SANTA MARIA, Calif. — Believing what you read or see in the news is becoming harder every day. In Santa Maria, Calif., even the police are spreading fake news stories.
Police officials this month acknowledged they deliberately lied to the local media and citizens with a fake news release about two prisoners, TV station KEYT reported. On Feb. 23, the Santa Maria Police sent out and tweeted about a news release that said Jose Santos Melendez and Jose Marino Melendez had been arrested for identity theft and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation.
“We never arrested them for that charge,” Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin admitted. “We never turned them over to ICE. They were always in our protective custody.”
The men’s names reportedly appeared on a hit list compiled by MS-13, a notorious street gang based in El Salvador. Martin said police learned of an MS-13 plot to kill the two men during an investigation of the gang’s activities.
Did Lies Save Lives?
“This was a split second [decision],” Martin said. “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. We saved two people’s lives and the gang members that were targeting them backed off.”
Newspapers and TV stations in the area – including KEYT and The Santa Maria Times – posted the information contained in the fake news release, as if it were fact.
“We were trailing MS-13 and watching them target two people over in Guadalupe, (Calif.),” Martin told The Times. “We had a moral and legal obligation to go in and save those people before they got shot and killed.”
The MS-13 gangsters behind the alleged murder plot are now in jail.
Media and Gangsters Fooled
No one in the media was aware of the deception until a reporter for the Santa Maria Sun spotted it in court records. The ploy apparently worked.
“As the suspects continued to look for their victims the following day, they were overheard in their phone conversations saying that the guys they were looking for were arrested, turned over to ICE and probably got deported,” Martin said. “What that did was save those two people’s lives. We had them in protective custody the whole time.”
ICE was not involved with the fake news release.
“We had nothing to do with this,” Virginia Kice, a regional communications director for ICE, told The Santa Maria Times. “I want to be sure that your readers understand that. I understand the dilemma that the Police Department was facing; two people’s lives were in danger. As a former reporter and now a public affairs person of 30 years standing, I was very concerned about corroborating information that we knew to be false. We did not corroborate that claim.”
Said Martin, “If the circumstances came up and there was something similar, I would definitely do it again.”
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