’s farm belt — to see what she could learn. After the report ran, I found I could not stop thinking about his case.
How could someone get away with murder after murder for more than 30 years, while living in a sleepy, close-knit farmworker town where everyone knew everyone else? Eventually, Martinez himself would explain it to me. He was “so damn good,” he’d say. He left little evidence and few witnesses.
This was true but far from the whole story. Martinez, I learned, had been born and raised in California’s vast Central Valley, which stretches about 450 miles down the interior of the state and is one of the richest farming regions in the world. He came from its stark and beautiful southern end, known as the San Joaquin Valley, where the peaks of the Sierra Nevada march upward toward their apex at Mount Whitney and where, down on the valley floor, any notion of California as a progressive, egalitarian land of opportunity disintegrates under the relentless, baking sun.
Nearly half the fruits and nuts that Americans eat are grown here, in lavishly irrigated fields that roll out like a green carpet across the once-arid land. In the cities and towns of the valley, meanwhile, something terrible has borne fruit: income disparity that is greater than anywhere else in California. There are neighborhoods in Visalia and Exeter where those who have grown wealthy off the land live ensconced in homes with infinity pools, butler pantries, and en suite bathrooms for every bedroom. Just a few miles away, in the towns where the people who do the picking and planting live, homes are often crowded and dilapidated, the dusty streets lack sidewalks, and the water that comes out of the taps is often not safe to drink. Just this spring residents in Martinez’s hometown of Earlimart learned their water is contaminated by the pesticide by-product 123 TCP. That revelation came after residents were earlier forced to boil their water for 10 days –in the middle of a pandemic—because of another problem with the water system.
This is where John Steinbeck set his Depression-era classic The Grapes of Wrath and where, in the 1960s, Cesar Chavez launched his crusade to organize farmworkers, drawing the support of national politicians, activists, and celebrities. Yet even now, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, the Central Valley, particularly the San Joaquin Valley, remains a disturbing tableau of American inequality.
Growing up here to witness routine exploitation, shocking violence, and seemingly capricious police officers, Martinez assessed the circumstances and decided murder for hire was a reasonable way to make a living. His greatest asset as a killer was that he had grasped a dark truth about the American justice system: If you kill the right people — people who are poor, who are not white, who may be presumed to be criminals themselves, and who don’t have anyone to speak for them — you can get away with it. “El Mano Negra,” the Black Hand, as Martinez was known, had found an ideal place to ply his trade.
Cecilia Camacho, a relative of one of Martinez’s victims, knew this truth as well as Martinez. “There is no follow-through when the [victim] is from Mexico. We didn’t have papers. We didn’t have the means to speak up for ourselves.”
It was a familiar refrain. As I dug into the case, I tracked down other family members of Martinez’s victims, their anguish and loss not lessened over the years or decades since their loved ones were killed. But I was struck most by how they had carried their suffering without public protest. Many say they were silenced not so much by fear of El Mano Negra as by the conviction that no one in power — not the police brass or the elected officials or the media — really cared what had happened to their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. Or to their communities.
If you kill the right people — people who are poor, who are not white, who may be presumed to be criminals themselves, and who don’t have anyone to speak for them — you can get away with it.
Year after year, Martinez operated with impunity. In Tulare County, where he lived for decades, officials suspected him of murder after murder and yet never charged him. Next-door Kern County, where he also lived for a time and committed several murders, has one of the highest murder rates in California and one of the lowest murder-solve rates in the nation. Martinez’s hometown of Earlimart — a tightly woven community where people knew each other’s stories and watched out for each other’s children — was also so violent, some nicknamed it “Murdermart.” In other places, Martinez killed people in out-of-the-way areas and then vanished before anyone thought to look for him.
Eventually, after speaking with victims’ family members and the police officers who investigated those cases, I reached out to Martinez himself. I addressed a letter to him, care of the jail where he was awaiting trial. I have written many such letters in my years as a reporter, and I knew better than to expect a response. But a few weeks later, my phone rang.
“How are you?” Martinez asked me. I was flustered, then stunned, as so many police officers had been before me, by how personable this cold-blooded killer sounded. “What do you want to know?”
At that point, I knew only the broad outlines of Martinez’s story. I knew he had killed many people in a place where justice had always been in short supply. I also knew from police that he was a devoted father and grandfather who lived to make the children in his family laugh.
I told Martinez I was interested in why he had murdered so many people and how he had gotten away with it. I told him that I was curious, too, about how he could kill without remorse, sometimes, it seemed, even with relish, and at the same time be so generous toward his family.
He paused for a moment, and then he laughed ruefully. “It’s a long story,” he said.
From behind bars, he sat for phone interviews and then arranged for me to review an astonishing document — a 400-page memoir in his careful, round-lettered handwriting. It is by turns a sickening account of cold-blooded murder and a moving tale of family bonds. Martinez wants to be entertaining, and he often is. But he does not hide the fact that he is brutally, remorselessly violent.
His story also 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.
As I read his account of his life and studied the police reports of his murders, as I sat with members of his family and the families of his victims, I came to believe that Martinez’s improbable 35-year run of murder and mayhem reflects a far more widespread injustice: the story of how institutions designed to protect a community could fail it again and again — and how the same pattern could play out in communities across the United States.
By 1995, Martinez, who was then 33, had been killing with impunity for more than a decade.
One winter day, as he told it, he was standing in the front yard of the house in Earlimart, California, he now shared with his second wife and their children, talking with a woman who helped him run drugs up to Chicago.
When the woman finished her conversation, she threw her vehicle into reverse and backed out of the driveway. Neither she nor Martinez noticed until it was too late that Martinez’s son had toddled out behind her car.
Miraculously, the little boy was ok. But Martinez was traumatized. He decreed that no one — and he meant no one — was to park in his driveway. He put up signs, to make sure of it.
Shortly after that, Martinez and his family came home and found an unfamiliar brown Ford pickup in the driveway. The owner was in the backyard, talking to one of his wife’s brothers.
“Hey man,” Martinez said, polite as could be, “next time when you come to this house, can you please park your truck in the street?”
Some days later, Martinez came home and noticed the brown pickup parked in his driveway again. Martinez repeated the warning.
But on the morning of April 7, 1995, Martinez saw the brown truck, once again, pull into his driveway. The man was looking for Martinez’s brother-in-law.
“My brother-in-law is not home,” Martinez told the man, acting friendly while fury seethed inside him. “But since you’re here, can I get a ride to the store?”
“Sure,” the man said. He was 32 years old, with a slim build. His warm smile, the fact that he agreed to let Martinez drive the truck — neither of these things would help him. Martinez had made up his mind.
“Your ass is mine, you stupid son of a bitch,” Martinez reported that he thought. He got behind the steering wheel and set off through Earlimart. When the man pointed out they had passed the store, Martinez said he meant another one, in the next town over. Martinez took the back roads. At 7 a.m. on a Saturday, they were all completely empty.
During the drive, Martinez asked the man questions about his life. He learned that the man was named Domingo, was from Mexico, and had a mother and sister in Earlimart. He was married but had no children. The truck, Domingo said, belonged to his recently widowed sister-in-law. Domingo had come from Mexico for the funeral.
“So,” Martinez asked, “how come you don’t listen to people when they ask you not to do things, like park in their driveway?”
“I only listen to my parents,” the man replied.
It was a disrespectful answer. Martinez said he pulled over to the side of the road, took out his .44-caliber, and shot Domingo once in the head. Then, he later wrote, he spoke to the dead body slumped in the passenger seat: “I’m not your parents, but I’m El Mano Negra. When I talk, people listen to me.”
Martinez’s good deed contained a menacing message: Everyone would know to keep their mouths shut.
Martinez started the car and drove onward, looking for the perfect spot. He found it in an orange grove, about two miles north of Richgrove. As he dragged Domingo’s body from the truck and tried to hide it, he said he noticed a gun sticking out of the dead man’s waistband. Martinez took the weapon. He thought about searching the dead man’s pockets for cash, but he was more worried about time.
He was back in the truck within minutes. What should he do with it? He could burn it. He’d done that before. Burn up the car, and it would be that much harder to trace. That was a lesson learned from a murder he had committed in Santa Barbara, when it had taken police mere hours to find the car’s owner despite missing plates and a new paint job. (Not that it had helped police find him!) But Domingo had just told him the car belonged to his dead brother’s wife. A widow. Martinez felt a stab of pity for the widowed sister-in-law.
He took back roads for 40 miles to the city of Bakersfield, which sits at the southern end of the Central Valley valley, and went straight to an anonymous do-it-yourself car wash. He felt fortunate that Domingo’s window had been rolled down when he shot him, sending much of the gore out onto the road. Nevertheless, there was still a lot of blood. He scrubbed and scrubbed, washing most of it out. Or so he thought.
When he went to park the car nearby, a man looked at the liquid dripping out of the truck. “Hey, is that blood coming out of your truck?”
Some people might have panicked. Martinez did not. It was a sign of how brazen a killer he was becoming — or how little he feared police — that he felt comfortable washing blood out of a truck in public and in broad daylight. Smooth as could be, he answered, “No, it’s strawberry soda, from my daughter.” Martinez smiled, a loving father just slightly exasperated with his children.
Then he parked the car and walked away. At 2 a.m. he returned and drove the truck 45 miles back to Domingo’s mother’s house, where he parked it in the driveway. Earlimart, his hometown, was small. He knew where she lived.
The widow would have her truck back. Even better, the whole town would hear about how it had shown up in the middle of the night, as if delivered by a phantom. Martinez’s good deed contained a menacing message: Everyone would know to keep their mouths shut.
On Saturday afternoon, a few hours after Martinez had shot Domingo, Domingo’s sister-in-law was beginning to get irritated that her dead husband’s brother still wasn’t back with the truck.
The woman called Domingo’s mother and sister to figure out where he had gone. They said they hadn’t seen him.
No one was that worried. It was just annoying. But the next morning, they called back in a panic. The truck was in their driveway, they said. But Domingo wasn’t with it. And, they added, there was blood inside it.
The widow went over to her mother-in-law’s house and looked at her truck. There were bloodstains on the passenger seat and the inside of the passenger-side door. But the truly frightened thing was a sickening pool of water and blood on the passenger-side floor. The widow called the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department.
Officer Gene Pinon got the call at about 9:55 a.m. on Sunday morning, according to police reports, and arrived on scene about 90 minutes later, at 11:20. He examined the truck and collected a cigarette butt. He also noted a pager — which had belonged to Domingo — inside the vehicle. When he interviewed the widow, she told him that she had no idea why her brother-in-law carried a pager.
Detective Pinon made a quick canvas of the area. As he wrote in his police report, he was “unable to locate Domingo or any leads.” Then, he wrote, he confronted the widow.
He told her that he didn’t believe her story. She had to know more. It didn’t make a lick of sense that someone would return an empty, blood-stained truck to its owner’s home with no explanation, he said. And furthermore, someone like Domingo, who was unemployed, did not “go out and pay for pagers unless they were dealing drugs.”
Shortly after, he spoke to the widow’s daughter, who said she didn’t know anything either.
While in the house, Officer Pinon saw a poster for a band. He took note of the poster because a confidential informant had told sheriff’s officials that the band was involved in drug trafficking. He noted that the family seemed “startled” when he asked about the poster. Then Pinon left, no closer to discovering what might have happened to Domingo.
From a few houses away, Martinez, he later said, watched them.
Martinez didn’t learn Domingo’s full name until a few days later, when missing posters with his photo went up around town. He spotted one at the Earlimart market.
A short time after that, he left Earlimart and went to Mexico. When he got back a month later, he caught up on all the town gossip — including the news that Domingo’s mother was going crazy with worry, not knowing what had happened to her son. Martinez thought it unlikely that anyone, even the man’s mother, could possibly believe Domingo was still alive. What else could have happened to him, after all? They had found bloodstains inside the truck.
Still, Martinez felt a wave of pity for the woman. He thought of his own mother. He imagined her despair if he were to disappear and then a bloody truck mysteriously showed up. “Something sad came into my mind,” he later wrote.
The next day, he went to see his family in a neighboring town, near where he had buried Domingo, and announced he was spending the night at his mom’s house. After everyone had gone to sleep, he dressed in dark clothes, slung an AK-47 over his back, and set out in the dark. He brought a shovel and a mask — he knew the odor would be bad.
After everyone had gone to sleep, he dressed in dark clothes, slung an AK-47 over his back, and set out in the dark.
He walked two miles to where he had left the body, then moved it to a spot where he thought it would be seen. Two days later, on May 23, workers checking irrigation pipes found Domingo’s corpse.
Detective Greg Hilger of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department was called to the scene. He arrived a bit after noon, and deputies showed him the body. And then, they showed him a curious piece of evidence: surgical gloves, dropped a few feet away from the body behind an orange tree.
“I was advised that no one from the Sheriff’s Dept used these gloves and discarded them, nor were they the gloves that field workers would use,” Hilger wrote in his report. Hilger sent the gloves off to the crime lab to be tested.
It took another day to match the corpse’s clothes to a missing person’s case from April, that of one Domingo Perez. That missing person’s case was now a murder. But if detectives ever developed any evidence or leads in the case, they didn’t note them in their case file.
On August 4 — four months after Domingo was killed — the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department finally got a report back from the regional crime lab on the gloves found at the murder scene. The result: no latent fingerprints could be pulled from them. As Martinez noted, the case went cold. “There were no suspects; no questions were asked.”
He wasn’t far off. That was almost the end of the investigation, according to the case file. The file contains paltry if any interviews with Domingo’s family members or friends about his last days or who they think might have killed them. Police did pull phone records, which showed numerous calls to Culiacan and to Badiraguato, Sinaloa, which is, incidentally, the hometown of El Chapo Guzman, the fearsome leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. About a year after the murder, police also tried to run down a lead on one of Domingo’s former associates, who was reputed to be involved in drug smuggling and had a falling out with Domingo in the months before his death. The associate’s son had been murdered in Earlimart in May 1996.
Martinez insists further investigation would have been fruitless: His good deed in returning the truck, he said, also served to terrify anyone who might have known anything into silence.
Martinez had also committed this murder at a time when a good many people in Earlimart were already scared. And not because of him. Anti-immigrant fervor had swept California, casting a pall over communities like Earlimart. The previous November, California voters had approved Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that called for denying government services, including health care and education, to undocumented immigrants. Even small children were to be turned away from school. And anyone could be reported to authorities if they tried to access services. The state was reeling from recession, drought, and deep cutbacks in the federal defense and aerospace industries, which had provided many middle-class jobs. Immigrants became a convenient scapegoat.
“They keep coming,” was the threatening voiceover on the television advertisement for Proposition 187. It played, as Gustavo Arellano noted in his retrospective on the law for the Los Angeles Times, over grainy footage of people running across the border. The initiative had passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote statewide — and by an even higher margin in Tulare County. A legal challenge, filed almost immediately, blocked it from ever going into effect. In the long run, the Republican-backed proposition backfired: It galvanized a generation of Latino and progressive activists, spurred many to enter politics, and helped turn California heavily Democratic.
But that took years, and much of rural California remained Republican. In the Central Valley, always more conservative than the coastal areas of the state, mostly it served to send the message to Mexican Americans that they were second-class citizens. And it made many people even more fearful of talking to police or advocating for themselves in other ways.
Cops wanted to fill their new prisons with people who were easy to catch. And that left them even less time to spend on someone like him.
Not that police had much bandwidth to listen, even if people had wanted to talk. Up and down the valley, police forces were overwhelmed by a severe budget crisis, even as they struggled with rising rates of violent crime. The recession and the attendant drain on public coffers hit the valley, as it always did, harder than it did the rest of the state. Tulare County lost officers, particularly experienced ones. The Tulare County Sheriff’s Department had far fewer Latino officers by 1994 than it did in 1990, according to a 1994 story in the Tulare Advance Register.
Smaller police departments fared even worse. McFarland, the small city just south of the Tulare County line where Martinez had lived in the early 1980s, actually dissolved its police department in 1991, unable to afford it anymore. Its police chief told the Associated Press that he planned to seek work as a barber or a roofer. Mendota, another tough farming community a bit further to the north, also disbanded its police department.
Because this was California, where change, disaster, and head-spinning shifts in state policy came in waves, the retrenchment in local police forces coincided with another dizzying new initiative: a new criminal justice policy that would fill the prisons for years to come. Never mind the recession and the diminishment of public safety statewide, California voters in 1994 also approved Proposition 184, a three-strikes law mandating that people convicted of any felony be sentenced to life in prison if they have two prior felonies. Almost overnight, many more people were headed to prison and for much longer terms. Meanwhile, state officials — drawing on bond funding not affected by the recession buffeting local departments and in some cases not even approved by voters — had been building prisons at a furious pace. One state report, as the historian Ruth Wilson Gilmore wrote in her book Golden Gulag, called it “the largest prison building project in the history of the world.”
From the time California joined the Union in 1850 until 1964, the state built just twelve prisons. Twenty-three more were built between 1984 and 2013. The prison population also swelled, growing nearly 500 percent between 1982 and 2000. Around half of these prisons were built, as Gilmore noted, in the Central Valley, along what became known as “prison alley.” Once again, the Central Valley’s farmers were big winners. Many of these prisons were built on formerly irrigated agricultural land; big farmers, of course, profited, selling or leasing land they had allowed to lie fallow.
Martinez paid keen attention to the prison boom. It was hard not to. From the roof of his mother’s house at night, he could actually see the lights from four of these facilities — Corcoran, Northern Kern, Delano, and Wasco — gleaming eerily in the dark. More importantly, the trend touched his own extended family. Some served time in these new prisons. And some worked in law enforcement. This was not an uncommon story. The San Joaquin Valley — not to mention American gangster lore — is full of families in which some members have been criminals, and others, their jailers or pursuers.
As Martinez studied the prison system’s explosive growth across California, he formed his own theories about what that expansion, in conjunction with the decline in personnel in local police departments, meant. His conclusion: Cops wanted to fill their new prisons with people who were easy to catch. And that left them even less time to spend on someone like him.
Martinez went on to kill at least eight more men — and they were always men — before finally confessing. The motive for his confession was, true to form, to help his family.
In many respects, the case of Jose Martinez is unique, extreme: A skilled contract killer, willing to murder without remorse again and again, slaying people to whom he often had no obvious connection or motive for wanting dead. But in another sense, his three decades of impunity illustrates an urgent disparity in modern American policing: People in many communities do not feel the police keep them safe, even as they may suffer from the burdens of “over policing” such as more traffic stops and arrests for petty crimes.
In a funny bit of timing, around the time Martinez was in court in California (he would eventually be convicted of killings in three states) Tulare County officials began holding meetings in his hometown of Earlimart to gather residents’ feedback about their community, part of a process to update the area’s county plan.
Even through the dry, bureaucratic language of the county documents, the residents’ comments were a study in deprivation and frustration. Up the road from Earlimart, Visalia, the Tulare county seat, fielded a minor-league baseball team, an opera, and a symphony. To the east, Exeter, which was only a little bigger than Earlimart, was known for its public art, its gorgeous murals commemorating the San Joaquin Valley’s agricultural heritage, and the opening of its newest French bistro, owned by a chef who hailed from the French Alps and had trained in London.
But in Earlimart, the residents packing the veterans hall told officials they “worried for their safety.” The 300-page document officials eventually produced underscored the ways the town was, as county planners put it, “severely disadvantaged.” Roads weren’t maintained. Many streets didn’t have sidewalks. There weren’t enough places for children to play. A promised park was behind schedule. But residents’ number one concern was safety. And for some, the haunting uncertainty of what had happened to disappeared loved ones.
I’ve written about the Martinez case over the years, and each time I published anything about his story, heartbreaking queries landed in my inbox. The specifics vary, but the gist was always the same: Someone they love has been murdered or gone missing in the Central Valley. The authorities haven’t solved it, or don’t seem to care. Could I help them find out what happened to their loved one, find some semblance of justice? ●