Exeter bank robber says he wanted to die

By Olivia Frye

The man accused of holding seven people hostage during a failed bank robbery in Exeter testified on Monday that the loss of his job and financial hardship had pushed him over the edge and that he wanted to die.

Jess Martinez, 47, of Visalia held seven people hostage in the Bank of America's Exeter branch for 10 and half hours in a standoff with Sheriff's SWAT, FBI and a slew of police officers from Exeter, Woodlake and Farmersville on Jan. 24.

Matinez's attorney, Justin Tuttle, described the defendant as a desperate man who could no longer bear the burden of being the sole provider for his wife and three children, following the loss of his job. Reportedly, Martinez was fired for embezzlement from the Selma Auto Mall where he worked as a salesman in 2003.

&#8220Were you hearing voices?” asked Martinez's attorney Justin Tuttle.

&#8220Yes, they were calling me to die,” said Martinez.

Martinez said that if he took his own life he would have to answer to God, but, in his mind, if he were to get shot he would not have committed suicide. He said he never intended to rob the bank, but used the robbery as a ploy to have Exeter police officers shoot him &#8220to end his pain.”

But there were many inconsistencies in his testimony and his actions the day of the robbery. Supervising Deputy District Attorney Shani Engum pointed out that each of the witnesses claimed Martinez became upset when he realized that someone had tripped the silent alarm. He repeatedly referred back to that during the 10 hour stand off with the hostages, unusual, Engum said, for someone who wanted the police to arrive. Witnesses also testified that he never let the hostages know that he wanted to commit suicide.

Martinez testified that he had gone to the bank earlier in the afternoon, but saw small children with their parents and turned around to walk out. He said he didn't want to commit a crime in the presence of children. He then waited until almost closing time to return. At that time the tellers were getting ready to close up for the night with a few customers still in the bank.

He handed a note to one of the tellers that read, &#8220This is a professional bank robbery. No silent alarms! $100,000. I have a gun!” When he saw Exeter officers arrive on the scene, he used five bank employees and two customers as a human shield while negotiating with police.

Martinez was armed with what looked to be a semi-automatic handgun, which in reality was a bee-bee gun he had stolen from K-mart the day before. He brandished the gun but claimed to never have pointed it at any of the hostages the night of the robbery.

&#8220I never had any intentions what so ever of hurting any of the hostages.”

Martinez released the customers within the first hour of the standoff. He said some of the hostages becoming very emotional.

&#8220I have a weakness for women who cry, that was the reason that I let some of them go,” he said.

Two bank employees escaped after making a run for it for the front door. One hostage asked for permission to get a drink after talking it over with one of the other tellers. They agreed that once she was at the water fountain, which sat right next to, the front door she would make a run for it and then two other employees would follow. As the hostage bolted for the front door one slipped on the bank floor and did not make it out in time. SWAT officers met the two hostages that did make it out.

Martinez held the last hostage until about 3:30 a.m. when he sent her to get a pack of cigarettes he had requested. SWAT team members pulled the hostage to safety and stormed the bank. No one was injured.

Greg Hernandez, a Tulare County hostage negotiator, testified that throughout the night they made dozens of calls to Martinez to negotiate the release of hostages. Referring back to a timeline that the court provided, Hernandez said each time Martinez made a demand he would counter with one condition - one hostage was to be released for each demand.

Throughout the night Martinez demanded food, blankets, cigarettes and a get-away car. He also demanded that the FBI officer who was on the scene at that time talk to him. Hernandez said he refused, he told the jury that once they start negotiations with one person that is who they deal with until the end. Martinez said that his intentions were to give the money to the FBI officer so he could deliver the money to his family. Then he would surrender to officers or they could shoot him.

Hernandez said he remembered Martinez saying that no one will get hurt unless he did not get what he demanded. He also told negotiators that he heard some kind of drilling noises like someone was trying to get into the bank from the roof. Martinez said that if they were trying to get into the bank that there would be consequences.

Hernandez testified that he didn't know of any one trying to get in. Hernandez said as the night wore on, Martinez began trusting the negotiator.

Tiffany Gosver, one of the employees held hostage by Martinez, testified that her captor seemed to have already made up his mind that he was going to die. She remembered Martinez saying that they were all going to die there together. Within seconds fear started to take over and some of the employees started to cry.

Tuttle asked her if she felt she was in danger.

&#8220Each one of us thought that we were never going to see our families again,” Gosver said.

During the standoff, Martinez told bank employees that he had used a fake bomb in another bank robbery and got away with it. It was at that time that some started to wonder if the gun he waved around could have also been fake. Martinez claimed that in the late ‘70s early ‘80s he had robbed more than 20 banks in Ventura County. While he served a 15 year sentence in federal prison for one of those robberies, police could only tie him to a few more.

The defense also argued that Martinez was under the influence of crystal meth, Vicadin, Ibuprofen and other prescribed substances just hours before the robbery took place. Officer Paul Walker, a narcotics specialist of the Exeter Police Department, said that he was trained in seeing the physical signs of drug use. Some of the things officers look for when interrogating a suspect are, dilated pupils, profuse sweating, slurring words and stuttering problems, none of which officers saw in Martinez. Martinez never volunteered the information that he had been under the influence at the time of the robbery.

&#8220Why didn't you tell police at the time of interrogation that you had been under the influence?,” asked Engum during cross examination.

&#8220They never asked me,” Martinez replied.

Engum then asked where he got the money to purchase the meth without having a job. Martinez told her he got the drugs for free, but that he wouldn't identify the person who supplied him with it.

Martinez's wife, Rafiela Martinez, denied her husband's involvement in narcotics. She said she found glass pipes in her husband's possession but was never told directly that he was on drugs. However, the week prior to the robbery, she said he &#8220had been up for six days straight, he didn't eat, he didn't sleep.”

Tuttle asked if she had seen any changes other then that in the month's prior. She said that since the loss of his job at the car dealership he lost his self-esteem. He was much more secure with himself and his family when he was working. She noticed that the bills were not getting paid and the utility company shut of their gas and electric. She said it got worse, seven days prior to the robbery and that his mental state became &#8220very bad.”

Martinez faces 22 felony counts including seven counts each of robbery, false imprisonment, and false imprisonment for protection and a single burglary charge. Martinez faces another criminal investigation in Fresno County for embezzlement. The jury made up of four men and eight women will make their decision and Martinez could face a very long prison sentence if convicted. Martinez has four prior convictions for bank robbery filed with the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in 1979 and 1983. He was arrested and served time in federal prison for armed bank robbery in New Mexico in the 1990s. Because of his prior felony convictions, Martinez could be sentenced to 25 years to life in a prison under California's Three Strikes Law.

This week-long trial ended earlier this week. Martinez was expected to be sentenced after press time. Details of the sentencing will be published in the Oct. 4 issue of the Sun-Gazette.

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