Deputy’s Tale of Rescuing Kids in Fire Not True, Neighbors Say
The officer told a TV reporter that he helped save three children from a burning home. Witnesses say he stayed with his car.
February 12, 2004 –Kevin Pang, Arlene Martinez and Monte Morin, Times Staff Writers
When smoke and flames trapped three children inside their home last week, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Martinez said he didn’t hesitate to rush in and help rescue them.
“This is what we get paid for,” Martinez told a KABC-TV Channel 7 reporter later that night for a story the station did on the daring rescue.
But on Wednesday, internal affairs investigators said the deputy had been placed on administrative leave after witnesses accused him of lying about being a hero.
Instead of dashing into the burning home, witnesses say, Martinez stayed at his cruiser, talking on the radio, while two cousins and a neighbor braved the flames and pulled the children to safety. Now investigators are trying to determine whether the 31-year-old deputy falsified official reports on the incident, and if so, whether he could face charges.
“An incident has come to our attention that involves the possibility of misrepresentation of facts involving one of our deputies,” said Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore.
The investigation stems from a Feb. 4 fire in an unincorporated area near La Puente. Martinez, 31, saw smoke billowing from a house. The 12-year-veteran said he pulled up in his cruiser after seeing people screaming and pointing to the burning building on Villa Park Street. Children were trapped inside, they told him.
The deputy said he joined a group of men who — after being repelled by a wall of smoke at the front door — broke through a bedroom window and rescued the children. Martinez told his supervisors as well as TV reporters at the scene that he had pulled a 3-year-old girl from the building.
In an interview with KABC, Martinez said:
“The adrenaline’s going, and you’re thinking of saving lives…. And we just went in there. I didn’t even hesitate. We just did it. I’ve got to give credit to the, um, citizens who also helped out. They did a really good job.”
After hearing reports of the deputy’s actions on television, however, neighbors told KABC reporter Karen Carlson that the deputy was making it all up.
Sheriff’s officials would not say exactly what prompted them to launch an investigation. But KABC News Director Cheryl Fair said Carlson became suspicious about the differing versions of the rescue and called the Sheriff’s Department the day after the fire to ask more questions about Martinez’s account.