Review by Peter Richardson / Original to Scheerpost
When I met journalist Jessica Garrison last year at the Bay Area Book Festival, she mentioned her forthcoming book about a serial killer in the Central Valley of California. Jose Martinez had escaped arrest for many years, she said, largely because he lived in an unincorporated and neglected part of Tulare County. She didn’t mention that Martinez’s story was part of a larger tableau that included drug trafficking, sexual violence, revenge, the bonds of kinship, the vagaries of police work and local news, and seven kinds of social injustice. But what Garrison omitted from our chat is told with impressive skill in The Devil’s Harvest: A Ruthless Killer, a Terrorized Community, and the Search for Justice in California’s Central Valley.
This is no ordinary tale of true crime, in part because Martinez was no typical killer. Born in Mexico, he moved to Tulare County when his mother remarried. As a boy, he was given odd jobs by his stepfather, a farm labor contractor and drug trafficker. When his stepfather was sent to federal prison, the 15-year-old Martinez assumed a larger role in the family business. The following year, his half-sister was raped and murdered. Martinez drove four hours south to the house where she was last seen. Armed with an M1 carbine, he blasted the three men who were playing cards there. “It feels good to take vengeance,” he later wrote. “It feels good to kill, and the heart relaxes a bit.”
Shortly after that, Martinez was asked to murder another suspected rapist, this one closer to home, for a fee. He accidentally killed the suspect’s brother, but the job clarified his life’s work. He felt he had few good options, especially after his plan to join the U.S. Marine Corps went awry. He assured the recruiter that he could do the work, but he was rejected for failing to complete high school. He began mixing debt collection and contract murders with drug trafficking and illegal border crossings. By that time a husband and father, he took obvious pride in his role as provider and protector. But his work remained a mystery to his family, which eventually included two wives and six children.
Some of the book’s action originates in Sinaloa, Mexico, which Martinez and other Tulare County residents once called home. After a lethal melee there, Martinez was called upon to target a man connected to it. In 1981, his target moved to the Santa Ynez Valley, where he took care of a rich woman’s horses. Martinez found and killed him one morning on the property, and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department began an investigation. Compared to its Central Valley counterpart, it had fewer unsolved murders and more resources to pursue them. Detectives established the link to Tulare County, but they never pinned the murder on Martinez, who always maintained a serene affability in the presence of law enforcement.
Although Garrison notes a significant pattern of police corruption in the San Joaquin Valley, she also portrays Martinez’s pursuers as committed and capable, if stretched too thin. The main problem was the sheer number of murders, but priorities were also a factor. Central Valley elites were relatively unconcerned about violence in immigrant communities, and one officer recalled five detectives being pulled from a murder scene to investigate a stolen tractor. One of Martinez’s murders received more attention. His victim was an established grower who burned a buyer on a black-market commodity deal. That such deals even existed is one of the many things I learned from Garrison.
Martinez did not fly completely under the radar. He was a top suspect in Tulare Country, where musicians even composed narcocorridos about his persona, El Mano Negra. As the years wore on, he also became less scrupulous and more impulsive. At one point, he murdered a man for parking in his driveway after two polite requests went unheeded. As law enforcement circled ever closer, he retreated to Mexico, but he decided to confess his crimes in an effort to spare his oldest daughter some of the immense grief he had caused her. By that time, he had committed dozens of murders in various states. He recounted almost all of them to police and in detailed, handwritten letters. He never named his employers but otherwise held back only enough information to ensure that he would be imprisoned in California and not Florida.
Although local newspapers were an important source for Garrison’s story, she notes the media silence that often accompanied Martinez’s crimes. Even more remarkable was the neglect that followed his shocking confession in a Florida jail. What counts as news cannot be separated from social power, but in this case, ignoring the powerless turned out to be a recipe for corruption and brutality that eventually reached far beyond these immigrant communities.
Garrison tells and situates Martinez’s story deftly. The burdens of life in Tulare County come across clearly and undeniably. They include not only countless unsolved murders and other forms of everyday terror, but also undrinkable water and reckless pesticide use next to residential areas. One of the book’s few bright spots is a local movement, initiated by outraged women, to address some of the most alarming injustices.
The Devil’s Harvest is a deceptively rich and sometimes horrifying regional history posing as a story of true crime. Written deep in the American vein, it recounts the depravities of Jose Martinez, but it also reminds us that systematic neglect is no protection against violence in its myriad forms.