Police investigating a notorious gang in a city on California's central coast issued a fake press release that the chief credited with saving two men by deceiving gang members who wanted to kill them, but the ruse was criticized by news organizations who reported it as fact, the AP reports. Santa Maria police chief Ralph Martin defended the rare tactic this week when it came to light, saying he had never done such a thing in his 43-year career, but he wouldn't rule out doing it again. "It was a moral and ethical decision, and I stand by it," Martin said Friday. "I am keenly aware and sensitive to the community and the media. I also had 21 bodies lying in the city in the last 15 months."
The phony announcement issued in February was discovered in court documents and only reported this week. A daily newspaper and local television stations were unaware the information in the release was false when they reported that Jose Marino Melendez and Jose Santos Melendez had been picked up for identity theft and handed over to immigration authorities. In fact, detectives eavesdropping on the deadly MS-13 gang had raced to the home of the two cousins and took them into protective custody after learning hit men were on their way there. Kendra Martinez, news director at KSBY, said she was "deeply troubled" that police misled the public and news organizations. The sting comes to light as news organizations try to set the record straight as truth and fiction blur amid a proliferation of "fake news" spread by social media.