Tag Archives: salinas valley

New stories, and thoughts about impunity

 

Finally!

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.

~

Prison gang tied to Soledad killings

mocoherald

“Hits” may have been ordered from prison

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.”

Soledad police Chief Eric Sills

Soledad Police Chief Eric Sills says recent killings have been a wake-up call for suspected gang targets. (VERN FISHER/The Herald)

Old vendettas

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.

Greenfield killing

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.”

 


The victims

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

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All contents ©2012 MONTEREY COUNTY HERALD and may not be republished without written permission.

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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Salinas gang murders

An ignoble distinction… Salinas just matched San Jose’s murder total for the year: 18. Except San Jose is a city of nearly 1 million and Salinas is 150,000 on a good day.

And it’s barely August.

I’ve spent the last week covering shootings, four dead and four wounded, including a 14-year-old boy. I know I’m supposed to be the dispassionate journalist, but there are days when I just feel sick… and sad.

Today’s one of them.

Edit: Sad to say, late last night we added one more. So we’ve passed San Jo now.

film/tv

Nuestra Familia, Our Family | The PBS documentary

The Center for Investigative Reporting and Latino Public Broadcasting‘s award-winning film about a father, a son, a gang and the FBI.
Co-producer, lead reporter, writer

  • Hear me and co-reporter George Sánchez talk about Salinas gangs and our work on this film.

 

Gun Land | NOW with Bill Moyers
Reporter, researcher, production assistant
(Center for Investigative Reporting)

Gun Runners | Frontline/WORLD
Reporter, researcher
(Center for Investigative Reporting)

Gangs Thrive In Maximum Security | 60 Minutes
Reporter, researcher (Center for Investigative Reporting)

stories

Print and online coverage of justice, youth violence, gangs, guns, and the FBI

crowd1
Crowd at Salinas crime scene | photo © Janjaap Dekker

JUSTICE: THE SYSTEM, THE CONCEPT, THE REALITY

From overcrowded prisons to life without parole for juveniles and problematic witness protection — our justice system offers plenty to write about.

The guns of Pacific Grove: Unraveling a police commander’s arms dealings | The Monterey Herald

The silent empire: the state’s largest for-profit jail health care provider | The Monterey Herald (funny how they change headlines on the web for search engine optimization)

Experts slam Monterey County Jail conditions | The Monterey Herald
(yes, they re-named our newspaper)

Series on prison mental health | The Monterey County Herald

Reasonable Doubt in a Cold Case | The Monterey County Herald

The Long Journey: Johnny Angel Martinez’ search for redemption | The Monterey County Herald


Down for Life series
| The Monterey County Herald  Day 1 Day 2Day 3
>>PDFs
Day 1 Day 2Day 3
Down for Life series | KAZU-fm  Part 1 Part 2Part 3

Multimedia: A Long Night’s Wait at Salinas Valley State Prison

Witness Protection Not a Guarantee | The Monterey County Herald
Murder Victims’ Families Find Solace | The Monterey County Herald

GANGS

Since 2002, I’ve reported on the Nuestra Familia and the law enforcement efforts to bring it down.

The NF is one of the nation’s most violent and sophisticated gangs, a drug-dealing mafia that for more than three decades has exerted powerful control over the West’s agricultural towns. In the Salinas Valley, second, third and now fourth generations of children are literally being born into this gang and raised to be criminals. My work chronicles the gang’s power and a community’s struggle to defeat it.

Nuestra Familia, Our Family | The PBS documentary
Our award-winning film about a father, a son, a gang and the FBI.

OPERATION VALLEY STAR STORIES

The FBI’s largest case against Nuestra Familia, with trials still underway.

The Operation Valley Star Archive — all stories

WOMEN, GIRLS AND GANGS

Girlfriends, wives and sisters are an integral — and often expendable — part of gang organizations.

Women Caught up in Gang Life | Monterey County Herald

Prison Gang Tied to Soledad Killings | Monterey County Herald

GANG VIOLENCE – SOLUTIONS

When people ask me how to end gangs, I usually say something useless like “end poverty first.” But there may be more immediate hope for stopping some of the killings. The Boston Ceasefire violence reduction strategy is gaining support and believers. I’m one of them.

Ceasefire: A series on the innovative program to stop gang shootings | Monterey County Herald

Reasons for Hope: Three journalists who report on the drug trade’s violence in the United States and Mexico compare notes during a peaceful pause | Nieman Reports Fall 2011

I also continuously cover solutions to gang and youth violence, as well as prison and reentry issues as my regular beat at The Monterey County Herald.

GUNS

In the world of gunrunning, money drives the engine. What starts with an illegal but booming worldwide arms trade ends with misery around the globe – including teen deaths in Northern California.

South Florida’s Elusive Arms Baron | Frontline/WORLD
The Guns of Opa-Locka | The Nation
Youths, Gangs and Guns | KQED-TV and Oakland Tribune

I also contributed reporting to these investigative projects:
Gun Land | NOW with Bill Moyers
Gun Runners | Frontline/WORLD

Critics: Terrorists Manipulate Loopholes in U.S. Gun Laws | NPR’s All Things Considered [ram audio]

EN ESPAÑOL

Gángster en un campo de lechugas  (Gangster in a Lettuce Field) | El Puercoespîn, Argentina May 2010

La guerra civil en California (The Civil War in California) | La Jornada, México, 3-part series, Dec. 2003–Jan. 2004

AND MORE…


High-flying Investor Goes Into Free Fall
| San Francisco Chronicle

Daniel Ellsberg: Whistleblowers wanted here | The Monterey County Herald

I also contributed reporting to these investigative projects:
Locked Down | American Radio Works
Gangs Thrive In Maximum Security | 60 Minutes