Reporter stumbles upon a murder spree in California’s Central Valley

Courtesy of author Jessica Garrison, copyright 2020. Image of book cover courtesy of Hachette Book Group, Inc. copyright 2020. Cover design by Robin Bilardello. Cover photograph Estersinhache fotografia/Getty Images

This past week, in honor of Labor Day, author and reporter Jessica Garrison’s new book entitled, “The Devil’s Harvest” was highlighted in the Los Angeles Times.

Fellow LA Times reporter and Metro desk editor Julia Wick noted in the weekly ‘Essential California’ news section, that this book might not have been written had it not been for Garrison.

It was while Garrison was fulfilling morning assignment duties as editor at the LA Times, assigning fellow reporters to go out to cover various stories, events & issues in the expansive Southern California area that she stumbled upon something.

A killer for hire had been caught in the Southern state of Alabama and he was being extradited from Alabama to California’s Central Valley. No name was given or much particulars. Had it been anyone else at the assignment desk that morning, the snippet of newswire might have slipped by unnoticed.

Yet, Garrison was from the Central Valley, she grew up there. No mention of a name in the snippet. Only the few lines of news did say that the killer was from Tulare County, from the town of Earlimart. It was a place in California that Garrison knew to be particularly small and tight-knit.

“I just was like, ‘how on Earth can you be a contract killer for 30 years living in one of these towns and never get caught?’ she thought” as she told Wick.

Even as Garrison would later transfer over her journalism talents from the LA Times to the online news source, BuzzFeed, she could not let the story rest. Placed in the hands of Fresno-based reporters she had assigned it to that morning, her mind would not let it be relinquished. Garrison had to pursue it all the way.

“The Devil’s Harvest” is an investigative-crime narrative of Jose Manuel Martinez, known as “El Mano Negra,” – (The Black Hand). Some claim he murdered as many as 36 people spanning a time-frame of 30 years. Martinez became one of the deadliest murder-for-hire killers, in the U.S.

Fortunately for Garrison she was able to get police reports and other records going back to 1980. And in some instances, even farther.

Still according to Garrison what was most surprising was she got to interview Martinez directly. As she told Wick this past week. “I wrote Jose Martinez a letter. I’ve written a lot of letters to prisons in my time as a reporter. And usually they don’t get answered. But in this case…my phone rang. It was Jose Martinez. It was pretty clear, Garrison said, he wanted to tell his story.”

A very absorbing book, “The Devil’s Harvest” like all riveting true-crime stories has one wanting to know “why?” Why did Martinez get involved in such a web of heinous crime? Getting away with it might be part of the reason. By his own admission, according to Garrison, Martinez boasted that by leaving no evidence and no witnesses he was “so damn good” at it.

Still, what is most heart wrenching is that these killings were done to the most vulnerable of people. Garrison also had the opportunity to interview the families of those who were murdered. Most importantly is that these murder-for-hire killings went on and on because few cared about what happens to migrant workers and immigrants. It’s those with a status that is undocumented and labeled as “illegal.”

Even those most involved and visible in the migrant-worker community like Cesar Chavez and his group of labor activists were unaware of this deadly sinister element that lurked in the shadows.

When this reporter contacted LeRoy Chatfield (Chavez’s closest friend and fellow coordinator of the efforts to organize the Labor Movement in California in its early days back in the 1960s and ‘70s, about the killings he noted. “This is the first of I have heard of a Central Valley crime spree.”

This in itself gives witness to the fact that none of the killings were ever reported in the newspapers. It was as if the ‘El Mano Negra’ was completely invisible. Perhaps it is this, invisibility or the anonymity of the crimes that is most disturbing.

Garrison points out that while California is known for its abundance and alluring natural beauty, the Central Valley- San Joaquin Valley is where “any notion of California as being a progressive egalitarian land of opportunity disintegrates under the relentless baking sun.”

The Central Valley is pretty much the setting where novelist John Steinbeck placed the Joad family in his award-winning epic “The Grapes of Wrath.”

And as writer Mark Arax elaborated in his 2019 book, “The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California,” this part of the Golden State is where cash crops are grown. Garrison mentioned to Wick that Arax is among her favorite writers who know and describe the area – (spanning more than 450 miles) very well. “Mark is one of the best living writers on the Valley as a place,” she said.

The powers that have the most sway over the vast stretch of land are the growers and the agribusiness giants. Even after landmark civil right efforts by Chavez, Chatfield and others, field workers are still in some ways at the mercy of a multi-billion dollar industry. According to the California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, with more than 10 “commodity-crops” like grapes, almonds, and lettuce, etc. – conservative rough estimates total gross revenues at over $27 billion annually.

It is backbreaking work few Americans besides migrant and immigrant workers are either eager or able to accept. And, it is because of this as another reason why perhaps growers and agribusiness giants will always have an advantage.

Field workers live fugally in barely adequate conditions. Some field worker communities have the least quality of drinking water, while the most and the best of water goes to feed the cash crops.

Eking out an existence is what most migrant-immigrant workers do, unseen to many, these workers help to provide California with a bounty of produce the world has come to expect if not envy.

Garrison explained further… “To me, the reason for writing the book was that (many people often say) ‘I’ve never heard of this place – (Earlimart).’ And, in response I say, ‘What did you eat today?’ Because I guarantee you, a lot of what people ate was grown in this area, picked by these people. Without this place and these people, you wouldn’t eat.” She emphasized… “This place (of Earlimart and more than 450 miles) is really important. It also gets utterly forgotten by people outside of California, and often forgotten by people inside California, right? But … it’s essential to who and what California is.”

Having a killer-for-hire on the loose was another element in the insurmountable set of odds stacked against any field worker who might want to alert authorities to any regulations violation or complaint.

Who better to be this dark hand other than Martinez! This undetectable shadow of murdering death, Martinez lived among them, disguised as one of their own, so to speak. He had been born and raised in the Central Valley of Mexican migrant workers. Despite the rural beauty and bucolic rows of crops, orchards and lettuce patches, the Central Valley is also a place of violence. The fine lines between dire need and unparalleled greed often combust amid what Garrison refers to as “capricious police officers” and “routine exploitation.”

It would seem another aspect to Martinez’ successful decades-long run was he was able to assess that if he “killed the right people” those unwanted (except only to work) and presumed so because they were “illegal” he would get away with it.

For as one of the victims’ family members who Garrison interviewed told her. “There is no follow up when the person murdered is from Mexico.” With no legal papers or documents detailing exactly who that murdered person was, a follow up was difficult. And, in a small dusty, sleepy town like Earlimart, why should local police even care?

This fueled the enterprise making Martinez’s reign of sly, secretive murder supreme and lucrative. Without any doubt it helped that he kept up the appearance of a loving family man who provided for his children.

The pages turned themselves as I was mesmerized by Martinez’s history no matter how humble it began. How did he become this Central Valley ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ personality?

Garrison mentions that in childhood Martinez initially wanted to join the U.S. Marines. Which I then thought, “what if?”

So I reached out to Garrison to ask ‘what if’ he was able to attain his initial goal? Would Martinez’ life had been different and all those he had murdered be alive today if he joined the Marines?

She responded saying, “I don’t know. I think it’s an impossible thing to say about anyone’s life, whether if some thing had gone different when they were young, whether their life would have turned out completely differently.”

Still, the question does gnaw at me. “What if?” What if he persevered to get the required GED or high school diploma to enlist? What if his stepfather didn’t die unexpectedly? And Martinez then didn’t get involved with his stepfather’s drug cartel enterprise? What if Martinez got caught at the very start by law enforcement before his murder work escalated?

One possible clue for me to answer these “what if” questions are that Martinez had a bad temper. With little resources and no access to education or a better job, the odds were against him. Perhaps, more haunting as Garrison illustrates there was so much there (desolate places, the upsurge of drug use in the U.S., etc.) Or rather, it was because of what was not there in place, (lack of a upright guiding mentor, an education, a better job opportunity, etc.) that simply allowed Martinez to get away with murder.

Since its release in August, the book has been receiving rave reviews. Like this one from Michael Connelly, a New York Times bestselling author of “The Closers,” “The Lincoln Lawyer,” and “The Night Fire.”

“Meticulously researched and tightly woven, says Connelly. ‘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.”

To learn more about “The Devil’s Harvest: A Ruthless Killer, a Terrorized Community, and the Search for Justice in California’s Central Valley” by Jessica Garrison visit her site on BuzzFeed.