SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The body found near Horseshoe Lake 20 miles north of Salem in the fall of 1986 bore little clues.
The man’s body was both decomposed by the rain-drenched earth and mummified by the sun. He was unidentifiable beyond a handful of crudely etched tattoos.
Investigators were confounded about who he was and how he died.
But they were certain of one thing: He didn’t end up dead near the lake of his own accord.
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The man’s hands were bound. Marion County Detective Ralph Nicholson speculated he’d been killed elsewhere then dumped at the lake.
Much of the evidence had been wiped away by the elements. The medical examiner couldn’t even tell whether the man had been shot, stabbed or beaten to death.
Never had Nicholson come across a murderer who’d left such a cold trail.
“This is one where you have nothing,” he told the Statesman Journal two weeks after the body was found. “The long-time evidence has been destroyed.”
The case went cold. For 32 years, the mystery of the body found at Horseshoe Lake went unsolved.
But three decades later, a convicted murderer who claims to have killed 36 men and worked as a Mexican cartel hit man, told Buzzfeed News he murdered men across 12 states, including a 1986 shooting in Salem.
Marion County detectives are now investigating whether Jose Manuel Martinez, 55, is behind their cold case murder.
Martinez is known as the cartel debt collector “El Mano Negra” — “The Black Hand” in Spanish. Martinez allegedly killed dozens of people over a span of 40 years.
Most of the murders took place near his hometown in rural Tulare County in California. Others took place in the Pacific Northwest and the Deep South.
If Martinez’s claims are true, wrote BuzzFeed reporter Jessica Garrison, he is one of the deadliest serial killer’s in U.S. history, on par with the Night Stalker, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.
Described by Garrison as a soft-spoken, loving grandfather, Martinez was frequently a suspect in investigations but evaded serious charges until he killed Jose Ruiz, a friend of his daughter’s boyfriend, in rural Alabama in 2013.
During his interrogation with an Alabama detective, Martinez revealed that Ruiz was not his first murder. He told investigators he was a contract killer for a drug cartel and had killed dozens of people.
After he pleaded guilty to killing Ruiz, Martinez was extradited to California to face additional murder charges. In 2015, he was sentenced to nine consecutive terms of life in prison for the murder of nine people in central and southern California from 1980 to 2011, according to reports by The Fresno Bee.
He is now locked in a cell in Marion County, Florida, awaiting trial for the slaying of two men.
An article in The Orlando Sentinel detailed the 2006 double murder. Martinez, pretending to be a homeowner needing masonry work, lured 20-year-old Javier Huerta and 28-year-old Gustavo Olivares-Rivas to a remote area and ordered them at gunpoint to call one of their wives to retrieve money buried in their backyard.
Martinez stole $200,000 from the men before he shot and killed them.
A cigarette butt recovered from the scene matched Martinez’s DNA. Florida prosecutors said they will be seeking the death penalty.
Martinez told investigators of other victims in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Iowa. But many of his claims went unchecked until Garrison began combing through news archives to connect his claims to cold cases.
She came across the 1986 Statesman Journal article detailing the body found at Horseshoe Lake.
On a rainy Saturday afternoon in October 1986, 15-year-old Jeromy Landauer was fishing with his friend at the lake outside St. Paul when he smelled decomposing flesh and found the corpse.
He ran to his fishing companion, who said Landauer was “white as ghost.” The pair contacted police. The man’s identity and cause of death stumped detectives.
Dr. Larry Lewman, a pathologist with the medical examiner’s office, said the victim was a man probably in his thirties, short with a slight build and dark hair. Lewman said he was most likely of Hispanic descent.
The clothing found with the body — a green bathing suit, maroon sweat pants and red pullover shirt — indicated the victim was relaxing at home or with his friends shortly before he died, Detective Nicholson said.
“He may have been at home and everything was going nice and smooth and then it all went to hell,” he told the Statesman Journal.
Detectives theorized that the killing was drug-motivated.
Fingerprint searches in Oregon, Washington and California generated no leads.
The only clues to the man’s identity seemed to be his tattoos. The victim had a butterfly, a scorpion, a name and the faces of two women tattooed on his body.
In the 1986 article, a Portland tattoo artist mused that the tattoos were done by amateurs, either in prison or in Mexico. Some of the imagery, like a tear on the woman’s face and the butterfly, are common among prison inmates.
After sketches of the tattoos were published in the Statesman Journal in 1986, a woman contacted police, identified the tattoos and gave enough details to generate a sketch.
A 2007 Statesman Journal article identified the body as Feliz Gonzalo-Martinez. Little is known about Gonzalo-Martinez. No court records exist in Oregon for a person with that name, and no obituaries could be located.
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office, which still had the victim listed as unidentified, could not confirm the victim’s name.
According to the article, a Marion County detective went to Florida to question Martinez this year, shortly after a BuzzFeed reporter began asking the department about the cold case.
Marion County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Chris Baldridge confirmed Detective Mike Myers traveled to Florida to question Martinez. He declined to comment further on the case, citing the active investigation.
Martinez said some of his victims abused women and children. Martinez told BuzzFeed News that he began his decades-long killing spree by murdering the three men he believed were responsible for his sister’s death.
Other victims had hits placed on them for owing drugs or money to cartels, according to Martinez.
He said he would use the money earned from the hits to take his children camping or to Disneyland.
Details from the case matched those written in Martinez’s autobiography. He told BuzzFeed News the Horseshoe Lake murder was probably his doing.
Martinez said he shot his victim with a 9-millimeter, his “favorite gun,” but the murder “was a mistake,” implying that he was not his intended target.
Rather, Martinez said, he was just a “random guy.”
Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com