Sunday, July 22 , 2018, 10:10 am | A Few Clouds 71º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Santa Maria Police Chief Defends Use of Fake News Release as Necessary to Save Lives

False information was sent to media, public as a ploy during investigation of multiple killings linked to violent MS-13 gang

Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin said he had no choice but to issue a fake news release in February that stated Jose Santos Melendez and Jose Marino Melendez had been arrested and turned over to immigration officials. The action was necessary, he said, to prevent them from being killed by MS-13 gang members. Click to view larger
Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin said he had no choice but to issue a fake news release in February that stated Jose Santos Melendez and Jose Marino Melendez had been arrested and turned over to immigration officials. The action was necessary, he said, to prevent them from being killed by MS-13 gang members. (Santa Maria Police Department photos)

Amid a spike in homicides terrorizing Santa Maria, the Police Department took the highly unusual step of issuing a fake news release announcing the arrests of two Guadalupe men, raising concerns among professional news organizations about law enforcement planting misinformation.

“This is an exceptionally rare event,” Police Chief Ralph Martin told Noozhawk on Thursday, adding that he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same thing in the future to protect lives.

He said he remains sensitive to media concerns related to the release of false information, however.

“This was an incredible exception,” Martin said. “We could not lose the case and all of the time we put into it if they (the suspects) thought for just a moment that we snatched them off the street to protect them.”

Martin said he authorized the news release, which came as detectives were investigating 21 killings between December 2014 and January 2016.

“I didn’t make a snap decision on this,” he said, adding that what he did was legal and contending it was an ethical decision for the situation.

The fake news release was first reported by the Santa Maria Sun, which found documents in the court files spelling out why the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office opposed reducing the incredibly high bail for defendants.

Martin authorized the release of the fake arrest announcement, which was made through the normal notification channels such as Nixle and the Police Department’s Twitter account, and used by several media outlets.

“We now know this was an effort on the part of law enforcement to protect lives,” said Jim Lemon, news director for KEYT, KCOY and KKFX television channels.

“We expect those who serve our community to do everything in their power to keep us safe, yet I fear by intentionally planting false information, those efforts may elicit too high a cost in credibility.”

Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin briefs reporters in June about Operation Matador, which involved the arrest of 15 people for conspiracy to commit murder and other charges. Click to view larger
Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin briefs reporters in June about Operation Matador, which involved the arrest of 15 people for conspiracy to commit murder and other charges. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

The fake news release resulted in stories produced by KCOY Channel 12 and KKFX Fox 11, plus KSBY and the Santa Maria Times.

It was not published by Noozhawk.

“Truth is the foundation of journalism,” Lemon added. “In an era when ‘fake news’ has taken on a distinctive political tone, our work must always be about the truth.”

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton echoed Lemon’s concerns.

“I have no doubt that Chief Martin had the best of intentions in deceiving the news media and the public,” he said. “Certainly protecting human life is at the heart of the Police Department’s mission.

“But it’s troubling and regrettable that the chief was unable to find another means to protect these two intended victims of gang violence. The unavoidable consequence is that, going forward, it will be impossible to fully trust the veracity of any statement made by the Santa Maria Police Department.”

On March 3, Martin and other law enforcement officials announced Operation Matador, with the arrest of 15 people for conspiracy to commit murder and one suspect outstanding. The fake media release was not mentioned during the news conference touting the multiagency effort.

Over the summer, a Santa Barbara County criminal grand jury indicted 17 people, with several facing 10 counts of first-degree murder among 50 felony counts.

News of the fake news release came as the case returns to Superior Court on Friday, when one matter reportedly will involve a defense motion seeking to dismiss the grand jury indictment.

Issued on Feb. 12 to media and community members, the fake news release announced the arrests of Jose Marino Melendez, 23, and Jose Santos Melendez, 22, both of Guadalupe.

The two are cousins of a previous Santa Maria homicide victim, 25-year-old Modesto Melendez, who was shot in a car on West Williams Street in May 2015.

Police claimed that the arrests followed a Feb. 9 call from a business in the 1000 block of West Main Street and involved attempted identity fraud.

While Santa Maria police arrested the men, Immigration and Customs Enforcement took custody of the subjects, the fake news release said.

In reality, police took the men into custody and wanted word to spread to the suspects targeting the pair.

“We were involved in an incredibly sensitive and confidential investigation,” Martin said.

He said the fake release was aimed at protecting the two men, the alleged intended targets of sophisticated MS-13 gang members who could have suspected the pair were in protective custody if they suddenly disappeared without explanation.

“We know that they were going to be killed,” Martin said, adding police also were concerned for other family members’ safety.

With the men safely tucked away, MS-13 members were still looking for the pair as police monitored the conversations in which suspects mentioned the fake arrests.

“That bought us another three to four weeks,” Martin said. “But the reality is we couldn’t keep jumping in front of these guys to protect everybody.”

The two men weren’t the only attempted murders alleged by law enforcement, with others reportedly involving Oxnard residents.

Throughout months of homicides, police repeatedly pleaded with witnesses to trust law enforcement and share information that could help solve cases.

Martin said he doesn’t fear the fake news release will harm the public’s trust in his agency.

“I think I would let the public decide whether or not we made a good judgment call on that,” he said. “I trust the public enough to know they saw what the end product was here.”

In hindsight, Lemon said, the fact the release claimed the men were released to ICE should have raised questions since the Santa Maria Police Department typically does not make such transfers.

He said KEYT, KCOY and KKFX’s news staff now will have to put information from Santa Maria police through an additional filter to ensure accuracy and truthfulness.

“Was there no other way to have handled this, to have protected the two men in question without straining that credibility?” Lemon asked. “The chief has told us this happened only once, but will that remain so in the future?”

Martin said he has received support from the public for the outcome of the investigation, along with comments that police should have allowed the men to be killed.

“I would not intentionally deceive either the press or public unless there was a dire need,” he said, adding he took the action he deemed best to protect both the men and the investigation.

“They snatched on it right away,” Martin said of the suspects. “They started talking about it right away. So I guess you could say it worked.

“This was like no other operation. This was movie-like; it was very intense,” he added about the investigation.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through Stripe below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level
×

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >