Jury convicts Exeter bank robber

By Olivia Frye

It took jurors only two hours to come up with a guilty verdict for a Visalia man accused of robbing an Exeter bank.

Jess Martinez, 47, of Visalia was convicted of 13 felony counts, including seven counts of robbery and false imprisonment and one county of burglary by the jury last week.

Martinez was accused of holding 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.

Martinez waited until almost closing time to enter the bank. As the tellers were getting ready to close up for the night with a few customers still in the bank, he handed one of them a note 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.

Martinez released the customers within the first hour of the standoff. Two bank employees escaped after making a run for it for the front door. Another hostage escaped after she asked for permission to get a drink from the water fountain near the door. She and the remaining tellers agreed that once she was at the water fountain, she would make a run for it and then two other employees would follow. As the hostages bolted for the front door one slipped on the bank floor and did not make it out in time. SWAT officers met the other two at the door.

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.

The hostages, and two customers that were inside the bank at the time of the robbery testified during the trial. Each one of the hostages presented to the jury that they were in fact in fear of their lives despite Martinez' claims that he never intended for anyone to get hurt.

District Attorney Shani Engum said, &#8220the defendant got the proper sentence for his crime.”

Public defender Justin Tuttle said Martinez took the news well, despite his claim of temporary insanity. Tuttle argued that Martinez was desperate 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.

During the trial, Martinez testified that he was using methamphetamines and was hearing voices calling him to kill himself.

Tuttle said that he believes that his client expected the verdict but wanted to let the public hear his side of the story.

Martinez is expected to return to court on Oct. 24 for sentencing by the judge. Because of his four prior felony bank robbery convictions, Martinez could be sentenced to 25 years to life in a prison for each count under California's Three Strikes Law.

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