Alleged California-based hit man 'ready to 'fess up,' official says

A Central California man who claims to have killed more than 30 people during his time as a contract killer for an unnamed Mexican drug cartel has told authorities he's "ready to 'fess up," an official involved in the investigation said.

Jose Manuel Martinez, 51, was charged Tuesday with killing nine men, mostly in the Central Valley, as part of what he allegedly told authorities was a 32-year run as a hit man.

Arrested on suspicion of a homicide in Alabama while returning from a trip to Mexico in 2013, officials said Martinez appears to have concluded that the gig was up. It was time, they said he told the authorities, to come clean.

“He was pretty forthright,” said Errek Jett, the Lawrence County district attorney in Alabama. “In essence, he told them he had had a long life of it and now he was ready to 'fess up.”

Officials said Martinez maintained that he'd signed on as a professional killer when he was 16 and was employed by a drug cartel. No, they said he told investigators in a pleasant manner -- he had no intention of revealing which one.

Alabama authorities said he told them he was paid on an incentive basis -- when he was able to collect debts owed to the cartel, he was permitted to pocket 25% of the money.

As Martinez talked about past, unsolved cases, Alabama officials contacted agencies in at least a dozen other states, including California.

“They were able to match up times and dates and places with his stories,” Jett said.

The case, and the criminal charges, against Martinez have unfolded across the country over the last several months.

A significant development came Tuesday when authorities in California said Martinez has been charged with one count of attempted murder and nine counts of murder -- six in Tulare County, two in Kern County and one in Santa Barbara County.

The California killings began in 1980 and ended, it appears, in 2011. The victims ranged in age from 22 to 56. Martinez, who was in custody on Wednesday in Alabama, could face the death penalty in California, said Tulare County Dist. Atty. Tim Ward.

"No victim of crime shall be forgotten," he said.

Martinez's alleged vocation does not appear to have brought him prosperity. In recent years, he lived largely with his mother in Richgrove, surrounded as far as the eye can see by farm fields and packing houses.

At their beige stucco home Wednesday afternoon, a walker belonging to Martinez's mother was out front, Christmas lights were strung up on the porch and the awning of the carport sagged toward the driveway.

Loreta Fernandez, Martinez's mother, said the last time she spoke with her son was when he was detained in Arizona.

"This is hard for me -- really hard. I'm still shaking, I'm not in a condition to deal with this," Fernandez said. "I'm just the mother of my son. ... All I can say is God bless him and that not everything he's saying is true. He's saying things that aren't true."


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Marcum reported from Richgrove; Gold and Gerber reported from Los Angeles.

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