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This suspenseful true story of a drug cartel hitman who got away with murder after murder in California's Central Valley over three decades reveals how the criminal justice system fails our most vulnerable immigrant communities.
On the surface, fifty-eight-year-old Jose Martinez didn't seem evil or even that remarkable—just a regular neighbor, good with cars and devoted to his family. But in between taking his children to Disneyland and visiting his mom, Martinez was also one of the most skilled professional killers police had ever seen.
He tracked one victim to one of the wealthiest corners of America, a horse ranch in Santa Barbara, and shot him dead in the morning sunlight, setting off a decades-long manhunt. He shot another man, a farmworker, right in front of his young wife as they drove to work in the fields. The widow would wait decades for justice. Those were murders for hire. Others he killed for vengeance.
How did Martinez manage to evade law enforcement for so long with little more than a slap on the wrist? Because he understood a dark truth about the criminal justice system: if you kill the "right people"—people who are poor, who aren't white, and who don't have anyone to speak up for them—you can get away with it.
Melding the pacing and suspense of a true crime thriller with the rigor of top-notch investigative journalism, The Devil's Harvest follows award-winning reporter Jessica Garrison's relentless search for the truth as she traces the life of this assassin, the cops who were always a few steps behind him, and the families of his many victims. Drawing upon decades of case files, interrogation transcripts, on-the-ground reporting, and Martinez's chilling handwritten journals, The Devil's Harvest uses a gripping and often shocking narrative to dig into one of the most important moral questions haunting our politically divided nation today: Why do some deaths—and some lives—matter more than others?
"Meticulously researched and tightly woven, The Devil's Harvest is an important story because it tells us that if [this] can happen in one place, then it can happen in any place. And that's damn scary." —Michael Connelly, New York Times bestselling author of The Closers, The Lincoln Lawyer, and The Night Fire
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I first heard of Jose Manuel Martinez in the spring of 2014. The Associated Press reported that a man accused of murdering nine men over a span of three decades—and suspected of killing many more—was being extradited from Alabama to California. Police believed they had caught a professional hit man.
At the time, I was an editor for the Los Angeles Times, and I dispatched the paper's Fresno correspondent seventy miles south down Highway 99 to Tulare County—the heart of California's farm belt—to see what she could learn. After the report ran, I found I could not stop thinking about his case.
How could someone get away with murder after murder for more than thirty years while living in a sleepy, close-knit farmworker town where everyone knew everyone else?
Eventually, Martinez himself would explain it to me. He was "so damn good," he'd say. He left little evidence and few witnesses.
This was true but far from the whole story. Martinez, I learned, had been born and raised in California's vast Central Valley, which stretches about 450 miles down the interior of the state and is one of the richest farming regions in the world. He came from its stark and beautiful southern end, known as the San Joaquin Valley, where the peaks of the Sierra Nevada march upward toward their apex at Mount Whitney and where, down on the valley floor, any notion of California as a progressive, egalitarian land of opportunity disintegrates under the relentless, baking sun.1
Nearly half the fruits and nuts that Americans eat are grown here, in lavishly irrigated fields that roll out like a green carpet across the once-arid land.2 In the cities and towns of the valley, meanwhile, something terrible has borne fruit: income disparity that is greater than anywhere else in California.3 There are neighborhoods in Visalia and Exeter where those who have grown wealthy off the land live ensconced in homes with infinity pools, butler's pantries, and en suite bathrooms for every bedroom.4 Just a few miles away, in the towns where the people who do the picking and planting live, homes are often crowded and dilapidated and the water that comes out of the taps is often not safe to drink.5
This is where John Steinbeck set his Depression-era classic The Grapes of Wrath and where, in the 1960s, Cesar Chavez launched his crusade to organize farmworkers, drawing the support of national politicians, activists, and celebrities. Yet even now, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, the Central Valley, particularly the San Joaquin Valley, remains a disturbing tableau of American inequality.
Growing up here to witness routine exploitation, shocking violence, and seemingly capricious police officers, Martinez assessed the circumstances and decided murder for hire was a reasonable way to make a living. And his greatest asset as a killer, it became clear to me, was that he had grasped a dark truth about the American justice system: if you kill the "right people"—people who are poor, who are not white, who may be presumed to be criminals themselves, and who don't have anyone to speak for them—you can get away with it. "El Mano Negra,"6 the Black Hand, as Martinez was known, had found an ideal place to ply his trade.
Cecilia Camacho, a relative of one of Martinez's victims, knew this truth as well as Martinez. "There is no follow-through when the [victim] is from Mexico. We didn't have papers. We didn't have the means to speak up for ourselves."7
It was a familiar refrain. As I dug into the case, I tracked down other family members of Martinez's victims, their anguish and loss not lessened over the years or decades since their loved ones were killed. But I was struck most by how they had carried their suffering without public protest. Many say they were silenced not so much by fear of El Mano Negra as by the conviction that no one in power—not the police brass or the elected officials or the media—really cared what had happened to their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. Or to their communities.
Year after year, Martinez operated with impunity. In Tulare County, where he lived for decades, officials suspected him of murder after murder and yet never charged him. Next-door Kern County, where he also lived for a time and committed several murders, has one of the highest murder rates in California and one of the lowest murder-solve rates in the nation. Martinez's hometown of Earlimart—a tightly woven community where people knew each other's stories and watched out for each other's children—was also so violent, some nicknamed it "Murdermart." In other places, Martinez killed people in out-of-the-way areas and then vanished before anyone thought to look for him.
Eventually, after speaking with victims' family members and the police officers who investigated those cases, I reached out to Martinez himself. I addressed a letter to him, care of the jail where he was awaiting trial. I have written many such letters to prisons in my years as a reporter, and I knew better than to expect a response. But a few weeks later, my phone rang.
"How are you?" Martinez asked me. I was flustered, then stunned, as so many police officers had been before me, by how personable this cold-blooded killer sounded. "What do you want to know?"
At that point, I knew only the broad outlines of Martinez's story. I knew he had killed many people in a place where justice had always been in short supply. I also knew from police that he was a devoted father and grandfather who lived to make the children in his family laugh.
I told Martinez I was interested in why he had murdered so many people and how he had gotten away with it. I told him that I was curious, too, about how he could kill without remorse, sometimes, it seemed, even with relish, and at the same time be so generous toward his family.
He paused for a moment, and then he laughed ruefully. "It's a long story," he said.
From behind bars, he sat for numerous phone interviews and then arranged for me to review an astonishing document—a four-hundred-page memoir in his careful, round-lettered handwriting. It is by turns a sickening account of cold-blooded murder and a moving tale of family bonds. Martinez wants to be entertaining, and he often is. But he does not hide the fact that he is brutally, remorselessly violent.
His story also follows the sweep of nearly a half century of Central Valley history—the epic grape strikes of the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of drug cartels in the 1980s, the anti-immigrant sentiment of the 1990s, and the growing opportunities for political, economic, and social change of the 2000s.
As I read his account of his life and studied the police reports of his murders, as I sat with members of his family and the families of his victims, I came to believe that Martinez's improbable thirty-five-year run of murder and mayhem reflects a far more widespread injustice.
The Devil's Harvest is the tale of Jose Martinez's reign of terror. But it is also the story of a community and how the institutions that were supposed to protect that community failed again and again—as they do in many places across the United States.
Some lives count more than others, and nothing reveals this as starkly as death.
Murder for Hire
Sgt. Christal Derington, Tulare County Sheriff's Department: First of all, I hear you have a new one?
Jose Martinez: Yeah, I forgot about him.
Derington: What was his name?
Martinez: I don't know his name.… I got that one when he was going to work. He was driving and he had five passengers. Good thing nobody else got hurt. I shot him in the head with a .22.
—Partial transcript of police interrogation,
June 19, 2013, 9:07 a.m.
Jose Martinez woke up on June 13, 1980, intent on transporting himself from the crime and poverty of his childhood into a new and noble future. It was his eighteenth birthday, and he was going to mark it by joining the US Marines.
Martinez had dreamed of being a soldier since he was a little boy, idolizing his uncles who had fought for the United States overseas. The discipline and brotherhood of the armed forces appealed to him, not to mention the status and security of being part of the greatest military in the world. To shoot and kill for country and glory—what could be better?1
He'd spent countless hours practicing for it. Roaming the banks of the Deer Creek ditch near his stepfather's ranch, he blasted targets, rabbits, and raccoons with the gun his stepdad had given him. He was an excellent shot. He was also a fierce and brutal fighter. Martinez had a gentle, joking disposition, with a mischievous smile that flashed easily and often across his face, lighting up his brown eyes. But his temper was vicious, especially if he felt disrespected. All this, he figured, would make him a perfect marine.
"You should come with me," Martinez said to his wife. She agreed, as he knew she would.2 They'd been together since he was fifteen years old, around the time he had dropped out of school to take a larger role in his stepfather's smuggling operations running heroin across the Mexican border and up through California. Their courtship had begun—according to him; his first wife has not provided her account—when she came from Mexico to work for his mother. They dated for a while, and then "one day I told her, if she really loves me, she must elope with me." He put her in his car and refused to let her out. Then he took her to Disneyland for their honeymoon. His wife made him feel secure and happy. He wanted her—and their toddler son—to witness this important moment. After all, the whole family was embarking on this adventure.
When his son had been born, Martinez had held the tiny boy up, marveling at this creature he had created, and kissed him over and over again. "Son, don't be proud of me," he whispered. "I'm a real criminal and a drug dealer."
But becoming a marine was noble.
Martinez and his family piled into his brand-new black Ford LTD—he'd paid for it in cash because the drug business was that good—and drove forty-five minutes south from their home in Tulare County to the US Marine recruitment center in Bakersfield.
Martinez walked in and found a recruiter. "I'm here to sign up," he said, as his wife stood beside him with their son in her arms. "I know how to shoot real good."
He neglected to mention something else that he thought would make him a good marine: he knew he had the nerve to kill when necessary. He had already done it once. When Martinez was sixteen, his older half sister had been raped and murdered, her body dumped on the banks of the Salton Sea, an inland desert lake in Southern California. A few weeks after the funeral, Martinez left his wife and the rest of his extended family, all reeling from grief, and drove four hours south. He brought with him a friend and an M1 carbine with a thirty-round clip and soon found the house where his sister had last been seen. Three men were inside, laughing and playing cards. "All 3 motherfuckers die," he wrote in his memoir. It was one of his proudest moments. He had taken the powerlessness and rage of his grief and—bang-bang-bang—squeezing the trigger made him feel magically better: powerful, able to protect his family. "It feels good to take vengeance," he explained. "It feels good to kill and the heart relaxes a bit."
Obviously, he couldn't tell the recruiter about this. Instead, he said he was sure he had what it took.
Martinez had thought about what life in the marines would be like. Ronald Reagan, California's former governor, was just weeks away from clinching the Republican nomination for president in a campaign staked in part on restoring glory to the armed forces. In the farmworker communities of the San Joaquin Valley where Martinez had grown up, some people still bitterly recalled how Reagan had sided with growers against farmworkers during the grape strike. But Martinez didn't pay much attention to politics. He wanted to be a fighter. Invulnerable. Fearsome. Respected. All the things farmworkers were not allowed to be. Maybe he would join the Special Forces. He might even be stationed at Camp Pendleton, the marine base near San Diego. That would be nice for his family, to live by the beach while he was overseas fighting for his country.
It would be a real change from where they were living at the moment: Earlimart, with a population of about forty-five hundred that could swell during the harvest, was one of the poorest of the poor farmworker communities that dotted this southern end of the valley.
Martinez's grandmother had been the first in the family to settle here, leaving Mexico after her husband was shot dead in a dispute over a card game in the mountains of Durango. Working in the fields, she met and married a Filipino American farmworker, which enabled her and her Mexican-born children to become legal US residents and eventually citizens. Citizenship offered some small protections. You could not be deported if you complained about not being paid, for example. But farmwork was still backbreaking, often exploitive work, as sixteen-year-old Loreto, Martinez's mother, learned when she joined his grandmother in the fields in 1959. Farmworkers were excluded from virtually all health, safety, and labor laws. They were paid as little as the market allowed, and they could be fired at will. There were no bathrooms and no clean drinking water in the fields. The bosses often treated the workers with contempt, like just another easily replaceable farm implement.3
It had always been this way, no matter who picked the crops. Before Mexicans became the dominant workers in the fields, there had been waves of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino farmworkers. Only when many farmworkers had been white, during the Great Depression, when hundreds of thousands of "Okies" fled the Dust Bowl, did their plight garner national attention.4
Martinez's mother married a man from her home village, a relative on her mother's side who already had two girls from a first marriage. In short order, Loreto and her much older husband built a family. Martinez had an older sister born in 1960. He came along in 1962, and two more brothers and two more sisters followed.
Sometimes, farmworkers sent their American-born children to Mexico to be cared for by relatives while they worked in the fields. When Jose Martinez was about six, he and four siblings were installed in Cosalá, Sinaloa, a cobblestoned town of pastel buildings and mango trees high in the Sierra Madre, where his parents had family. The children landed there just as the area was becoming a center of the drug world. By the mid-1970s, about 90 percent of the heroin sold in the United States came from Mexico's Sierra Madre.5 The Martinez children had a front-row seat as the business—and its attendant violence and corruption—began to boom.6
By the time the siblings returned to California around 1972, their parents were on the verge of divorce. Their mother, Loreto, soon after married a man named Pedro Fernandez. Their new stepfather was much better off than their father: he was not a farmworker; he was a farm labor contractor, hiring crews for farmers who needed crops planted, tended, or picked. He was also a drug smuggler, one of the biggest in the San Joaquin Valley. The family's new home, on a ranch on the outskirts of Earlimart, was the center of Fernandez's massive smuggling operation, frequented by many who would go on to play prominent roles in the drug trade on both sides of the border for years to come.
Meanwhile, in the vineyards that rolled out in every direction just beyond the ranch, another larger-than-life story was taking shape. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were leading farmworkers in one of the greatest civil rights movements of the twentieth century: the epic battle to organize a farmworkers union. Chavez lived and worked out of a house in Delano just a few miles down the road from Earlimart. Born in Arizona to Mexican immigrants, he had worked the migrant farmworker circuit as a child after his family lost their land. After a decade as a community organizer, Chavez had moved to the valley in 1962, just a few years after Martinez's mother, and he and Huerta had set out to show its poorest workers they could take on its most powerful industry. In 1965, when Filipino grape workers like Martinez's step-grandfather went on strike, the fledgling union of Mexican Americans joined the battle. Over the next few years, the United Farm Workers transformed the strike from a local labor dispute into a global cause. Political icons like Robert Kennedy, celebrities like Joan Baez, and legions of other volunteers streamed down Highway 99, through Earlimart into Delano, to support and cover la causa. In 1965, before the strike, farmworkers earned, on average, less than $1.50 an hour. After a five-year strike and boycott, Chavez's movement brought increased pay, job protections, and—just as crucial—a sense of dignity and power to Mexicans and Mexican Americans across the valley and beyond.7
The change was not always easy, or always peaceful. Growers, threatened by the demands that were upending the economic and social order, used every available power to quash the rebellion, including their influence with law enforcement. With little or no provocation, the Tulare and Kern County Sheriff's Departments marched into the fields with their batons drawn and squared off against workers in brutal clashes.8
Martinez saw Chavez around Delano as a child and admired him. He was offended by the violence the police had unleashed on the farmworkers, most of whom, he knew, worked from dawn to dusk to put food on the table. But whatever their sympathies, the Fernandez-Martinez clan did not join Chavez's United Farm Workers of America. After all, they were running a criminal enterprise—smuggling not just drugs but also undocumented immigrants across the border. They tried to stay out of the fray.
Eventually, the law caught up with them anyway. One morning in the summer of 1977, a drug task force descended. Police officers emerged from the grape vineyards and invaded the property with their guns drawn. Before long they had found several stashed guns and three kilos of heroin, worth approximately $2.5 million in 1977 dollars, hidden in a bag of dog food. This raid—prompted, some said, by a tip from a person with ties to a rival drug operation—resulted in one of the largest heroin seizures to date in Central Valley history.9 Martinez's stepfather wound up at Lompoc federal prison, and Martinez, then fifteen, wound up with a larger role in the family business.
Obviously, Martinez wasn't going to mention this to the military recruiter either.
But it turned out the recruiter had a few questions in a different, equally unwelcome arena. To start: Did Martinez have a high school diploma?
He did not. Martinez's mother—whose own chance at an education had been derailed by pregnancy at a young age—considered schooling one of America's greatest gifts. Some of Martinez's younger siblings excelled in school. But Martinez had moved so many times in his childhood, from school in Mexico and then back to a four-room schoolhouse that sat in the fields not far from Earlimart, that his education had been disrupted. On top of all the skipped days and switching back and forth between English and Spanish, he often had to miss school to make drug runs for his stepfather. He missed his middle school graduation to pick up his very first heroin shipment at a Greyhound bus station.
There was also the not insignificant matter of his temper. He fought. On the school bus. On campus. Defending his sisters' honor or because someone pissed him off. Eventually he got suspended, then dropped out. He was only fourteen or fifteen, too young to drive legally. But far from urging him to complete his education, his stepfather gave him a 1969 Ford Galaxy and a job delivering drugs.
Sitting there in the recruitment center in Bakersfield, Martinez told the recruiter the truth: I didn't get past ninth grade, he admitted.
The recruiter delivered a crushing piece of news: he'd need a high school diploma or a GED before he could enlist. The recruiter might as well have said Martinez needed a graduate degree in astrophysics. With his stepfather locked up, his entire family was depending on him to keep the drug business going. Protecting and caring for his family was what Martinez had always done, from watching out for his younger siblings in Mexico to hunting down and killing those he believed responsible for his half sister's death. Reality hit: he could never put that aside to study for some giant test he might not even pass so that he could join the military and leave his family.
Martinez registered for the marines anyway. "Just in case you need me," he said. Then, he and his family drove straight to Sears, where he bought a book that the recruiter had mentioned about how to be a marine. Martinez read it so often that forty years later, he could still vividly recall bits of its instruction, such as the purpose and mechanics of simple bridge building.
Even so, he felt his dream of becoming a marine dying inside him. As he drove home, the flat monotony of the fields stretched out in every direction, and the disappointment pushed down on him. He and his wife had a second child fast on the way. He needed a new plan.
A few months later an opportunity presented itself. Martinez had a baby girl now, along with his little boy, and he was at home on the night of October 20, 1980, when a friend dropped by. Fall was finally coming. The grape harvest was winding down, the olives were coming in, and while the days were still hot, the nights brought a hint that winter would soon arrive.
While his wife and children slept in the bedroom, Martinez and his friend smoked a joint, and the friend confided his problem.
Back in Mexico, a man had raped his little sister. He needed help getting revenge. And he was willing to pay good money for it. Martinez said he didn't ask any questions. Not who the alleged rapist was or how the friend could be so sure he was the one. Certainly not whether vigilante murder was the appropriate response. He thought of his own dead sister. He felt the rage rise up in him. And the possibilities.
A hint of light was just beginning to glow behind the mighty wall of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the east on the morning of October 21, 1980, but sunrise was still a way off. The roads were dark and peaceful at this time of day, and in the back of the car Cecilia Camacho's brother-in-law and cousin grabbed a little more sleep before a long day picking olives.
In the front passenger seat, Cecilia was awake. Her husband, David Bedolla, was driving, and she was keeping him company. She was twenty-one, and he was twenty-three. They were poor and undocumented, but they had big dreams and a young son back home with her parents in Mexico who was depending on them to work hard in the fields of California to build a better life for him.
They were chatting quietly in their dark car, when suddenly they were blinded by bright headlights behind them. Then there was the roar of an engine as a vehicle sped up beside them.
Cecilia heard loud popping noises.
The driver's side window shattered, and sparks flew up at them from the other car. Her husband slumped sideways onto her lap.1
Their car careened off the road and plowed into a vineyard, hurtling through rows of vines before finally shuddering to a stop.
It took Cecilia a moment to understand what was going on. Someone had shot at them. There were two bullets lodged in the windshield.
Two more had hit her husband in the head. He was bleeding and gasping for air.
Shocked and frantic, Cecilia and her husband's brother got David out of the driver's seat and into the backseat. Her husband's brother, panting, started the car. They had to get David home. Or to a hospital. They had to get him somewhere.
Then, their misfortune compounded. Their car engine sputtered out. Damaged by its off-road venture, it refused to start again.
Desperate, Cecilia stood on the side of the road and tried to flag someone down.
- "Jessica Garrison is a writer to watch. Her ease with language and graceful storytelling make her a welcome new voice on the California literary scene. This book sheds light on the neglected history of American homicide and weak justice as it plays out in migrant farmworker communities and on the distinct challenges of rural policing, which are too often overlooked in the national conversation on violent crime."—JillLeovy, New York Times bestselling author of Ghettoside
- "A killer who hides in plain sight, a justice system that fails its most vulnerable--with her deep dive into the life and many deaths of Jose Martinez, Jessica Garrison has tapped into a story that is as haunting as it is captivating. Meticulously researched and tightly woven, The Devil's Harvest is an important story because it tells us that if it can happen in one place, then it can happen in any place. And that's damn scary."—Michael Connelly, New York Times bestselling author of The Closers, The Lincoln Lawyer, and The Night Fire
- "The most enduring crime narratives zoom out past individual stories of senseless murder to larger issues of societal breakdown, cruel injustice, and ripple effects upon countless lives forever fractured. The Devil's Harvest brilliantly depicts not only the crimes of one decades-undetected hitman, but the lives of those he murdered--often poor, undocumented immigrants, overlooked and given little thought. Jessica Garrison demonstrates, with urgency and compassion, how necessary it is that we not look away and how much these lives count above all."—SarahWeinman ("The Crime Lady"), author of The Real Lolita and editor of Unspeakable Acts:True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit & Obsession
- "Such a rich evocation of place is a rare find in a book about a killer and his crimes. The middle of California becomes another character, as richly drawn as the cunning murderer, the dedicated but often hapless detectives who chased him, and the people--poor and hardworking--trying to seek justice."—MarkArax, award-winning journalist and author of The Dreamt Land: Chasing Waterand Dust Across California
- "[A] propulsive and incisive look at a hired killer who targeted those on the margins--often poor, undocumented immigrants living in the Central Valley--told with necessary compassion."—The Crime Lady blog
- "An urgent, highly readable work of crime swiftly committed and justice long delayed."—Kirkus
- "With great empathy and exhaustive research, Jessica Garrison weaves a compelling tale that is equal parts detective story and social commentary. The Devil's Harvest is a different and much-needed California story--trenchant and timely in an era of staggering inequality."—MiriamPawel, author of The Browns of California
- "Expertly researched... In a time of great frustration with law enforcement's role in the racial divide in America, Garrison's work shows another aspect of the social disparity in policing, namely that crimes against minorities are poorly investigated. This is essential reading for true crime buffs."—Publishers Weekly
- "Garrison's writing is enthrallingly thriller-esque while it sheds light on real-world horrors."—Shelf Awareness
- "Meticulously researched... a portrait of a place as much as it's a true-crime narrative."—The Los Angeles Times, California Newsletter
- "This is a powerfully addictive read from start to finish, and a first-class true-crime narrative."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Aug 4, 2020
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Legacy Lit