VISALIA — An alleged hit man for a Mexican drug cartel has been charged with six Tulare County murders and three other slayings in California in a killing spree spanning more than three decades, the District Attorney's Office said Tuesday.
Jose Manuel Martinez, 51, is in custody in Alabama on a murder charge, but Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward said officials hope to extradite him to California.
Six of the nine murders took place in Tulare County between 1980 and 2011, two in Kern County in 2007 and 2009, and one in Santa Barbara County in 1980.
Victims range in age from 22 to 56.
"These murder span over 30 years," Ward said. "The investigation includes agencies across the nation."
Charges in Tulare County include special circumstances of multiple murders, lying in wait, kidnapping and murder for financial gain, which make Martinez eligible for the death penalty.
Martinez was nabbed last year in Arizona at a border crossing for a March 2013 murder in Alabama in which he reportedly killed a man execution-style as punishment for making disrespectful remarks about his daughter.
He's also implicated in two murders in Florida in November 2006 in which a horde of drug cash was involved, according to news reports.
According to news reports from Alabama, Martinez told investigators he's a "debt collector" for a Mexican drug cartel and has killed as many as 30 people.
Officials at a news conference Tuesday in Visalia displayed a map labeled "Contract Killer Jose Manuel Martinez" showing the locations of homicides Martinez is accused of committing in California.
Ward declined to say if Martinez was a contract killer for a drug cartel, and said the number of victims is unknown but it's likely that he's being investigated by other law enforcement agencies.
Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said investigators are probing local unsolved murders that Martinez might have committed.
In June, Alabama authorities contacted the Sheriff's Department, and Sgt. Christal Derington traveled to Alabama three times last year to interview Martinez.
Derington told reporters that Martinez had a "pleasant and cooperative" attitude when she interviewed him, but would not say if he confessed.
Martinez is a U.S. citizen who lived in Richgrove as recently as 2012 and had family in the area, Derington said.
Derington was already familiar with Martinez.
While investigating a series of home invasion robberies in 2012, she paid Martinez a visit in Richgrove because he was on probation for an unspecified crime.
Derington was sent to Alabama to interview Martinez because "he said he wanted to talk to her," Boudreaux said.
Martinez has a criminal record and served time in state prison, but the district attorney's office was still trying to confirm his prison dates on Tuesday. The long gaps between murders could be because he was in prison, Boudreaux said.
According to papers filed Tuesday in Tulare County Superior Court, Martinez was convicted of drug offenses in 2003, 2004 and 2005 in Tulare County.
He was also convicted of animal theft in 2005, and receiving stolen property in 2010.
Prosecutors will jointly prosecute all of the cases in Tulare County because that’s where the bulk of the charges were filed, said Tulare Assistant District Attorney Anthony Fultz.
That means victim families would only have to endure one trial, he said. The attorneys will have to bring in witnesses from out of state, so having one trial also saves time, money and resources, Fultz said.
Anyone with information is asked to contact the Tulare County Sheriff's Department at 559-730-1900 or 559-733-6218, or anonymously to firstname.lastname@example.org or by text message to 559-725-4194.
According to a fact sheet from the Tulare County District Attorney's Office, Martinez is accused of these nine murders:
• On Oct. 21, 1980, David Bedolla, 23, of Lindsay, who was shot to death while driving to work with his wife, brother and brother-in-law between Lindsay and Strathmore.
• On Oct. 1, 1982, Sylvester Ayon, 30, was shot while working on a ranch near Santa Ynez and died of several gunshot wounds. A 17-year-old was shot and survived.
• On Oct. 19, 1982, Raul Gonzalez, 22, of Earlimart, disappeared from his home and his body was found two days later by ranchers near Fountain Springs Road east of Porterville. He had been shot and stabbed.
• On April 8, 1995, Domingo Perez, 29, of Earlimart, went missing. Six weeks later, his bullet-ridden body was found in an orange grove north of Richgrove.
• On Feb 14, 2000, Santiago Perez, 56, of Pixley, was shot to death in his bed in the middle of the night while his four minor children were home.
• On Feb. 15, 2007, Jose Alvardo, 25, of Kern County, was found shot to death on a dirt road outside McFarland.
• On March 23, 2009, Juan Bautista Moreno, 52, of Kern County, was found shot to death in an orange grove south of Elmo Highway near McFarland.
• On Sept. 27, 2009, Joaquin Baragan, 45, of Earlimart, went missing. Three days later, he was found by ranchers shot to death on the bank of the Deer Creek canal outside Earlimart.
• On Feb. 5, 2011, Gonzalo Urquieta, 54, of Earlimart, went missing. Two days later, his bullet-ridden body was found in an orange grove near Richgrove.