My latest article, in The Nation.
Coming later this year: GRAY AREA, a podcast about justice.
My latest article, in The Nation.
Coming later this year: GRAY AREA, a podcast about justice.
I’ve posted a few new stories from The Monterey Herald. Check out the links in the right column, under “Latest News and Views.” Perhaps I got inspired after working on my book proposal with my new agent, Andy Ross.
Or because I recently spoke to students at Monterey Peninsula College, and I realized as I talked that the Soledad killings story is one of the ones I feel most passionate about. One of those rare cases when what we investigate and then write might make a difference. At least I sure hope so.
“Acting with impunity.” That’s the kind of phrase that evokes the Brooklyn mob, government death squads, tyrants. I think it applies equally well to the NF’s recent status in Soledad. People know things about these assassinations, but when people are afraid, impunity rules the day. Gangsters believe they are untouchable only if we treat them that way.
Easy for me to say, I know. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as cowardly as the next person, probably more so. But I’m very proud of my paper for publishing the Soledad story, because someone had to point out the obvious yet unspoken truth: the NF is behind these murders.
Alberto “Bird” Larez was convicted in Operation Black Widow
By JULIA REYNOLDS
Herald Staff Writer
Sunday, November 11, 2012
A high-ranking Nuestra Familia gang leader from Salinas was arrested this week in an FBI takedown of one of the gang’s largest street regiments, federal officials said.
Alberto Larez, 45, known in Salinas as “Bird,” was taken into custody Thursday morning at his residence in Red Bluff, a small town south of Redding. Federal agents also arrested 17 alleged members of the gang’s Sacramento regiment, including Vidal “Spider” Fabela, 45, another gang member well-known to law enforcement.
“Removing dangerous drugs and violent criminals from our neighborhoods is essential to ensure a bright future for our families,” said Herbert M. Brown, special agent in charge of the Sacramento Division of the FBI. “Takedowns such as these demonstrate that the FBI and its task force partners are committed to disrupting violent gang activity and improving the quality of life in our communities.”
Larez was one of two high-ranking Nuestra Familia captains who were released from federal prison in 2010. He and Henry “Happy” Cervantes, 48, both faced life sentences in the FBI’s sweeping Operation Black Widow conspiracy case in 2000.
Instead, they received 10-year sentences in a plea deal negotiated by the gang’s leaders after problems surfaced with case’s star witness and his role in a murder at Cap’s Saloon in Salinas.
Since then, law enforcement officials feared that when Larez and Cervantes were released from prison in 2010, they were given marching orders by the generals, who are serving life sentences in a Colorado federal prison.
Those orders, police said, included re-taking control of the gang’s diminished street regiments.
Police say the gang has been undergoing an internal power struggle because one group of leaders was sent to federal prison in Colorado after Black Widow, while a newer group of leaders in Pelican Bay is trying to exert its control over cities like Salinas.
Larez and those arrested in last week’s raid all answer to the Colorado generals, federal officials said.
Cervantes was arrested late last year and charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of two men found in a burning Oakland apartment.
In addition to the arrests, FBI officials said Thursday’s operation involved the seizure of drugs, cash and vehicles, including about 25 pounds of methamphetamine, 40 pounds of marijuana, and cocaine, heroin and oxycontin; about $35,000 in cash; 12 cars, including luxury brands such as Lexus and Cadillac; and about 30 weapons as well as ammunition.
All contents ©2012 MONTEREY COUNTY HERALD and may not be republished without written permission.
By JULIA REYNOLDS
Herald Staff Writer
Friday, November 23, 2012
A woman who had close ties to prominent Salinas and Watsonville gangs has been sentenced to nearly six years in prison following last year’s Operation Garlic Press Sweeps.
The case of Rosa Martinez, 32, has been viewed by some in law enforcement as a classic example of the consequences of the supporting roles woman often play when they get involved with gangs.
Martinez was sentenced last week to 70 months in federal prison after pleading guilty earlier this year to possessing methamphetamine with intent to sell, conspiracy, and aiding and abetting. After prison, she will be placed on four years supervised release, officials said.
Numerous letters of support submitted by her attorney show a network of women, some relations and some not, who described her rough background and said Martinez has been working hard to overcome her drug habit even, as she awaited trial, earning a certificate of leadership in a parenting program for incarcerated mothers.
Despite the pleas from supporters for leniency, on Nov. 15, Northern District Judge D. Lowell Jensen gave her the higher term that prosecutors had requested.
Northern District spokesman Jack Gillund said Martinez will begin serving her sentence immediately.
A former girlfriend and colleague of local Norteño and Nuestra Familia gang members, Martinez attracted the notice of local police and FBI agents ever since a violent schism among her lovers, family, and the gang took place seven years ago.
Her life was not unusual for women romantically involved with gang members, although for years law enforcement tended to look the other way and focus mainly on the men.
Local law enforcement officials say they need to learn more about the roles played by women associating with criminal gangs.
Salinas police chief Kelly McMillin said that during his years on the beat, he and fellow officers were familiar with women who held firearms and drugs for male gang members, “playing a supporting role.”
But he said there still isn’t enough known about the forces that lead to women’s entanglement in that life.
“There is a national trend that is looking at the role of women and gangs. There’s new research going on and I hope it informs law enforcement about their roles,” he said.
Research has been funded by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, including a study by Angela Wolf of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency looking at family and other factors that may help pull girls away from gangs and their crimes.
“I hope (the research) shows us what we need to do to keep women out of that lifestyle,” McMillin said.
Martinez became a target of local police surveillance in 2005, while she and a Castroville woman, Carol Huerta, were followed as they visited Nuestra Familia gang generals in Alameda County Jail. One of their colleagues, a young Salinas woman named Crystal Morado, was murdered on Hecker Pass Road in what gang investigators believed was a gang-sanctioned killing. As other homicides followed, Martinez ‘s cousin was eventually convicted of shooting her boyfriend in a hit ordered by her former lover, a gang leader.
Huerta is now facing federal drug conspiracy charges in a Sacramento federal court, and Martinez was among more than 100 people, nearly half of them from Monterey County, who were arrested during Garlic Press’s five-county sweep targeting Norteño gang members and associates suspected of trafficking in firearms, drugs and stolen cars.
Agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began the investigation in March 2010 in collaboration with Gilroy police. By the time it culminated in October 2011, more than 400 officers from about 40 agencies were involved, including Salinas police and the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office.
Some defendants faced federal charges while other have been tried in local courts.
Last March, Miguel Gonzalez, 37, of Salinas, and Adrian Gamino, 31, of Morgan Hill, were the operation’s first defendants to be sentenced on the federal side of the multi-agency case. Both men received 20-year sentences.
All contents ©2012 MONTEREY COUNTY HERALD and may not be republished without written permission.
Soledad: Killings likely ordered to settle scores, punish dropouts
By CLAUDIA MELENDEZ SALINAS
Herald Staff Writer | Staff writer Julia Reynolds contributed to this article.
Sunday, August 5, 2012
Johnny “Tiger” Torres was no angel, his cousin will readily admit. He had his run-ins with the law, but he had a wonderful laugh and a great sense of humor.
“He wasn’t perfect, but then again, who is?” said his cousin, Avelina Torres. “And to me, it doesn’t matter what kind of life you’ve led. If you’ve been murdered, your murder has to be investigated no matter what the circumstances are.”
Torres, 62, was killed on Sept. 4, shot in the head on his driveway on Soledad’s Dixie Street as the town wrapped up its Fiesta Days.
As with the five killings that have taken place in Soledad during the past 16 months — the most recent one happened two weeks ago — no arrests have been made.
Gang investigators are convinced the string of killings occurred because leaders of the Nuestra Familia prison gang have sent orders to settle old scores and execute gang dropouts.
The brazen slayings began in March 2011 and have continued up to the fatal shooting two weeks ago of 34-year-old George Campa. All occurred in daylight. They were all near the victims’ homes, and in some cases in front of friends or relatives.
Four of the five were killed on a Sunday, and two killings took place on holidays — one on Easter Sunday.
The methods are chillingly similar. Police say the shooters walked up to the victims and shot them at close range, making sure they would not survive.
“Clearly it’s a wake-up call for these guys,” said Soledad Police Chief Eric Sills. “Many of these guys who have been targeted, if you talk to the families and relatives, they have felt this was coming. They have seen people literally drive by their houses and yell out threats. Nobody can say they’re safe.”
Various federal and local investigators say the slayings are the manifestation of recent Nuestra Familia gang orders to “take care of” older defectors and others considered in bad standing with the gang — vendettas stemming from decade-old grudges forged during a civil war that ruptured the gang in Salinas.
To help implement the plan, one official said, a gang lieutenant was recently paroled from prison with orders to “clean up dropouts.”
With few leads and no arrests made to date, the region’s most prominent criminal organization appears to be operating with impunity as officers struggle to stem the bloodshed.
Most of the victims were living low-profile lives. Despite histories of drug use and shoplifting, they had demonstrated no gang involvement for 10 years or more.
Their former gang ties, however, date to an exceptionally violent period in the late 1990s. Court and police reports show that the victims had stepped away from gang life during or just after the civil war schisms.
It started on March 7, 2011, when Laurencia Hiracheta, 57, was gunned down outside her apartment building as she warmed up her car. Hiracheta had been a close gang associate for much of her life, but she walked away in 2001.
Next came Torres’ killing while gang members staged a fight at Soledad Fiesta Days, apparently to distract the police. Torres’ former gang involvement was considered minor, but his home was known as a hangout for gang dropouts, which might have incurred the wrath of the organization, law enforcement officials say.
Dario Melchor, 42, was next. He was barbecuing at home on Easter Sunday when he was shot and killed. A 62-year-old man with him was shot but survived.
Witness accounts needed
Law enforcement officials repeatedly say that witnesses make or break cases, and in crimes such as these, it’s safe to assume that those who saw anything — friends and relatives — are scared.
Except for Avelina Torres, family members contacted for this story would not speak to The Herald. Other residents say they believe the Nuestra Familia is behind the murders and that more are coming. There is talk of a list of priority hits on older gang dropouts.
Henry Campa, uncle to the latest murder victim, would only say that everyone wants the violence to stop.
“Our prayers go out” to everyone, said Campa, a well-known clergyman with Victory Outreach. “If anyone wants to be counseled, we’re available.”
The fourth victim was Jesse Herrera, a 40-year-old shot to death June 3 as he was coming home from the store. He was shot multiple times and found on Nestles Road behind a shopping center.
George Campa, 34, had just been released from a short jail stay on a probation violation and was headed home from a store when he was shot outside the house where he was staying, Chief Sills said.
Sills said the investigations into the killings are going “pretty well.”
Orders from prison
Gang associates from the area, who spoke to The Herald on condition their names would not be published, say the Soledad slayings were sanctioned by the gang’s brass in prison, and would require the approval of top local leadership. Stopping short of accusing him of ordering any hits, law enforcement officials identify Vincent Garcia, who hails from the turbulent civil war era, as the highest-ranking gang member in the Salinas Valley.
Gang associates say he emerged after regiment commanders were swept up in operations Knockout and Street Sweeper during the past two years.
Known to gang members as Big Chente, Vincent Garcia worked closely under Rico Garcia, one of the main instigators of the late 1990s civil war at around the same time. They are not related.
Now in his mid-40s, Vincent Garcia grew up in Acosta Plaza in Salinas, and has recently lived in both Greenfield and Salinas. In 1999, he was sentenced to nine years in prison after six members of Rico Garcia’s gang crew were charged in connection with one murder and a failed plot to kill six others in 1998. According to court records, he was caught on an FBI informant’s tape urging the shooter to use hollow-point bullets because they would cause the most damage.
In the summer of 2007, Vincent Garcia was among a group of Nuestra Familia statewide leaders who convened a meeting after the gang’s top commanders in Salinas were arrested under the FBI’s Operation Valley Star, according to law enforcement records. The purpose of the meeting, held in Tulare County, was to discuss the gang’s remaining resources.
This week, another slaying in nearby Greenfield caught investigators’ attention as possibly being part of the pattern, though they have since abandoned that theory. Thomas Morales, 34, died when someone walked up and shot him and another man at close range around 10 p.m. Monday.
Sills said detectives believe Morales was still an active gang member, and recent jail classification records back this up.
“I thought, ‘This sounds like the same old thing because of his age,’ but now we don’t believe it is,” said Sills, who is now running both cities’ police departments.
Under an agreement between Soledad and Greenfield officials, Sills took over the Greenfield department in March after months of turmoil. After a gang-related shooting that left an 18-year-old man dead and one seriously wounded in May, Greenfield police identified three suspects and arrested two. The third suspect, Richard Jerry Criado, was located in a Texas border town and arrested by U.S. marshals.
It was Greenfield’s second murder of 2012, and the quick arrests prompted jubilation from residents who immediately praised Sills’ turnaround of the department.
Sills attributes the rapid results in the May 8 shooting to a new tone set in the Greenfield Police Department.
“I asked (for the officers) to be more visible in the community,” he said. “The officers came together. We have evidence, we have people who came forward and we made an arrest.”
The Soledad City Council this week approved a plan to begin exploring the possibility of combining law enforcement agencies with Greenfield, King City and Gonzales.
“All the cities intend to look at it,” Sills said. “The question is when, and whether, the councils will put money into conducting research.”
No arrests yet
The chief has his critics, and some continue to wonder, in light of the Greenfield arrests, why none has been made in the Soledad cases.
“Has Sills given those poor souls in Soledad that type of attention?” said Johnny Torres’ cousin Avelina. “I don’t think he has.”
Sills defends his department’s record saying a case has been made against Armando Canchola, a Norteño gang member now awaiting trial for two murders. Canchola is accused of killing Victor Martinez, 25, on Oct. 6, 2010, and Cesar Alvarado Vasquez, 28, back in 2008.
Information for the most recent cases “is very difficult to come up with,” Sills said. “We’re relying on physical evidence but people are not forthcoming. Yeah, these are tragedies, difficult cases to prove, but where would we be if not for (recent) grants trying to minimize the violence?”
Avelina Torres said that when her father died, Johnny became her protector. She was about 17, and after she began working at an all-night restaurant on Soledad’s main street, Johnny would keep her company every night.
“He would sit in the restaurant to make sure nothing happened to me. He wanted to make sure I would not get hurt.” she said. “As the years passed, I always got the same type of respect.”
Johnny was six years older than his cousin. A lifelong Soledad resident, Johnny lived next door to Avelina’s mother, and she would visit them both at the same time. After Avelina’s mother died more than 20 years ago, the visits became less frequent, she said.
“To me, when he was murdered I could not understand why,” she said. “He was older. Why kill these older people? What they are doing is wrong. It never makes sense to me why anybody gets killed or murdered.”
Johnny Torres Jr., 62, killed Sept. 4, 2011
Laurencia Hiracheta, 57, killed March 7, 2011
George Campa, 34, killed July 22, 2012
Dario Melchor, 42, killed April 8, 2012
Jesse Herrera, 40, killed June 3, 2012
All contents ©2012 MONTEREY COUNTY HERALD and may not be republished without written permission.
Ex-gang member admits role in murder
By JULIA REYNOLDS, Herald Staff Writer
Monday, December 12, 2011
Part two of two
Part one: The Long Journey
When Johnny Angel Martinez was released from prison just before Thanksgiving 2008, he was separated from his wife and jobless.
He moved to Santa Cruz County, where he attended Cabrillo College and volunteered at Barrios Unidos and other organizations helping at-risk youth. The work was exhilarating and helped pull him through an otherwise tough time.
He recalls that one day, while volunteering at an alternative school housed at Barrios Unidos in Santa Cruz, he counseled a member of his once-rival gang who had been caught with a knife at school.
The youth asked Martinez why he would help his gang’s enemy.
“Why do you even care about me?” he said.
Martinez replied that he was not a gang member any more.
“The reason that I care is because you’re … a human being,” Martinez said.
Martinez not only convinced the boy to hand over the knife, he said he also talked him into staying until police arrived.
“You made one good decision,” Martinez told him. “If you keep on making good decisions, good things are going to come out of it.”
The contrast between the boy’s behavior and his own stung.
“Here are 15-year-old kids doing the right thing based on the information I’m giving them,” he says now. “I needed to practice what I preached.”
As his counseling career began to take off, the Williams Road slaying continued to haunt him.
He spent a year debating whether to follow his own advice and turn himself in.
He made excuses, he says, telling himself he could not willingly abandon his children, leave them fatherless while he served a long prison sentence. Why should they suffer for his past? But he also wanted to set a moral standard for his children.
Opposing thoughts nagged as well: If his role in the slaying was discovered, would it bring shame to the community organizations he worked with? If he ever decided to remarry, would the police come knocking and end the dream?
But more than any of those things, something deeper nagged at Martinez, a voice that wouldn’t be silenced, telling him he had to face what he had done.
Not because it was the right thing to do, not because he was afraid of being arrested, and not because he was overwhelmed by guilt.
Without fully understanding why, the inner voice simply told him he had to.
The act of surrendering was, he would later realize, what a normal person with a normal sense of responsibility would do.
The idea of sacrifice
In the summer of 2010, he spent several days meditating on the notion of sacrifice — “being able to give up everything that I know and I love” — while sitting in a park on Acacia Street in South Salinas.
Then one August afternoon, he stood up and began walking.
“I had one objective on my mind and that was ‘Get there.’”
As he made his way north along Main Street toward the Salinas police station, it seemed as if every temptation came along to try to turn him around.
A car full of relatives pulled up beside him.
“I felt like something was trying to do everything it could to stop me, because my nieces are like ‘Hey, Uncle Johnny!”‘
After that, the cousin he lived with drove up.
“And I just wave him off. I just put my head down and I’m walking … I remember this is the only thing I did tell myself: If I’m about to turn myself in, I want to smoke a cigarette.”
He bummed a couple of smokes before he passed the Steinbeck Library on Lincoln Street, two blocks from the police station.
He kept walking.
Once he faced the mirrored-glass doors, he took a drag, set his cigarettes carefully on the edge of a concrete stair, and stepped inside.
Police interview transcripts show he at first tried to take the full rap, claiming that he was the shooter.
“So what’s goin’ on?” a detective asked as Martinez took a seat.
“I was involved in a homicide,” he said.
“You were involved in a homicide.”
“OK,” the detective said, “how were you involved in a homicide?”
“I did it.”
Martinez hadn’t thought at all about what he would say. His aim had simply been to make it there without turning back.
He tried to convince the detectives he was the trigger man and could see the cops knew better. They had other sources, they said.
The officers did believe him when he at last admitted he was the driver.
Finally, another detective entered the room and said, “Can you stand up for me?”
Martinez whistled as the officers cuffed his hands behind his back.
While Martinez was confronting his own past, the gang had not forgotten his mother’s brazen act of testifying against its members a decade earlier.
Meanwhile, Martinez was detained on parole violation, but by the fall of 2010, he faced a felony murder charge.
The felony murder rule holds all participants in a felony crime, such as a robbery, responsible for any homicide that results no matter their role.
In sentencing terms, it was the same as if he’d committed a first-degree murder.
“The next thing I know,” his former probation and parole officer Dan Villarreal says, “(Johnny) wrote me a letter telling me he turned himself in because he felt if he was going to continue his work with youth it was important that he start with a clean slate and not worry about things he had done in his past.”
“This really didn’t come as a big shock to me,” Villarreal says.
Little by little, Martinez began to understand why he had to turn himself in, why justice demanded it, the community expected it and why the victim’s family needed it.
He says he even began to understand the rationale behind the felony murder rule.
“The moment I pulled over my car … I knew in my mind that something could possibly happen. And it did happen.”
His mother, who had quietly moved from her secret location in the Central Valley to South Monterey County, visited and wrote to him at the Salinas jail.
She told her son she was very proud of him. During visits, she made him laugh and he began to believe their strained relationship was on the mend.
Then one day last March, Martinez heard a quick announcement of breaking news on the jail television. A 57-year old woman was killed in Soledad. His thoughts raced. His mom was 57. She lived in Soledad.
Nah, he told himself. It isn’t her.
Straining to watch the five o’clock news through his cell door tray slot, he heard his mother’s name. She had been shot and killed that morning while warming up her car.
He called out for a guard and told him, “I just found out that my mom got murdered.”
A deputy took him to call a relative but no one answered. He spent the night in his cell without knowing anything more than what he’d seen on the news.
He says he’s grateful to the classification officers who let him listen to his mother’s memorial service on a jail phone. He dialed the phone of a relative who held it next to a speaker.
He is convinced his old gang is behind her death.
“Seeing the pictures told me a thousand words. I saw the bullet holes in the back, I knew already. Execution-style from behind, you know.”
This fall, he accepted a plea deal that offered 15 to life for a murder he did not commit but felt responsible for. He took it, even though it meant pleading to a charge of second-degree murder, saying he did not want to put Javier Tovar’s family — and taxpayers — through the agony of a trial.
At his Dec. 1 sentencing hearing, he asked Tovar’s relatives, who were in the courtroom, as well as the residents of Salinas for forgiveness.
“I am sorry beyond belief, beyond any comprehension,” he said. “I would think of how unfair it was that I was free, that I was alive. It didn’t seem right.
“I’ve heard the word courage being used … The fact is, the night Javier Tovar was murdered, he was murdered by three cowards. And I was one of the cowards that was there.”
He was, he told the court, especially moved by a letter written by Tovar’s sister that mentioned the way he smiled.
“It tore me to pieces when I read it. And it should have. And the reason being is one of the things I thought about was, do they miss his smile? You know, the light in his eyes.”
Martinez says he has no regrets about surrendering, despite evidence indicating he might never have been charged if he hadn’t. His plans now revolve around making the most of his time in prison. He’s eager to set up more men’s programs and perhaps conduct academic research behind the walls.
“He has always been a leader,” says Villarreal.
Despite the stacks of letters and commendations he’s received for what many describe as doing the right thing — Martinez says he does not consider himself brave or heroic or exceptional.
“What I did is not courageous,” he insists. “This is expected behavior of anyone in our society.
“Through doing this, I’ve gained so much more. I may be given 15 to life, but to me that’s not the end of the road. What has happened inside of me supersedes it all, way more than I even expected.”
Julia Reynolds can be reached at 648-1187 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
All contents ©2011 MONTEREY COUNTY HERALD and may not be republished without written permission.
Johnny Angel Martinez ended his search for redemption by turning himself in
By JULIA REYNOLDS, Herald Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Part one of two
Part two: Man who surrendered has no regrets
Editor’s note: On Dec. 1, 2011, Johnny Angel Martinez , 34, was sentenced to 15 years to life after turning himself in to police for his role in a Salinas murder 10 years earlier. This two-part series tells the story of Martinez’s decision to face justice.
On an August afternoon last year, Johnny Angel Martinez carefully set down his cigarette, walked through the front doors of the Salinas Police Department and told an attending officer, “I need to talk to a homicide detective.”
He told the officer it had to do with a homicide he was involved in.
“Excuse me?” he recalled her saying. “Not a homicide that you know about or that you witnessed?”
No — it was one he was involved in, he said. She asked him to wait. He told her he would be right outside finishing his cigarette. Martinez knew it could be one of the last smokes he would have for years, maybe forever.
As he inhaled and listened to his MP3 player, he told himself, “Don’t leave.”
A voice inside that he had been resisting for a year told him this was the necessary conclusion to a journey that began almost a decade earlier when he was ordered to help his gang kill his own mother.
It was a journey that would lead him on a difficult search for redemption and end with a new start on life that he knew could only come from facing justice.
A tough upbringing
The 34-year-old Martinez says he was just 5 when he saw a junkie die of an overdose in his mother’s home.
“Johnny had it real hard,” says his childhood friend Angel Botello of Martinez’s upbringing in Salinas and the Central Valley.
Martinez said he never even saw a picture of his Puerto Rican father. His mother was a heroin addict and her home frequently hosted other addicts. One of young Johnny’s first jobs was running and getting the spoon and the ice, tools his mother used for treating overdoses until paramedics arrived.
Other times he showed novice users how to shoot up while the grown-ups laughed and called it cute. When he played alone, he recalls, he pretended to inject a syringe into his arm. Miraculously, he never shot heroin in his life.
A year later, he says, his mother was boosting him through open windows so he could help her rob houses. He was told that a good man provides for his family, even if that means stealing and robbing to do it.
Largely because of his mother’s addiction, he went in and out of foster homes and seemed to live two lives. Throughout his childhood, Martinez says, he was a straight-A student who eventually moved into advanced placement classes. He was a brainy boy who skateboarded and listened to heavy metal.
Former probation and parole officer Dan Villarreal, now director of the Strengthening Families program in Salinas, has known Martinez since he was 12 years old.
“Even during his incarceration in juvenile hall, group homes or the California Youth Authority … many staff wondered, ‘What is this kid doing here?’” Villarreal says.
Martinez says his mother had her own expectations for him. Known to everyone as Chuca, she would brag to friends that one day her son Johnny Angel would be an important gangster.
The family lore was that Chuca was so dedicated to the gangs of Salinas that while she was in labor, she had a relative drive her from the Central Valley so that Johnny could be born in Salinas.
He was 14 years old when, in June 1992, he held his friend Prescott Torrez’s head in his lap as the boy lay dying. He had wandered into the crossfire of rival gangs outside the Breadbox Recreation Center in East Salinas. Prescott, 15, would be the first of more than two dozen friends Martinez would see murdered over the years.
Through his teens, Martinez graduated from stints in juvenile hall to sentences in the California Youth Authority and then prison, from throwing punches in the park to brandishing guns. He also started using drugs, smoking pot and later using cocaine and methamphetamine.
As he ascended the gang’s ranks, he was eventually ordered to kill homeboys who had been deemed “no good” by the bosses, but fate always seemed to intervene at the last minute and the hits never happened.
By his early 20s, his role in the gang had become that of an ambassador. He was good at keeping up morale, directing younger gang members, and coordinating drug sales.
He convinced himself he was helping promising youngsters by getting them real jobs. He shared his apartment, his clothes — and his guns — with them.
Wrapped up in a crime
On Memorial Day Weekend in 2000, Martinez spent a day at Lake Nacimiento with a couple of gang associates. He says the others fell asleep as he drove them back to Salinas.
Near the fire station on Williams Road, one abruptly told him, “Pull over,” and he did so.
Martinez says he heard the shots but never saw what happened. When his companions jumped back in the car, he says, he drove them away in silence while sirens blared behind them.
He later learned that Javier Tovar, 23, had been shot in the back.
Authorities have not named Martinez’s alleged accomplices, nor any other suspects in the crime.
He recalls feeling angry, not because an innocent man was killed, but because he was now wrapped up in a crime he had not consented to. He did his best to forget what happened, push it out of his mind.
A year later, he was in prison again at the same time an entire gang crew in Salinas was charged in connection with a murder at Cap’s Saloon.
When he paroled, Martinez reported to his gang regiment that he was “out and available.”
He and his colleagues arranged to meet at a pizza parlor on East Alisal Street.
Once inside, Martinez noticed the others ordered sodas, not beer. This meeting was going to be serious.
The boss asked if he knew what was going on. “With what?” Martinez answered.
The table fell silent, he says, until another man spoke up.
“Your mom is testifying and turning evidence,” the man said.
Martinez had no idea that she was involved in any of the gang’s business, and his first reaction was anger that his mother had been selling dope for the gang and no one had bothered to ask what he would think.
But he stayed quiet.
“We’re not asking for your approval,” the boss said, “but we need to know where you’re at because she’s going to be whacked and it’s your mother.”
He said what he knew he had to say. “We have to do what we have to do.”
The organization’s leaders weren’t so heartless as to ask Martinez to do it himself, and they promised his mother wouldn’t be hit in front of family.
But the gang did need his help.
Chuca was in a witness relocation program and only Martinez could tell them where she was. They asked for a full report on her location and habits.
Although Martinez readily said yes, something made him wonder if he would really go through with it. He’d been a prominent member of the gang, but he’d never killed anyone, much less a blood relative.
It would take years before he would understand that his mother had committed a truly courageous act, that despite all she’d done to push him into the gang, she was the first with the guts to stand up to it.
Meanwhile, as a newly minted member of the gang’s upper echelon, Martinez had to prove himself by helping his “brothers” carry out their mission.
He would have to choose which family deserved his loyalty.
‘A good robot’
Today, Martinez can’t recall the hours after the order was given, whether he even ate that day or not.
He told himself: This is what happens when people rat. He was, he now says, a “good robot.”
Yet something kept him from reporting back to the gang about his mother’s whereabouts.
It was then, too, that he learned he was about to become a father.
He says the decision to leave his gang so soon after he’d joined its elite circle came in small steps.
It didn’t happen overnight, and he realized he hadn’t made the decision, it was made for him — he was angry because leaders decided to “tax” young street gang members 25 percent of their criminal income. He was about to get married and become a father. And the gang had just ordered him to help kill his mother.
Despite so many good reasons to get out, walking away would feel like a failure, as if he’d committed a deep betrayal.
“It was like a very bad relationship,” he says. “You ignore all the evidence … You make excuses for being treated wrong. You’re so co-dependent, afraid to be alone, afraid to take a stand, to be confident and say, ‘Hey, I don’t deserve this, you are no good for me.’”
He told himself he was a gangster, so tough he could go through with a hit on his mother, but always, he says, “some sliver of goodness” stopped him from following through.
“That didn’t make me gangster,” he says now. “It made me incredibly stupid.”
It was the impending birth of his son, he says, that pushed him to a decision.
He’d stand outside smoking, looking up at a canopy of stars and think, “I’m going to be a father. There’s still hope.”
With his new wife supporting his decision, Martinez walked into his parole agent’s office and told him, “I’m done. I’m dropping out.”
After Martinez decided to leave his gang for good, the road to becoming “normal” was far from easy. In fact, it was pretty bumpy.
He was grateful the gang’s leaders respected his decision to focus on family. As long as he didn’t snitch or compete with their drug business and other crimes, they left him alone.
After his second child was born, he turned once again to his drugs of choice, cocaine and methamphetamine, when his relationship with his wife began to unravel.
By 2006, he landed back in prison after an argument with his wife turned physical.
This time, he decided, he had to make permanent changes.
He underwent counseling in domestic violence and relationships, parenting and substance abuse.
Soon he was trained to facilitate nonviolent conflict resolution. He co-founded “Freedom and Choice,” a men’s accountability group for inmates at the state prison in Jamestown.
He was a trained counselor for the “Seeking to Educate Endangered Kids” program, which provided mentoring and counseling to teens on probation.
He was especially moved, he says, by a course run by Criminon International, a group that runs prison and jail workshops addressing “the causes of criminality and restoring the criminal’s self-respect through effective drug detoxification, education and common sense programs.”
He discovered that the leadership skills he’d developed while in the gang were now useful for helping others get their lives together. He earned commendations from the associate warden and has a pile of certificates to prove it.
He earned a new moniker, “Justful Johnny,” because he had a reputation for being fair and holding himself accountable.
In 2008, Jamestown’s Associate Warden Ty Rawlinson wrote that Martinez was “instrumental in creating a new culture in this facility and quite possibly the California prison system.”
While he was locked up, he read a book about how to find happiness. It offered simple guidelines: not harming others; obeying the law; setting a good example.
Things normal people take for granted, he told himself. He began to consider whether he might one day be able to live a normal life.
He would soon discover that the more his prospects began looking up, the more that murder he’d been a part of would haunt him.
Read part two: While he is in jail awaiting trial, Martinez overhears a news report that his mother has been shot and killed. He will listen to her memorial service on a phone in jail.
All contents ©2011 MONTEREY COUNTY HERALD and may not be republished without written permission.
See also A Deadly Toll
By JULIA REYNOLDS, Herald Staff Writer
Sunday Oct. 30, 2011
Nearly seven years ago, three Central Coast women caught the attention of local detectives who noticed they were regularly driving north to a downtown Oakland jail.
The investigators discovered the three were visiting top Nuestra Familia generals — the gang’s highest-ranking leaders — who were awaiting sentencing in a federal racketeering case.
Although two of the women ended up marrying the men they visited, these romances do not have happy-ever-after endings.
One woman was murdered in a plot investigators say was orchestrated by the general she married. Another was arrested last spring and faces life in prison.
The third, who had been the target of police and FBI surveillance for years, was Watsonville resident Rosa Martinez.
A girlfriend and colleague of local Norteño and Nuestra Familia gang members, Martinez, 31, has been of keen interest to local police and FBI agents since a violent schism unfolded six years ago among her lovers, family, and the Nuestra Familia.
Her story exemplifies the critical — and often tragic — supporting role played by women in California’s current version of organized crime.
Under the radar
Like many women seriously involved with gangs, law enforcement always seemed to pass Martinez by whenever the big gang indictments came down.
“Women tend not to show up on the radar real quick, so they were being used extensively by the gang regiment,” said Marina police Chief Eddie Rodriguez, a former Watsonville officer and member of a task force that was tailing the women.
During the surveillance, he said, “we got a better perspective on how women were being used. These women started popping up all over the place as couriers for the gang.”
Martinez’ under-the radar days ended this month when she was arrested as part of Operation Garlic Press, a multi-agency investigation based in Gilroy that culminated in more than 100 arrests in five counties on Oct. 14.
Martinez, who has lived in Gilroy and Watsonville, now faces judges in two different courts.
In Santa Clara County, she’s in jail on felony charges of auto theft and receiving stolen property.
In federal court, she has been indicted on two counts of conspiring to distribute methamphetamine and possession of drugs for sale.
Like her two colleagues, Martinez was romantically involved with one of the gang’s top guns.
In the Norteño gang culture, Rodriguez said, girls and women aren’t “officially” allowed to become members — but because police have historically tended to overlook them, women have come to play increasingly important roles in helping the gang conduct its business, from relaying messages to delivering drugs.
When members of Rodriguez’s multi-county Central Coast gang task force took notice of her in 2004 and 2005, Martinez was the girlfriend of the officers’ top target, a Watsonville gang regiment leader named Oscar Cabrera, also known as Baby Joker or BJ.
Her cousin, Anthony Rubalcava, known on the streets as Tigre, was considered BJ’s right-hand man.
Martinez and two other women — Carol Huerta, of Castroville, who was close to the gang’s highest leaders, and Crystal Morado, a 19year-old from Salinas — became task force surveillance targets.
In 2004, the officers began watching Morado as she visited a general in the Oakland jail, James “Tibbs” Morado.
Within months, she married him. Although Tibbs was twice her age and doing life in prison, marrying him meant Morado would be taken care of financially by the gang. Some friends and relatives call her relationship with the gang’s No. 1 leader a case of “looking for love in all the wrong places.”
Whatever her motive, the marriage was doomed. In January 2005, months after her whirlwind visiting-room romance blossomed into marriage, Morado, then 20, was found shot to death in a parked car on Hecker Pass Road, just east of the line between Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties.
The task force officers suspected that BJ and Tigre, as the local regiment brass, might have been involved.
California prison investigators later found a message smuggled between gang leaders indicating Crystal’s husband, the general called Tibbs, had sanctioned the hit. The note explained that she was killed because she was no longer “functioning” for the gang.
Friends put it more simply: she’d wanted to spend more time with her infant son and had tired of delivering messages and money for the general and his cohorts.
A few months later, Martinez had become Tibbs’ messenger, and she visited him at the Oakland jail.
In April, Huerta traveled with her and sat down with Nuestra Familia general Joseph “Pinky” Hernandez.
Their visits took place with glass between them. Police detectives who observed them noticed the generals took care to guard their language as they spoke. The officers were on the lookout for subtle or coded ways of communicating gang orders.
In June 2005, Watsonville police stopped Martinez on a traffic warrant. Officers found six blank money orders for $500 each, along with the prison mailing address of David Cervantes, the gang’s highest-ranking leader in Pelican Bay State Prison. A seventh money order was made out to Cervantes.
Her wallet also contained a handwritten note addressed to BJ, saying Tibbs believed BJ wasn’t paying enough attention to recent communications from the gang.
To the task force officers, the discovery meant Martinez had become a courier for the gang’s highest-level leaders, filtering messages to the streets while delivering “tax” money to generals’ prison trust accounts.
But the most intriguing find was a small digital camera among Martinez’s belongings. In it were images of someone holding a large handwritten note against a glass window. The face wasn’t visible, but the clothing looked like an Oakland jail uniform.
Officers decided the piece of paper contained a general’s message to gang members in the Central Coast.
Martinez was released and she soon dropped by the jail again.
This time the guards were ready. When their metal detector went off, Martinez as usual told the officers it must have been her underwire bra.
A more thorough search by female guards revealed that Martinez had tucked a new digital camera into her bra.
She was banned from visiting the jail.
Her travel companion, Huerta, meanwhile, had married the general “Pinky” Hernandez. Authorities never determined if the two were legally wed or had simply declared themselves husband and wife, but according to court testimony, the position gave Huerta authority among gang leaders in Salinas and Castroville.
Gang members said they rewarded her with free drugs and rent money as an honored general’s wife.
By fall, Martinez had become romantically involved with another man — Mark Escobedo, one of BJ’s underlings.
That sticky situation, combined with drug debts owed, made Escobedo believe he was in bad standing with the gang.
He was also a police informant.
On a September day in 2005, Escobedo told his law enforcement handlers that BJ had ordered him to collect drug money later that night with Tigre and another gang member.
Escobedo told the officers he was afraid the gang would kill him during the drive over Hecker Pass Road, but at midnight, he slid into a car seat in front of Tigre, seeming to accept his fate.
When they returned from Gilroy, the car pulled to a stop not far from the spot where Crystal Morado was killed.
According to court documents, Escobedo had tried asking for mercy, but Tigre was silent. Escobedo was ordered out of the car and moments later, Tigre told him, “You’re staying here.”
Escobedo saw the muzzle flash and heard the blast, but he never saw the gun. He was shot again in the back as he tried to run away.
Martinez learned early that morning that her new boyfriend was in a hospital clinging to life.
He had been shot by her cousin, in a hit arranged by her former lover.
For women involved in gangs, the lines between love, family and crime are often blurred.
Angela Wolf, a researcher focusing on girls’ and women’s issues at the nonprofit National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said relatives and boyfriends often draw girls into gangs.
“Typically, they have a family member or a boyfriend already involved,” she said.
Wolf is in the process of launching the nation’s largest study to date of girls involved in gangs, with grant funding from the U.S. Department of Justice.
She and fellow researchers plan to interview more than 100 girls in Salinas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Richmond, Sacramento and other California cities.
Violence in the home also appears to be a major risk factor, Wolf said, especially for girls, who may join seeking safety and protection — even from their own home.
“They’re looking for (something) to be enveloped by,” she said. “And the gang is there.”
One young woman from Monterey County, who asked not to be named in this story, agreed that gang involvement often starts with romance.
“Like in any relationship, you’re going to show you’re loyal to your guy,” she said.
She was initiated into an allgirl Sureño gang in her teens. “Once a guy picks his true ‘ride or die,’ that girl is solid. Once a girl gets that title and gets introduced that way, she’s up higher now than a girl that’s just a party girl.”
She said the reasons young women get into gangs are as varied as the girls themselves.
Her own case was “generational,” with gang members in her immediate family.
Some girls get into the drugs, she said. Others crave respect. Some may even come from strict, well-off households but seek the excitement and danger of being around gangsters, she said.
“A lot of these guys put you on a pedestal. You get respect. But every group of (gang members), they also have their own group of girls who are disposable.”
She left her gang around 2000, she said, at a time when it was easier for a woman to walk away. These days, she said, she sees a lot of girls “15, 16 years old. They all date older guys who are in prison, guys in their 20s. They don’t even know what they’re getting into.”
Wolf said she hasn’t researched changes in gang policies, but agreed that it does seem harder for girls and women to get out of gangs than it used to be, and her study will look at successful “exit strategies.”
“One way out is that girls are able to leverage their caretaking roles,” she said. “They do seem to have an easier time (leaving) if they are mothers.”
Most men and women, she points out, simply outgrow their gangs when family and responsibilities take precedence, although there’s always a small group of what she calls “legacy gang members,” those who stay involved even as they age into their 20s, 30s and beyond.
She said most girls do not understand what they’re getting involved in when they join gangs.
“They feel like they’re valued and it turns out they’re really not valued at all . . . Kids find out they’re expendable.”
Headed for court
Eddie Rodriguez says law enforcement is now taking a closer look at women, as gang men increasingly target and court females they think will be useful.
“If anything, the gangs are using them more,” he said. “The wives and girlfriends are doing the gang’s work. In the past, guys may have said, ‘Carry my gun.’ Nowadays it’s a bit more covert — the women have good jobs and you wouldn’t think they’re gang-related.”
As for Rosa Martinez, loyalty to the gang lifestyle apparently won out over love.
Six years after the regiment’s attempt to kill her boyfriend Escobedo, police said she was still in the mix.
Several weeks ago, arrest warrants were issued for her on drug and auto theft charges under Operation Garlic Press. She was picked up earlier this month and remains in Santa Clara County jail in lieu of $25,000 bail.
The Central Coast task force that investigated Martinez, Huerta, Tigre and BJ was shut down in 2006 as the FBI took over the cases.
Escobedo survived his injuries and eventually testified against Tigre, who last year was sentenced to 55 years to life in prison.
In March 2006, BJ disappeared the day after a Watsonville homicide in which he was the suspect, and he remains on Santa Cruz County’s most wanted list. Police learned he was later hiding in Mexico with Robert “Bubba” Hanrahan, a Nuestra Familia crew leader from Salinas who is now serving a 13-year prison term and was indicted this year on federal drug charges.
After Escobedo was shot, police learned that Carol Huerta had married her general, “Pinky” Hernandez, and later visited him in a Florence, Colo. supermax prison where the gang’s brass are now housed.
Last spring, Huerta was indicted on drug conspiracy charges. She faces life in federal prison.
A deadly toll
Women have been regular targets of gang violence in Monterey County, but few cases have been solved.
Jan. 31, 2005: Crystal Morado, 20, of Salinas, was found shot dead in a car parked on Hecker Pass Road.
May 20, 2006: Tina Marie Peña, 23, of King City, was found shot multiple times on Wildhorse Road off of Highway 101.
Oct. 23, 2007: Two women, ages 21 and 25, were shot in the head in a Motel 6 room in Salinas. Amazingly, both survived their injuries. Sureño gang member Heriberto Ceja, 21, was named as a suspect and remains at large.
Dec. 5, 2009: Yliza Martinez and Veronica Gallegos, both 30, were found shot to death in a room at the Pueblo Inn in Greenfield. A 15-year-old boy was charged in the double homicide and police are still seeking Francisco Alejandro Tamayo, 18, as the alleged shooter.
Mar. 3, 2011: Greenfield resident Yessenia Ponce Chaidez, 25, was found shot and stabbed to death near a burning car in an industrial section of Salinas.
Mar. 7, 2011: Laurencia Martinez Hiracheta, 57, was fatally shot from behind while warming up her car in Soledad.
Sources: Salinas, Soledad and Greenfield police departments and the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office
I just wrote a story coming off an afternoon of listening to Sacramento hearings about:
1) the horrifying conditions in the SHU; and
2) how inmates become validated as prison gang members and get sent indefinitely to the SHU.
Don’t get me wrong. As a frequent visitor to California prisons, it doesn’t take much to tick me off at the Department of Corrections. I mean seriously, prisons could do a few simple, cheap and decent things like provide shade and benches for elderly visitors who stand for hours in their freezing/blistering hot/rain-soaked parking lots just to see a loved one. They could quit setting the clocks forward and shaving 15 minutes off precious visiting time. Grrrr! They could allow a reporter a pencil and paper like the Department Operations Manual says they must.
And those are just the little things. And okay, maybe I’m ticked off I didn’t get invited by CDCR to go on their recent press junket to Pelican Bay. Double grrr!
Despite all this ticked-offness, I understand prison officials’ dilemma.
I lose patience with family members who are in denial about their loved ones’ gang involvement. There was a lot of talk at the Sacramento hearing about inmates being falsely classified as prison gang members. They are not ‘generals,’ one relative said.
Well, some of them are. There really are gang members and gang generals in the SHU. And I know this not because I take some cop’s word for it but because I’ve known more than a few of them personally. There really are people there who stab, strangle, slice, and beat other humans as a regular way of life. Even in the SHU, they find ways to smuggle out orders to kill. Yes, they do. I’ve seen the hit lists.
True, that doesn’t mean your loved one is one of them.
I guess what I’m thinking is that we’re asking the wrong questions. Rather than protest every SHU inmate’s innocence, maybe we should ask: Is long-term isolation in a Security Housing Unit really the best way to deal with the gang members who do beat and stab and slice?
The SHU hasn’t stopped the gangs from spreading. It hasn’t stopped the orders for hits. True, it has probably slowed some of these things, but I have to ask whether allowing SHU inmates to use colored pencils is really going to increase prison violence. Whether allowing inmates a little more fresh air and human contact is going to up the assault rates.
Maybe the problem isn’t who goes to the SHU, it’s the SHU itself.
One big question that did come up at the hearing — and it was a good one — was why prison officials have made it almost impossible to leave the SHU (and one’s gang) without debriefing. (Debriefing is what some would call snitching.)
I liked the answer I heard. They’re going to change that. That’s what I heard, I swear. Finally, prison officials told us they’re looking at ways to help guys step back without informing.
This is HUGE.
As they age, plenty of men grow tired of being in a gang, but still feel crappy about informing. The new approach would allow them to show (through their behavior) that they’re no longer in a gang. Without having to debrief.
I can imagine that prison officials will see a lot more men back off from prison gangs and out of the SHU.
Sure, there a risks. How do you know for sure the guy has really left the gang? Maybe he’s a sleeper. Things like that.
You don’t know. There’s always a risk. Leaving men with nothing on their minds but time in the SHU is also a risk. As one ex-gang general put it, they’ve got nothing to do “but sit and plot.” Hasn’t worked out too well so far, has it?
In “Why the US Doesn’t Have Mexico-Style Drug Cartels… Yet,” Nathan Jones shows how much market share the U.S. network of small and mid-level distributors control — in fact, it’s the majority of the revenue in the cocaine biz, according to his graphic.
This coincides with my own view of gangs as end-level retailers in a vast underground industry that spans the Americas. While gang kids may believe they’re fighting for respect or their version of a cause, they’re actually just the end of the line, a disposable workforce in a massive $29.5 billion business.
I’ve reported before on Nuestra Familia’s new direct ties to Mexican cartels and I just finished an article on the connection between U.S. gangs and the Mexican drug wars for an upcoming issue of Nieman Reports.
I’m also working on a piece about La Familia Michoacana in Northern California, so stay tuned.