In what Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin described this week as a tactic to save lives and take down members of the international criminal gang MS-13, the Santa Maria Police Department issued a fake press release on Feb. 12 that the Santa Maria Times and other news agencies subsequently reported as fact.
In the release, issued via its official press release conduit, Nixle.com, the Santa Maria Police Department said it was called to a business in the 1000 block of West Main Street regarding attempted identity fraud.
When officers arrived, the release said, they reportedly made contact with two subjects identified as Jose Santos Melendez, 22, and Jose Marino Melendez, 23, both of Guadalupe. Both subjects were arrested by Santa Maria Police on various identity theft charges, according to the release.
The phony statement said the two men then were turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.
The two Guadalupe men, however, were not arrested or turned over to ICE; they were taken into protective custody.
“What we did was not illegal, it was not improper,” Martin said. “It was a tactic that we used. We’ve never done it before. The suspects took the bait and this was more convincing evidence that they were targeting these two people.”
The incident took place during Operation Matador, a campaign targeting the MS-13 gang that was operating in the city earlier this year, when police investigators learned that gang members allegedly targeted the Guadalupe pair to be murdered, based on information gathered through phone conversations police were monitoring.
“We were trailing MS-13 and watching them target two people over in Guadalupe,” Martin said. “We had a moral and legal obligation to go in and save those people before they got shot and killed.”
“These two people were members of a rival gang. We knew they were going to get hit. We had an obligation to get people out there before the hit was made and get them into protective custody,” he added.
Once the two were identified as targets, Martin sent detectives to Guadalupe to take them into protective custody.
“We knew they were going to continually look for them or their families, so we made the decision. I gave the final authority to put out a false press release that stated that these two people were arrested for identity fraud. That they were arrested and ultimately turned over to ICE. None of that was true,” Martin said.
“As we were monitoring the suspects, they (MS-13) couldn’t find them because we took them into protective custody,” Martin added.
Virginia Kice, western regional communications director for ICE, said her department had nothing to do with the ruse.
In fact, on Feb. 16, former Santa Maria Times reporter Abby Hamblin contacted ICE for more information based on the press release. Kice’s colleagues said at the time that the two individuals were not in ICE custody and suggested Hamblin check back with local law enforcement sources.
“We had nothing to do with this. I want to be sure that your readers understand that,” Kice said. “I understand the dilemma that the Police Department was facing; two people’s lives were in danger. As a former reporter and now a public affairs person of 30 years standing, I was very concerned about corroborating information that we knew to be false. We did not corroborate that claim.”
“I don’t want to second-guess our law enforcement partners; they know their job better than I do,” Kice added.
According to Martin, the subterfuge worked.
“As the suspects continued to look for their victims the following day, they were overheard in their phone conversations saying that the guys they were looking for were arrested, turned over to ICE and probably got deported,” Martin said. “What that did was save those two people’s lives. We had them in protective custody the whole time.”
Martin said the justification in issuing a false press release comes in the form of knowing his department saved the men from the gang’s attacks and adding more “convincing” evidence against the members of MS-13 now awaiting trial.
“We used the news media. It has never been done before by the Santa Maria Police Department, to my knowledge. [WE] Don’t plan to do it again, however, if the circumstances came up and there was something similar, I would definitely do it again,” Martin said.
Martin added that the tactic of issuing false information has been used by other law enforcement agencies, like the United States Marshals Service.
“I think the public understands. I think the trial is going to reveal some incredible police work. And that the false, ruse press release worked brilliantly in our favor,” Martin said.
Santa Maria Police officials documented the fake statement in court documents, discovered by a reporter at the weekly Santa Maria Sun, relating to a recent bail reduction petition made by lawyers for some of the gang members arrested during Operation Matador.
This story was originally published December 2 in the Santa Maria Times. Find it here.