Amid a spike in homicides that terrorized Santa Maria for more than a year, the city’s Police Department took the highly unusual step of issuing a fake news release that announced the arrests of two Guadalupe men, raising concerns among professional news organizations about law enforcement planting misinformation.
“This is an exceptionally rare event,” Chief Ralph Martin said Thursday about the Feb. 12 news release.
He said he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same thing in the future to protect lives. However, Martin said, he remains sensitive to news media concerns related to the release of false information.
“This was an incredible exception,” Martin said. “We could not lose the case and all of the time we put into it if (the suspects) thought for just a moment that we snatched them off the street to protect them.”
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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 that 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 Santa Maria Police Department’s Twitter account and was used by several Central Coast 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.”
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 The Tribune or 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 news release was not mentioned during the news conference touting the multiagency effort, which included the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office.
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.
Word of the fake news release came as the case returns to Santa Barbara County 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 news 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 stating 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 movielike; it was very intense,” he added.