Investigators believe Martinez may have killed as many as 34 across 12 states
Jose Manuel Martinez, the self-described hit man and debt collector for an unnamed Mexican drug cartel, pleaded guilty Tuesday to nine counts of first-degree murder in California.
Martinez, 53, the man known as El Mano Negro – the Black Hand – will be sentenced to consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole, Tulare County Superior Court Judge Brett Alldredge said as family members of at least one of the victims looked on.
“Are you pleading guilty because you actually are guilty?” Alldredge asked Martinez as he pleaded guilty to murder after murder.
“Yes,” Martinez said each time.
By pleading guilty, Martinez gives up his appeal rights and can’t fight extradition to other states that may want to try him for murder.
Based on his statements to investigators from Alabama, Florida and California, it is believed that Martinez, 53, may have committed as many as 34 slayings in 12 states.
Tulare County Assistant Sheriff Scott Logue said Martinez claimed to work for a drug cartel, but investigators couldn’t confirm it.
“He said he was a hit man for the cartel,” Logue said. “Which cartel he wouldn’t say.”
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Many of the bodies were dumped in ranches and citrus groves that are spread throughout the California Central Valley.
In 1980, Martinez shot a man who was driving to work with three others in the vehicle. Martinez is accused of shooting another man, who was in bed, early one morning in 2000 while the man's four children were home.
Martinez, 53, had lived at times in Richgrove, a small farming community in Central California. He was arrested shortly after crossing the border from Mexico into Arizona.
Authorities first took Martinez to answer charges in Alabama, where they say he began to talk.
"After he confessed to it, it was just like opening up the floodgate," Tim McWhorter of the Lawrence County Sheriff's Office in Alabama said at the time.
He told authorities he'd been an enforcer for drug gangs since he was 16 years old.
"It's how he fed his family, is how he explained it," Sheriff Det. T.J. Watts of Marion County, Alabama, told CNN in 2013. "And if he didn't do the job, someone else would do it."
He was paid on an incentive basis, or for the hit. When he was able to collect debts owed to the cartel, he was permitted to pocket 25% of the money.
Prosecutors said they believed him because he gave details that nobody else would have known. But he stopped short of naming his cartel associates.
In Alabama, Martinez pleaded guilty and accepted a 50-year prison sentence last year for shooting a man to death for making derogatory remarks about Martinez's daughter.
Martinez also awaits additional murder charges in Florida.