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Benny Muñoz: Resident since 1964

This is an excerpt from Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, California Volume 2 by Lawrence F. Lihosit, a local historian. It is available at Maildrop and G.B.S. on Howard and on Books.

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Benny Muñoz was born the eldest of five on July 26, 1957 in Fresno. When he was very young, his family moved to Madera where he attended James Monroe and Washington Elementary Schools, Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Madera High School (North Campus). A graduate of Universal Technical Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, he briefly worked as a mechanic before entering police work. After brief stints in Mendota and Chowchilla, Mr. Muñoz began a long career as a Madera Policeman. Following a work-related accident, he retired and began a small business taking action sports photos of Madera’s youths and still takes photos. He has raised five children in Madera.

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When I joined the Madera Police Department there were maybe two or three Hispanics on the force. There was a lack of interest in recruiting Hispanics. The only way to get anywhere was by knowing the right people and having the right friends.

We had more respect from the public. We showed up for a call and showed respect for people which was our job. By-standers said things like, “Yes, sir” or “No, sir.” There are so many officers today that get shot in ambushes. These poor guys have to constantly look over their shoulder. The local force is trying to be more community oriented. They read books in classes, drink coffee with people.

During my career there was a patrol division, detective division, and the field training division. Back then, when moved into a new division, the assignment was good for four years. They wanted rotation. I started in patrol. Most of my calls were related to burglary or theft. After I worked in different areas and went back to patrol, things seemed different because of all the training.

I was a member of the patrol task force unit. We handled almost everything: narcotics stake-outs, robbery stake-outs, search warrants, whatever came up. The unit was formed so that we didn’t have to call a county-wide S.W.A.T. team (A police unit trained to handle unusually dangerous situations) which is a combined effort from police departments and sheriff’s departments. When called, the entire unit is called so they sent us to special training including high-risk entries.

My photography skills are all self-taught. I picked up an interest on my own. I started out with moving pictures ̶ a thirty-five millimeter camera. Then I bought a Canon and started taking pictures, reading a few books. I got into black and white photography and bought an enlarger to develop the film. I’ve still got all the equipment but its obsolete since now everything is digital. So, I became the official police photographer. Because of that ability, I had to attend a lot of autopsies at Jay’s Chapel or Mashburn’s Funeral Home which often lasted hours. When the pathologist came across something, he told me to photograph it.

With my photography skills, I also took pictures of crime scenes. One night we had a double homicide. The suspects were long gone. I think I was there from nine in the morning until nine at night. That was the first time I had ever seen a pathologist completely dissemble a person, looking for bullets. That’s why it took so long.

Two arrests were made after five or six search warrants. The search warrants took two days to write. That was a challenge because you had to know quite a bit about the law in order to get a judge to grant a search warrant. On this double homicide, witnesses knew who the shooter was. They ended up arresting a young kid and his father who took his son to the house for murder. They both served time in prison. I believe the son died in prison.

Another day we got a call about a theft from Mervyn's (a department store that closed years ago). Five men had gone inside, stole some shoes, jumped in a car and sped off, driving right past one of our motorcycle cops who gave chase. It was a short chase. They ended up crashing the car over by Long John Silvers (a restaurant that closed). They all scattered out back in the field. I happened to come around back, ran across the dirt field and took a tumble after stepping into a gopher hole. I got up and we collared all five.

A week before this happened, I had had an angiogram. The doctors used a leg vein to put a camera up into me. Then, they had put a plug in the vein. After catching the five thieves, my heart rate went up and I felt dizzy. They forced me to get into an ambulance. They wanted to take me to the hospital to make sure the plug hadn’t come out. After tests, everything seemed fine.

Four or five days later, I didn’t feel right. While a doctor was checking my pupils, he found that one eye responded to light and the other didn’t. It did its own thing. They sent me to a neurologist and took me off of work. The fall before the arrest had thrown my equilibrium out of whack. They put me on medical leave. To return to work, I had to be medically cleared.

After a year on this sort of medical leave, you begin to lose pay. Since I still hadn’t been medically cleared, I spoke to an attorney which the police union covered. The attorneys put me through all sorts of tests and sent me to different doctors. So, after 25 years of service, I requested a medical retirement. Back then, they just didn’t give those out. Eventually, the city gave it to me.

My boys were active in Madera sports. I showed up on the sidelines, taking pictures. One thing led to another and people who knew me asked, “Benny! Can you get me some pictures of Junior?” One time, sitting behind a computer at home, I started a sports collage: action photos melded around a posed picture of someone on one sheet. For many years, they sold for $20 because most of the parents were single, working moms with a limited income. That doesn’t even cover my time at minimum wage, but I get real joy watching the reaction from the parents.

Recently, I’ve backed off a bit on the photography because my eyesight is going bad. I’m constantly tripping over things. I blame it on the cataract surgery but the doctors blame it on diabetes. You know, since retirement, I’ve been stopped at least three times while shopping by different people who all told me the same thing: “Thank you for sending me to prison. It changed my life.”

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