No one expected Jose Martinez was capable of murder. He let his granddaughters smear avocado on his face so they could practice giving facials. He dressed up as a Disney princess and picked up cakes to celebrate their school achievements. He also committed 36 murders over the course of 3 decades. How did he get away with it? On a recent episode of How To!, Jessica Garrison, BuzzFeed News senior editor of investigations and author of the book The Devil’s Harvest, reveals what she learned from tracking Martinez, a California contract killer, for years. Like many true crime stories, Martinez’s story is compelling, but, more importantly, it helps to expose the flaws in our criminal justice system. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Charles Duhigg: How did you end up writing about crime?
Jessica Garrison: I was a reporter at a big city newspaper for a long time and so there you write about crime like you write about the school board. But I was never a crime writer. For a long time, what I did was investigative reporting. Then I heard about this case where a contract killer was being extradited from Alabama to California to face charges on 9 murders. I read a little snippet of news about it that said this person [Jose Martinez] was from a very small town in California’s San Joaquin Valley. I remember thinking, “Huh, how can you be a contract killer and get away with murder after murder after murder living in a town of 4,000 people?” You can’t get away with anything in those towns.
I kept thinking about this case and a couple of years later, I learned that this man was due in court pretty soon, and I thought, “OK, maybe I’ll just, you know, go see what there is to see in court.” I walked in and there were maybe 12 defendants in court that day. It was mostly violent crime, and so a lot of the defendants in court were very kind of tough-looking, but there was this older gentleman sitting quietly in the back. And when they finally called his case, they called out the California penal code for murders: “187.” And they were just like, “187. 187. 187. 187. 187.” One by one by one all these very tough people turn and look at this older gentleman with shock on their faces.
What were your expectations about what a contract killer would be like?
I’m not sure I had any expectations for him, because I think the thing I was really interested in was a slightly different question, which is why was he allowed to get away with it? I knew that he was a father and a grandfather. There’s the time that he allowed his granddaughters to put avocado on his face and give him a facial because they wanted to learn how to do facials. There’s the time one of the children in his life had won something special at school and he went immediately to the store and bought a cake to celebrate it. There are a lot of stories of just kind of like warmth and kindness that are very, very hard to square with the absolute brutality that you hear about in the murders.
Mostly what he did was debt collection. So if you owed money on drugs, he’d go get it. Sometimes if you didn’t pay, he’d kill you. Then, about the winter of 2013, he went to Alabama to visit his daughter and his grandchildren. His daughter had no idea that her dad was a contract killer. He came out and was like Mary Poppins to her kids. He picked the kids up from school, he would dress up like a Disney princess, he took them swimming. While he was there, someone that knew his daughter—but didn’t know her that well—mentioned that they had a debt to collect. Martinez was like, “I’m really good at debt collection. Let me help.” He had an ulterior motive, which is that he was a little bit concerned about his daughter’s boyfriend. And so he figured he would go help this guy collect his debt and in the process, learn a little bit more about the boyfriend. So he gets in a car with the guy and he asks him, “What do you think about the boyfriend?” And the guy made a terrible mistake. What he said was, “Oh, yeah, the boyfriend’s OK. But that blank he’s with, I really don’t like her.” He was talking about Martinez’s daughter. And so Jose Martinez killed him.
Oh my gosh. Right there in the car?
No, he waited a couple of weeks. After that happened, Jose Martinez left Alabama and came back to California, but police in Alabama began investigating this murder. And so at this very same time, [Florida police were investigating Martinez]. In 2006, Jose Martinez committed a double murder in Florida and he left behind a cigarette butt with his DNA on it in a Mountain Dew can. Florida police, for whatever reason, forgot to test this so it sat untested until 2013. About the same time that Martinez was committing murder in Alabama, Florida police were realizing they never tested the cigarette. They ran it. It hit on him and suddenly they had some DNA evidence. Martinez ends up coming back to Alabama, and confessing to the murder in Alabama, having quickly realized that Florida also now had him on a murder. At that point he was like, “You know what? I’ve got a bunch of murders in California that I’d like to get off my chest.”
A lot of people think he murdered 36 people. Part of the reason you could get away with 36 murders is because he was, by and large, killing people who had no power. Most, if not all, of his victims were Latinx. Many were poor and many were undocumented. I think you see this over and over again in America. If you want to get away with murder, kill someone with no power because there just will not be that much pressure to bring you to justice.
What are some of the other ways Martinez got away for so long?
He was killing people to whom he had no obvious connection and no motive for wanting dead. There was another murder that he confessed to and there was a witness who survived but was unable to identify him. He didn’t leave any physical evidence—the cigarette butt in Florida is a huge exception. Most police officers, especially homicide investigators care and care a lot, but [I always wondered], did they put enough resources into it? Could they have put more? Did police mess up or were you just dealing with a diabolical criminal?
I was also struck at least in [Martinez’s] county how many other murders they were juggling. They have like 6 or 7 other murders in this town of 4,000 people at the same time and so they don’t have the same kind of resources. Can you lay the blame for this on the police? I think you can lay the blame of this at the institutions. An interesting thing about the place where Jose Martinez is from is that there was another killer operating in that area around the same time. It is a killer you’ve heard of—the Golden State Killer, who was accused of and convicted of raping and murdering white women. Just look at the difference in which crimes got more attention. About a year ago, I did a count of newspaper articles on the one versus the other. It was like thousands upon thousands for the Golden State Killer and 30 or 40 for Jose Martinez.
I know a criticism of true crime, in general, is the danger of glorifying the killer by even telling his story. I mean, I know the name of Jose Martinez now. I don’t know the name of any of his victims. When writing your book, did you struggle with this?
I did. It’s a very difficult thing to be thinking that you’re turning that into entertainment. On the other hand, I also thought a lot about the fact that Jose Martinez was able to get away with this in part because of a really unequal justice system that exists in a lot of the United States. You raise a fundamental moral quandary with true crime, which is that we’re fascinated by it and in being fascinated by it we run the risk of kind of glorifying what are pretty evil things. True crime is life and death, right? It’s considering what are the rules for our society? It’s only in seeing who breaks them and how they get away with them that you can kind of really see those rules.
I’m not sure I would go all the way towards saying our interest in true crime is the reason the justice system is failing. I would go a little bit there, which is that I think all of these institutions, including prosecutors, police, and investigators, are institutions that we made. They respond to the pressures that we create. I think it’s true that our interest in true crime exposes our actual convictions about what part of justice is important to us. And I think [that’s especially important as] we are in a moment right now where we’re really thinking about what justice means and what it means for everyone in our society.
To hear Jessica help an amateur true crime podcaster investigate a murder that happened in her small town, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.