Tag Archives: gun violence

The Long Journey, Part Two

mocoherald

Man who surrendered has no regrets

Ex-gang member admits role in murder

Johnny Angel Martinez / Claudia Meléndez, The Monterey Herald

Johnny Angel Martinez / Claudia Meléndez, The Monterey Herald

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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.”

“Yes, sir.”

“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.

Not forgotten

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.

Chuca holding a grandchild / Provided photo

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.”

Plea agreement

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 jreynolds@montereyherald.com.


Part one: The Long Journey



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All contents ©2011 MONTEREY COUNTY HERALD and may not be republished without written permission.

The Long Journey: Johnny Angel Martinez’ search for redemption

mocoherald

THE LONG JOURNEY

Johnny Angel Martinez ended his search for redemption by turning himself in

Johnny Angel Martinez holds a photo of his late mother, known as Chuca / Claudia Meléndez, The Monterey Herald

Johnny Angel Martinez holds a photo of his late mother, known as Chuca / Claudia Meléndez, The Monterey Herald

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.

The birth of his son helped Martinez decide to leave gangs for good. / Provided photo

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.”

Permanent changes

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.

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All contents ©2011 MONTEREY COUNTY HERALD and may not be republished without written permission.

 

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Gang and drug crime intiative unveiled

And here is the just-out brochure describing the National Network for Safe Communities, the (very) innovative gang and drug crime initiative unveiled Monday at the US mayors’ conference in Providence. Looks like 30 cities (and counting) are on board so far, including Stockton and Sacramento from my fair state. And Salinas? Not yet, anyway. Hmmm…

Just click this link to download the PDF: nationalnetwork

Here’s more about the program and the cities that are on board: http://www.jjay.cuny.edu/2666.php

Bold plan to fight gang and drug crime unveils today

According to The New Yorker’s News Desk, the Obama administration is paying attention to the “Boston Miracle” approach of David Kennedy, who is set to unveil bold plans later today for fighting gang and drug crime in US cities.

Check back for more on today’s meeting of US mayors, to be attended by Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder.

Ceasefire: Proven programs to lower rates of gang violence

Chicago’s Ceasefire Program is Looking Good: Read here

Note: Since I wrote this post in 2009, Chicago Ceasefire has changed its name to avoid confusion with the Boston Ceasefire violence reduction strategy, which you can learn more about here. (Chicago’s Ceasefire is now called Cure Violence and it’s gone through some changes.)

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People often ask me if we can ever stop gang violence. Here’s the short answer: it takes a lot of work, but it can be done.

I’ve been tracking evidence-based programs such as the city of Chicago’s Ceasefire with a lot of interest. Proponents say these intensive, multi-pronged public-health approaches are the only proven way to lower murder rates.

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Chicago is one of several cities using a model that basically treats youth violence as a public health issue and not just a law enforcement problem. The idea is to follow the example of epidemiologists and public health experts by adopting the same kind of successful approaches that have gotten people to stop smoking or use seat beats or condoms.

Another program called Ceasefire has gotten results in Boston and other cities (Stockton, California being one close to home), and it’s one of things I’ve been studying during my fellowship at Harvard.

More than anything, I’m hoping to see the city of Salinas emulate some of this success.

Here’s an excerpt from the new report, describing a few of  Chicago Ceasefire’s five key components (the bolding is mine):

“CeaseFire focused on changing the behavior of a small number of carefully selected members of the community, those with a high chance of either ‘being shot or being a shooter’ in the immediate future.

Violence interrupters worked on the street, mediating conflicts between gangs and intervening to stem the cycle of retaliatory violence that threatens to break out following a shooting.

Outreach workers counseled young clients and connected them to a range of services.”

The five core components, by the way, are:

  • Street-level outreach
  • Public education
  • Community mobilization
  • Faith leader involvement
  • Police participation

Download the full report: http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/227181.pdf
The Chicago Ceasefire Web site: http://www.ceasefirechicago.org/
The Boston Gun Project and Boston’s Operation Ceasefire: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/criminaljustice/research/bgp.htm