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Saturday, Apr 12 2014 10:15 PM

A murderer living in our midst

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    The Tulare County District Attorney's Office is filing multiple murder charges against Jose Manuel Martinez, allegedly a hit man for a Mexican drug cartel. This photo is from the Tulare County District Attorney's Office.

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BY MARC BENJAMIN AND LEWIS GRISWOLD The Fresno Bee

EARLIMART -- Nobody knew what "Mano Negra," the Black Hand, looked like until last week. But it was common knowledge in many small farm towns in Tulare County that when a debt wasn't paid or someone got killed, he was probably involved.

With ruthless efficiency, the Black Hand acted as a contract killer since 1980. But last year, when Mano Negra killed a man in Alabama, he got sloppy. It was personal, he acknowledged to an investigator, and all those years of killing had finally caught up with Jose Manuel Martinez.

Word around Earlimart last week was that Martinez, 51, of Richgrove, will not kill anymore. In custody, he admitted to 34 killings in 12 states, said Capt. Tim McWhorter of the Lawrence County Sheriff's Office in Alabama. Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward held a news conference to announce that six of those slayings happened in Tulare County and two in Kern County. Another occurred in Santa Barbara County, authorities allege.

If it's proven that Martinez killed 34 people, he would be in the company of some of America's most notorious murderers. Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, killed 49 people in Washington state and is believed to have slain as many as 90. Both Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy also are thought to have killed more than 30.

For the past year, McWhorter has watched homicide investigators from around the country parade through his office to question Martinez. In addition to the Alabama case, Martinez is linked so far to 16 deaths -- 14 in California (including the ones in Tulare, Kern and Santa Barbara) and two in Florida.

Martinez killed three men, perhaps more, while on parole in California since his first prison stint in 2007 for theft and drug-related crimes. He has been in county jails across California for much of the past 25 years, from San Diego to Tulare and points in between.

Deaths in the family

One of the men he allegedly killed while on parole was Gonzalo Urquieta, 54, of Earlimart. Martinez met Urquieta while working in the fields, Urquieta's nephew said last week. Urquieta's body was found in an orange grove near Richgrove in February 2011. He had been shot several times, allegedly the last known valley victim of Mano Negra.

When Urquieta lived in Tijuana, he liked to fix motors, said his nephew, Jose Urquieta, 22, of Earlimart. While living in the valley, he took jobs harvesting almonds, pistachios, grapes and citrus.

Jose Urquieta described his uncle as a good man with an upbeat personality.

But, "He used to hang around with a guy who was up to no good. My uncle was with some of his friends, they took him out to the middle of nowhere, I don't know why."

Jose Urquieta said the name "Mano Negra" has circulated among the small farming towns in the Delano area for years. When someone was killed, the Black Hand was the prime suspect, he said.

"I heard about him even before my uncle was murdered. We didn't know who he was, but we knew he killed for money."

Jose Urquieta said that when he opened the newspaper last week, he was surprised to see the alleged Mano Negra. He thinks Martinez was able to get away with killing because he looked like "an ordinary guy."

From the same newspaper article, Jose Urquieta learned that his wife's uncle, Juan Bautista Moreno, 52, of Bakersfield, is allegedly a victim of Martinez's, too.

"My wife told me that in 2009 her uncle was killed," Jose Urquieta said. "I asked her if she knew Juan Bautista Moreno, and she said 'That was my uncle.' "

"My uncle was a supervisor working in the fields," Yesica Urquieta Moreno, 20, said. "They found him in the oranges; he was shot in his truck."

Jose Urquieta had heard whispers that Mano Negra killed his uncle.

"Finally, they caught him," he said. "Everybody in town is saying that was him."

Tulare County Superior Court documents say Martinez killed "for financial gain." McWhorter said Martinez told investigators he killed and collected debts for a Mexican drug cartel. In a news conference last year, authorities in Marion County, Fla., said Martinez told investigators that he got 25 percent of a debt owed in each case and the cartel got the rest.

In Earlimart, where four of six Tulare County victims lived, barber Joe Cardona, 81, said he knows the father of one victim and remembers when another victim disappeared. Someone like Martinez would have gone unnoticed in an area where most people work in a packing shed or fields or drive a truck, he said.

Contract killers like Martinez are distinctive from Bundy or Gacy, said Harold Schechter, a professor at Queens College in New York and author of true crime books.

Serial killers are amateurs who use sex and torture because they enjoy doing it, Schechter said. They also try to hide their compulsion. By comparison, a contract killer is paid and their profession is known by certain people, he said.

"Guys like him conduct it like a business," Schechter said of Martinez. "The difference is that a serial killer is someone who is under the grip of a dark sexual compulsion."

A long record

Before his confessions, Martinez's California criminal record read more like that of a small-time drug addict than a drug cartel hitman. The murders Martinez admitted to were taking place while he was in and out of jail and prison.

His jail record in California dates to 1989, when he was arrested for selling drugs in Orange County. In his confessions made public last week, Martinez admits to committing at least three murders in California by then and it was nine years after his first California homicide near Lindsay when he was 18.

In 1990, he was charged with attempted burglary in San Diego County and the following year with grand theft. In 1994, he was charged with burglary in Orange County.

He is accused of killing a man in Tulare County in 1995 and another in 2000. Also, in 2000, he was arrested in Kern County for grand theft. In 2003, he was charged in Tulare County for methamphetamine possession and was high when deputies arrested him. He also was wanted for two Kern County warrants for failing to appear in court on drug possession charges.

A judge allowed him to go to drug recovery court and probation, but Martinez skipped recovery court and never took mandatory drug tests. According to probation reports, officers recommended revoking his probation.

In October 2004, he was pulled over by a sheriff's deputy and arrested in Earlimart. He said he was a transient and had smoked crystal methamphetamine two hours earlier. He was charged with methamphetamine use and possession, driving without a license and driving an unregistered car.

He was again made eligible for drug court.

The next month he was arrested for stealing a pickup and methamphetamine possession and spent almost a year in jail.

In 2005, he was found high on methamphetamine while driving a stolen John Deere tractor near Richgrove. In 2006, he became the prime suspect in a Florida double murder and told California investigators he killed a Kern County man in early 2007.

He was sentenced to prison in July 2007 for two years on possession of methamphetamine and grand theft charges in Tulare County. Martinez was paroled in early 2008 and was sent back to prison for violating parole in late 2009. He was again released in March 2010 and eventually let off parole in March 2012.

While he was in and out of prison because of parole violations, he killed three more men, according to his confessions.

Martinez had three citations for traffic violations in Fresno County between 1987 and May 2009. Sheriff Margaret Mims said last week that Fresno County homicide detectives are working with Tulare County law enforcement officials "comparing all of our unsolved homicides over the years to see if any could have been committed by Martinez."

A tough case

Martinez may have been able to get away for so long because he did his job and kept it to himself. He wasn't someone most people would notice.

He is a man of average height and weight with a fit build, said Errek Jett, the district attorney of Lawrence County, Ala.

"If I walked past him in the local Walmart, I wouldn't think that's an evil-looking, Charlie Manson kind of person," Jett said.

Martinez lived off and on with his mother in a home in Richgrove.

"He's a real quiet guy," said a neighbor, who declined to give a name. "He says 'Hi' once in awhile. He's polite. I've never seen him have any problems around here. I've never seen him mad or angry."

It was June 3, 2013, when Alabama authorities had enough evidence against Martinez to send a murder warrant to the FBI's National Crime Information Center. The warrant said Martinez was the prime suspect in the killing of Jose Ruiz three months earlier.

In a county where one or two murders occur each year and usually have a simple cause, like a drunken fight, Jett said the Ruiz case "had all the hallmarks of one that you'll never solve."

But the Lawrence County lawmen caught a break: Martinez, a U.S. citizen, was returning June 3 from a trip to Mexico. The murder warrant alert popped up when he checked in at the Yuma, Ariz., border crossing.

A pang of conscience

In his initial interview last year with McWhorter, Martinez went on for two or three hours detailing his killings. He said he would follow his victims for days, sometimes a week, to learn their patterns and "was very calculated."

"He would talk about his so-called job," McWhorter said. "Those jobs may not always be homicides. A majority of the time it was collecting a debt and killing someone if he didn't feel he was being respected."

Killing Ruiz wasn't so well planned.

Martinez was visiting his daughter in Alabama when he met Ruiz, who made disrespectful comments about her. Ruiz didn't know Martinez was her father, McWhorter said.

Martinez returned to California and stewed over the remarks before he decided to plot revenge. Ruiz had told Martinez about a man in a rural area who owed him money. So when Martinez returned to Alabama last March, he told Ruiz he could help collect the debt.

Martinez hitched a ride with Jaime Roman Romero, Martinez's daughter's boyfriend, and they picked up Ruiz at a shopping center near his home in Decatur, Ala. The three men headed west to Lawrence County to collect for Ruiz. They had reached the edge of the William Bankhead National Forest when Ruiz asked them to stop; he had to urinate. Martinez got out with Ruiz and shot him in the head, authorities allege.

But the crime wasn't as neat as most of his contract killings. Martinez apparently hadn't noticed the surveillance camera at the shopping center in Decatur. It captured an image of the men getting into Romero's truck. Investigators looked at the footage after they found Ruiz's car abandoned there.

Cellphone transmissions linked Martinez and Romero to the area where Ruiz's body was found.

The boyfriend was initially accused and jailed in the death, but he told investigators he didn't kill Ruiz. He fingered Martinez.

McWhorter said old-fashioned hospitality coerced a confession out of Martinez.

"I said, 'Look, we are trying to be respectful to you, we just want to hear your side, we know you were involved, so you can give us your depiction of everything.' He paused for a minute and looked at the floor and he said, 'You have been very respectful and I appreciate that.' He looked at the floor again and said, 'You want me to tell you the truth? Yeah, I killed the son of a bitch.'"

Martinez likely knows that if he had killed one more person -- Romero -- he would probably still be free, but he seems to have had a bout with his conscience, McWhorter said, telling the investigator that Romero never knew his plan.

The problem, Martinez told McWhorter, was that his daughter was a young mother and was pregnant again. McWhorter said Martinez did not like her boyfriend, but Romero was in jail for something he didn't do and his daughter had no other means of support.

"He was between a rock and a hard place," McWhorter said. "Finally, the floodgates opened" on all of Mano Negra's murders.

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