SANTA MARIA, Calif. – Police investigating a notorious, homicidal gang in Santa Maria issued a fake press release that now has news organizations up in arms. The chief credited the nurse with saving two men by deceiving gang members who wanted to kill them. The misinformation was criticized by news organizations that reported it as fact according to the LA Times.
Using wiretaps and surveillance, police learned that cousins, Jose Santos Melendez, 22, and Jose Marino Melendez, 23, members of a rival gang who lost another cousin to violence seven months earlier, were about to be killed, Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin said.
Police concluded they would expose their long-running Operation Matador if they made arrests, so they took the Melendez cousins into protective custody before the MS-13 hit men arrived.
Knowing how gangs operate, the police believed the would-be killers might harm family members if they thought the men were in hiding, so they produced a bogus press release saying they were arrested for identity theft and turned over to immigration authorities. In reality, detectives eavesdropping on the deadly MS-13 gang raced to the home of the two cousins in nearby Guadalupe and took them into protective custody after learning hit men were on their way there.
The wiretap confirmed the ruse was successful. After MS-13 gang members returned the next day looking for the cousins, police overheard a phone conversation with them discussing the news report that the men had been arrested for identity theft.
Chief Martin said it bought investigators three weeks to gather evidence that led to the arrest of 17 gang members on charges of 10 murders and plots to kill eight others, including the two cousins, who remain protected.
The misleading press release issued in February was discovered in court documents and reported only this week by the Santa Maria Sun.
The newspaper and local television stations were unaware the information was false when they reported the Melendez cousins had been arrested by authorities.
Kendra Martinez, news director at KSBY-TV, said she was “deeply troubled” that police misled the public and news organizations.
“While we strongly support the police department’s efforts to protect citizens in harm’s way, we are concerned this type of deception can erode the basic trust of our residents and viewers,” Martinez said.
Chief Martin defended the rare tactic when it came to light, saying he had never done such a thing in his 43-year career, but he wouldn’t rule out doing it again.
“It was a moral and ethical decision, and I stand by it,” Martin said Friday. “I am keenly aware and sensitive to the community and the media. I also had 21 bodies lying in the city in the last 15 months.”
Martin said he’s taken some flak from news media, but he has also received about two-dozen supportive calls. “I think if they were in my shoes they would have done the same thing,” he said.
Jonathan Kotler, a professor at the USC Annenberg journalism school, said there was nothing illegal about what police did, but it could raise questions about the department’s future credibility. “If the press cries foul here, saying they were led astray by a false release, then you’ve got the press being angry about being misled,” Kotler said. “But on the other hand, the cops would say, ‘But look, we saved lives.’ In that kind of PR battle, who do you think comes off looking better, the press or the police?”
“They used a public system paid for with public dollars to present false information to the public,” said Marga Cooley, managing editor of the Santa Maria Times.
Being overlooked by the media is the alternative. Should the Santa Maria Police Department compromise who knows how many months of work, and allow two people to be murdered? Would that appease them? And if you are a citizen residing in Santa Maria, are you hurt by the deception, or appreciative that your local police department is pulling out the stops to get murderous thugs off the street?
Martin said he did not make the decision lightly as the murder rate has soared in the central coast city of about 110,000 that typically has three to four homicides a year.
If this investigation were a game of high stakes poker, the Santa Maria Police Department laid down a royal flush, and there was no cheating involved. The dealer simply did not like being an unwitting participant.