With thinning hair and an unremarkable moustache, José Manuel Martínez would have blended in easily among the agricultural labourers of Richgrove, the small, central California farming community where he lived with his mother in a modest stucco home.
But the 51-year-old pursued a far more sinister line of work than farming. Earlier this week, he was charged with nine murders across the region, spanning more than three decades.
In fact, it is alleged, he claims to have killed up to 40 people in a long career as a hitman and enforcer for an unnamed Mexican drug cartel.
Mr Martinez, a US citizen, is accused of eight murders in California’s agricultural Central Valley, and another in nearby Santa Barbara County. The murders took place between 1980 and 2011, and his alleged victims ranged in age from 22 to 56 years old.
Many of their bodies were found riddled with bullets and stab wounds in fields and orange groves. The first victim was shot dead in 1980 while travelling to work with his wife, brother and brother-in-law. Another was shot dead in his bed in 2000, while his four children were at home.
Mr Martinez was arrested last June as he crossed the border from Mexico to Arizona. He was held in connection with a murder three months earlier in Alabama, where he allegedly killed a business associate after the victim made insulting remarks about his daughter. He is still awaiting trial in Alabama for that crime but, shortly after his arrest, it is claimed, he also informed investigators that he had been collecting debts for a Mexican drug cartel since the age of 16, and that he had killed more than 30 people.
Errek Jett, a district attorney in Alabama, told the Los Angeles Times that Mr Martinez had been “pretty forthright” about his crimes. “In essence, he told them he had had a long life of it and now he was ready to ‘fess up,” Mr Jett said.
Soon, investigators from other US states arrived to question Mr Martinez about the alleged homicides. Among them was Sergeant Christal Derington, of Tulare County sheriff’s department in California, who flew to Alabama three times to meet Mr Martinez at his request.
Ms Derington had come into contact with Mr Martinez previously, when she questioned him during an investigation into a spate of burglaries around Richgrove in 2012 and 2013.
Mr Martinez is also wanted in Florida in connection with a pair of murders there in 2006, and investigators are still studying other unsolved killings for links to the crimes to which he has confessed.
He has previous convictions for drug offences, animal theft and receiving stolen property. The prosecuting authorities believe his prison stints could explain the gaps between the killings.
All nine California murder cases will be tried jointly in Tulare County. If convicted, Mr Martinez would qualify for the death penalty.
Thomas Turner, the defence lawyer representing him in the Alabama murder case, told CBS News his client was “polite and a likeable individual”, adding: “He has a good personality as far as talking with him.”
Mr Martinez’s mother, Loreta Fernandez, still lives in Richgrove. She told the Los Angeles Times she was stunned by the charges against her son, with whom she has had no contact since his arrest. “This is hard for me – really hard,” she said. “I’m not in a condition to deal with this.”
Ms Fernandez added that she did not believe her son committed the murders. “All I can say is God bless him,” she said, “not everything he’s saying is true.”Reuse content