Supporters say ‘warmhearted’ Mexican Mafia member deserves bail. Wiretaps reveal murder threats

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

Johnny Martinez has support from pillars of the community.

Officials from the American Civil Liberties Union, law professors, a pastor, a high school principal and two commissioners of the Los Angeles County Probation Department have all urged a judge to grant him bail.

Except Martinez is no ordinary defendant. Nicknamed “Crow,” he is a member of the Mexican Mafia, federal prosecutors say, charged with ordering a series of murders that allowed him to maintain a grip over street gangs and jail inmates in Orange County. Prosecutors say Martinez was caught on a wiretap threatening to have someone shot in the head and boasting of several murders.

Martinez became eligible for bail in December after his 1995 murder conviction was overturned. Charged at 18 with the murder of a man killed during a brawl, Martinez was convicted under the theory that the death was a “natural and probable consequence” of participating in the fight. Sentenced to 26 years to life in prison, Martinez spent the next three decades filing writs, appeals and petitions as a self-taught jailhouse lawyer.

After the state Legislature raised the standard of proof required to prove a murder, a judge reduced Martinez’s conviction to misdemeanor assault. But Martinez, now 48, did not walk free because a federal grand jury indicted him in 2022 for crimes he allegedly committed from state prison. Prosecutors allege he raked in illegal profits from gangs, drug dealers and jail inmates across Orange County.

“Anyone that was involved in any kind of criminal element, drugs, any kind of racket you could think of, he got a percentage,” Martinez’s former right-hand man testified at a recent trial of a co-defendant in the federal racketeering case.

Martinez has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers asked a magistrate to release him on bail awaiting his trial, scheduled for 2025. In support of their request, they filed a dozen letters that portray Martinez as a champion for civil rights, skillful litigator and advocate for peace.

Sean Garcia-Leys, a commissioner of the Los Angeles County Probation Department, said he was first contacted by Martinez while working with the ACLU to defend two members of rival gangs in Placentia from a gang injunction. Martinez persuaded them to set aside their grievances and became the “architect” of a county-wide gang truce, Garcia-Leys wrote.

“He consistently strives to improve the lives of those around him,” he said.

In an interview, Garcia-Leys said he wrote the letter on behalf of his public-trust firm, the Peace and Justice Law Center. “I definitely didn’t do so in my capacity as a probation oversight commissioner.”

Garcia-Leys said he was aware of the allegations in the indictment but stood by his position that Martinez should be released on bail. The risk of letting someone out of jail should also be weighed against the harm caused by keeping them locked up, he said.

Martinez’s mother, Dolores Canales, herself a Probation Department commissioner, told the judge: “After everything my son has been through, you would think he would be full of anger and bitterness. But his strong belief in the law and in justice is what keeps him going.”

As commissioners, Canales and Garcia-Leys are tasked with oversight of a sprawling law enforcement agency that administers the county’s juvenile halls.

In a letter, Canales said her son’s participation in a 2011 hunger strike over conditions in the maximum-security prison at Pelican Bay led to her own “awakening as to the harsh reality of human lives being warehoused, and that incarceration was not the solution but an ever-growing problem.”

Canales didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Court records show Martinez received an award for “leadership development” last year from Orange County Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento, who wrote: “I commend you for your advocacy and service to our community!”

In a statement, Sarmiento said he supports programs that help “justice-impacted individuals” change their lives. Though the “vast majority” don’t commit new crimes, he said, “unfortunately, we know that not all who participate in such efforts will be successful.”

Academics, nonprofit leaders, a psychiatrist and a high school principal all urged the judge to see Martinez not as a threat to society but an asset. Angelica Camacho, assistant professor of criminal justice at San Francisco State, called Martinez a “highly ethical and principled man,” “strong champion of justice” and “warmhearted, caring individual with an amicable personal character.”

She described a profoundly different person from the one captured on a wiretap telling an Anaheim gang member who dared to interrupt him: “I have no problem, homeboy, showing up to a motherf—’s house and shooting them point-blank range.”

In opposition to his request for bail, prosecutors filed in court transcripts of calls that Martinez allegedly made from a smuggled phone that had been tapped by the FBI.

“If you ever interrupt me ever again,” Martinez said, according to a transcript, “your career is over and I am going to have you killed on the spot, OK ? My homeboy is going to put a gun to your head and f—ing shoot you.”

“If he thinks for one second that he can go against the Mexican Mafia — hey, I already put four people six feet under,” Martinez said. “If he wants to be the fifth, let’s go.”

Although a pastor who befriended Martinez told the judge that in all their years of correspondence, not once did he “ever suggest any affiliation with former gangs, infamous cartels or the Mexican Mafia,” prosecutors say there is no doubt about his allegiances.

If his mother were on her deathbed and one of his “brothers” asked him to do something, Martinez said in another intercepted call, “I need to answer the call of obligation, you know, because that’s what I signed up for.”

Martinez is accused of ordering the robbery of a drug dealer in Placentia who was killed when he resisted the assailants. Martinez also allegedly directed the beating of an inmate whose throat was slit and a thwarted hit on a man named Rick who Martinez believed was hitting on a female friend.

“I’m killing Rick,” Martinez told her in a text message, according to prosecutors. “You watch what I do to Rick, another one bites the dust.”

Police arrested two men with guns near the intended victim’s home.

Martinez is also charged with conspiring to murder three men who worked for him.

After falling out of favor with Martinez, Gregory “Snoopy” Munoz was beaten at Calipatria state prison, stabbed by two inmates the following week and then shot in the back after getting out of prison, prosecutors say.

Another lieutenant, Michael “Shaggy” Cooper, angered Martinez by lying about his drug use and accumulation of debts. “I might be a gangster,” Martinez told Cooper in a wiretapped call, “but I’m also a f—ing Christian, you know? One thing that the Bible teaches us, Shag, is the truth shall set you free.”

After Cooper admitted using heroin, Martinez said he didn’t tolerate addiction among his “workers” because “I expect them to wake up in the morning and let their job be their high.”

“If you want to be part of the Crow team,” he said, “I expect the best of the best, big dog. I take pride in who we are and, you know, it’s about honor, integrity and representing to the fullest.

“Me personally, I don’t use drugs,” Martinez said.

Martinez’s prison disciplinary record, however, included write-ups for using heroin and possessing medication used to treat opiate addiction, prosecutors say.

Cooper was stabbed 17 times by three inmates at Calipatria on Martinez’s orders, prosecutors allege. A year later, Cooper was attacked again in an Orange County jail by inmates who beat him and slashed his throat.

Cooper and Munoz survived, but another of Martinez’s underlings didn’t. Accused of stealing money in a drug deal, Richard Villeda was lured into a car and shot, his body dumped on a street in Orange with seven bullets in his head and back. The three gunmen were convicted last year of the murder.

Prosecutors say Martinez was caught on a wiretap warning an old friend about talking to police. He brought up Villeda and Munoz. “I got both of them guys like nothing,” he said, according to a transcript.

“Now don’t think for one second,” Martinez told the friend, “that I couldn’t have that done to you.”

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.