SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Santa Maria Police issued a phony news release months ago that was reported by this news organization as fact when it was actually false.
Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin is defending the tactic saying it saved the lives of two men targeted for murder by rival gang members.
Martin says its the first time SMPD has issued a false news release but he says he would do it again under similar circumstances.
Two men, both 22 and both living in Guadalupe, were the subject of a press release issued by Santa Maria Police back in February.
The news release said both men were arrested for using identity theft at a business on West Main Street in Santa Maria and then turned over to federal immigration agents commonly known as ICE.
"We never arrested them for that charge", Chief Martin says, "we never turned them over to ICE but they were always in our protective custody."
Not knowing it was false, this news organization reported information from the press release including photos from the Santa Maria Police Twitter feed.
Those stories aired on television, went online and were seen on our social media platforms.
Chief Martin says that was the intention as the two men were targeted for death by rival gang members.
"At my direction I told them to create a news release stating that both of these persons were arrested for identity theft and that they were turned over to ICE", Martin says, "the fact of the matter is it was a ruse and it worked to our advantage because they couldn't find them anymore and we saved both gentlemen's lives."
Martin says it happened while Santa Maria police were conducting what became known as "Operation Matador" leading to the arrest of M-S 13 gang members accused in an unprecedented string of homicides in the city.
Chief Martin says those two men in the news release were next on M-S 13's hit list.
"This was a split second, they were en route to go murder two people and our detectives got there and took them into protective custody just minutes before the other people got there", Martin says, "we saved two peoples lives and the gang members that were targeting them backed off."
"We reached out to County prosecutors who worked closely with SMPD during the investigation but no one would respond in the Santa Maria DA's office.
Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley would not speak directly about the case but did tell us, "my office has never, to my knowledge, put out a false press release."
Chief Martin says there was a legal and moral obligation to save the men's lives.
"Nobody should ever question a news release that comes out of our department", Martin says, "this was an exception, we've never done it before, but given the circumstances I would order it being done again, after the ruse was done the suspects were found communicating about it and they found they were arrested and they were given to ICE and they no longer were targets."
Martin says its not illegal for police to issue a false news release and he defends the decision as an exception that worked.
"I don't want the public to think, although we did use the news media, it wasn't something that we normally do", Martin says, "the Santa Maria Police department has never done that in the past, but given the same circumstances if it came up, I would do it again."
We found out about this because a reporter from the Santa Maria Sun has been going over hundreds of pages of court documents in the M-S 13 legal case and reached out to our news management for comment.
Our managers appreciate the hard work of the Santa Maria Sun which will have an in-depth article on this in an issue in early December.
Meantime, Chief Martin would not say where the two men who were the subject of the false news release are now.
The M-S 13 legal case, which currently has 14 defendants, is back in Santa Maria Court on Friday for further arraignment.
A trial is expected sometime next year.