BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- A man who claims to be a contract killer for multiple drug cartels in Mexico and admitted to killing dozens of people in several states pleaded guilty Thursday to murder in Alabama and was sentenced to serve 50 years in prison.
Jose Manuel Martinez is also charged in 11 alleged contract killings in California and Florida. Court records show 52-year-old Martinez pleaded guilty to shooting Jose Ruiz in Lawrence County in March 2013. Investigators say Ruiz was shot to death after making a derogatory remark about Martinez's daughter.
"He was just matter of fact. They guy disrespected his daughter, so he did what he did," said District Attorney Errek Jett.
The live-in boyfriend of Martinez's daughter was initially charged in the slaying of Ruiz, whose body was found in a field in northwest Alabama, said defense attorney Tommy Turner of Moulton.
The boyfriend was released after telling authorities about Martinez, who opened up about multiple other killings once he was held in the killing of Ruiz, said Turner. Turner said it's unclear exactly how many people Martinez claims to have killed at this point.
"I've heard 36 or 46, but I've never asked him," he said.
Jett said Martinez told investigators about killing people for pay all across the southern half of the United States, the West Coast and some Midwestern states.
"It was 15 or 16 states he provided details on when he was cooperating," Jett said. It's unclear how much he is still cooperating now that multiple murder charges have been filed, he said.
While Martinez is charged in nine contract slayings in California, Jett and Turner said he will likely be prosecuted next in Florida because prosecutors there placed a judicial hold on him first.
"He was a debt collector and enforcer. The Florida cases stem from two men there who owed a huge drug debt, and he's alleged to have been sent to Florida to collect the money that was owed," Turner said.
The Marion County Sheriff's Office in Florida last year charged Martinez with murder in the deaths of 20-year-old Javier Huerta and 28-year-old Gustavo Olivares-Rivas, who were found shot dead inside a pickup truck along a road in the Ocala National Forest in Nov. 8, 2006, according to local media reports. Authorities were able to break the case when lab results found Martinez's DNA on a cigarette butt found in a soda can in the truck that hadn't previously been processed.
Martinez told authorities he lured the men to a Volusia County construction site because Huerta had stolen 10 kilograms of cocaine worth $210,000.
Martinez told investigators he had Huerta call his wife for the money on Nov. 6, 2006. The wife told authorities her husband called her and told her to remove $150,000 from a safe buried in their backyard. She said her husband showed up and took an additional $40,000 from inside the home and left.
Martinez told authorities he killed the men so they couldn't identify him to authorities.
Investigators say that once Martinez was arrested in Arizona shortly after crossing the border from Mexico and sent to Alabama to stand trial he claimed to be a contract killer for drug cartels who has killed dozens of people in several states. He told authorities he worked for multiple drug cartels but said he would never disclose the names or affiliations of his criminal associates.
After Martinez began confessing to multiple killings, investigators from other law enforcement agencies across the country came to question him. It became clear through interviews that the slayings he spoke of had happened and he had information about them that no one else would know, authorities said.
Authorities in California say he killed six people in Tulare County, two in Kern County and one Santa Barbara County between 1980 and 2011. The victims ranged in age from 22 to 56, investigators said.
One man was shot dead in 1980 driving to work in the morning, while two men were shot in 1982 working on a ranch, one surviving. The same year, another man went missing before being found two days later by ranchers shot and stabbed to death. Yet another was found in 2000 shot to death in bed with his four children at home.
In addition to the nine murder counts, Martinez was charged in California with one count of attempted murder and the special circumstances of committing multiple murders, lying in wait and kidnapping. Four murder charges include the allegation he committed the crime for financial gain, the criminal complaint says.
The California charges would make Martinez eligible for a death sentence, if he is convicted.
Tulare County Assistant District Attorney Anthony Fultz welcomed news of the guilty plea and said his office will immediately contact officials in Alabama. He said he wants to start the process to bring Martinez back to California for prosecution.
Associated Press writers Kate Brumback in Atlanta and Scott Smith in Fresno, Calif., contributed to this report.