Confessed Valley 'hit man' gets 50 years in Alabama murder

The Fresno BeeJune 19, 2014 

Jose Manuel Martinez, charged with nine murders in Tulare, Kern and Santa Barbara counties.

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Jose Manuel Martinez, known as Mano Negra -- the Black Hand -- in small Valley towns where he allegedly committed multiple murders, was sentenced Thursday to 50 years in state prison in Alabama.

Martinez, 52, of Richgrove in southern Tulare County, pleaded guilty to killing Jose Arturo Ruiz in Lawrence County, Ala., in March 2013.

As the man believed to be Mano Negra, Martinez had operated as a debt collector and contract killer since 1980 when he killed a man near Lindsay.

Now, Tulare County prosecutors -- who two months ago charged Martinez with nine homicides in California going back decades -- say they want to bring him home to face trial.

But Florida authorities appear to have first dibs, because they charged him last year for a double murder allegedly involving a drug debt collection gone bad.

In Alabama, Martinez shot Ruiz twice in the head two months after Ruiz made negative statements about Martinez's daughter. Ruiz was with his daughter's boyfriend at the time of the shooting.

The boyfriend, Jaime Romero, was initially jailed in the case, but Martinez later confessed to the shooting and said Romero had no knowledge of his plan to kill Ruiz. Martinez told investigators he planned to shoot Romero, too, but didn't follow through with the plan.

While in custody in Alabama, Martinez admitted to 34 killings in at least 12 states, said Capt. Tim McWhorter of the Lawrence County Sheriff's Office.

Nine of those killings were in California -- six in Tulare County, two in Kern County and one in Santa Barbara County. Alabama investigators said he could have been involved in as many as 14 California killings.

Tulare County Superior Court documents say Martinez killed "for financial gain." Martinez told investigators he killed and collected debts for a Mexican drug cartel, McWhorter said.

In a news conference last year, authorities in Marion County, Fla., said Martinez told investigators that he collected 25% of whatever debt was owed in each case, and the cartel got the rest.

Errek Jett, Lawrence County's district attorney, said Martinez is required to serve at least 85% of his sentence -- 42 1/2 years.

His warrants from Florida, where he allegedly committed a double murder for a cartel debt, will likely result in his being extradited there first, Jett said.

He could face a death sentence and execution in Florida if found guilty there.

"He is not on our death row, but it wouldn't surprise me if he was on death row in Florida," Jett said.

California would be next in line to prosecute Martinez because of the timing of its warrants, he said.

Tulare County Assistant District Attorney Anthony Fultz said the office wants Martinez to face trial in California.

"It's very important we pursue this," he said. "There are nine families that lost a loved one."

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

When Alabama investigators issued a murder arrest warrant for Martinez, he had returned home to California. The warrant was entered into the National Crime Information Center database and within hours, Martinez was detained near Yuma, Ariz., as he returned to the United States from Mexico.

He then waived extradition and was taken to Alabama. Upon his arrival at the Lawrence County Jail he confessed to murdering Ruiz.

His signed confession said that he was in Lawrence County in January 2013 visiting his daughter. During the visit, Ruiz, not knowing the family connection between Martinez and his daughter, made comments about her while riding in a truck with Martinez, calling her "a sorry mother and that all she wanted to do was go dancing every night," the confession said.

Martinez then said, "I knew I wanted to kill him, but decided to wait because I knew my DNA was in the truck."

He returned to California but remained angry and went back to Alabama on March 2, 2013 to kill Ruiz. Two days later, Ruiz, Romero (who was driving) and Martinez traveled to Lawrence County. While in a rural, wooded area, Ruiz asked Romero to stop the vehicle so he could urinate.

"When he got out ... I got out and walked up to him with the gun," Martinez said, adding that he shot Ruiz twice in the head. "I then got back in the truck and told Jaime to drive. He had no idea I was going to do it. In fact, I was going to kill him, too, so there would not be any witnesses, but I didn't know how to get back."

When they returned to Huntsville where his daughter lived, "I told Jaime to get ready so we could all go see a movie," Martinez told investigators.

Martinez said he threw away his bloody clothing and disposed of the gun and Ruiz's keys and cell phone.

Investigators thought the case would go unsolved but found a receipt at the crime scene that led to additional evidence, the arrest and release of Romero and then Martinez's arrest and confession.

The reporters can be reached at (559) 441-6330, mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or lgriswold@fresnobee.com.

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