Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
When Michelle Martens and Fabian Gonzales were escorted from police headquarters past the media to the waiting police cruisers – more than 24 hours after 10-year-old Victoria Martens had been raped, strangled and dismembered – Gonzales looked right at the camera and said someone else was to blame.
He had maintained his innocence for more than nine hours while homicide detectives questioned him, insisting they wouldn’t find his DNA on Victoria’s body and that he had not raped or killed her. This turned out to be true.
But Martens’ interview with police had gone differently. Jessica Kelley, Gonzales’ cousin and the third suspect in the case, declined to be interviewed without her lawyer.
In an interrogation an expert now says was full of false admissions and contaminated statements, Martens – who has no prior criminal history – admitted to a litany of heinous crimes, even extending beyond what happened that night.
Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist who worked with the District Attorney’s Office on the case, said a combination of Martens’ passive and naive personality, the way officers presented themselves as on her side and the context of her daughter’s recent death, led to her admitting to having witnessed the crime. He said she did not realize she was also incriminating herself.
“In the course of questioning her about specifics and going over details, the officers in the questioning revealed certain details within the case that Michelle later incorporated into her story,” Welner said in an interview. “Incorporating them into her story gave the impression of some legitimacy of what she was saying.”
He said after reviewing the statements she made, he concluded the “specific details were entirely accounted for by what she learned in the interrogation itself opposed to what she knew going in.”
In subsequent news conferences and court documents, it was reported that Martens had said Victoria was given methamphetamine “to calm her down” and that she admitted to watching Gonzales and his cousin Jessica Kelley rape, strangle, stab and dismember her daughter. Later, police wrote in documents more disturbing allegations – that Martens had watched the rape for her own “sexual gratification” and that she had sought out men to have sex with her daughter before.
District Attorney Raul Torrez said in a news conference Friday the state doesn’t have any evidence Martens was trafficking her daughter for sex. He said the STD found in Victoria’s body during an autopsy originated from a sexual assault that Martens had reported to authorities.
“She took immediate steps to identify and notify the relevant law enforcement officials and as far as we know severed contact with that person,” he said.
In response to questions about the initial police investigation and narrative they presented of the crime, Torrez said officers didn’t have the psychological profile at the time and had thought they could trust what Martens was telling them.
But, he said, he’s talked with Mayor Tim Keller, Police Chief Michael Geier, the deputy chief and officers about what the evidence reveals and issues he found with the case.
“I’ve had extended conversations with APD and the mayor’s office about some of the issues that came to light in this case,” Torrez said. “It’s my hope that we can all improve in the criminal justice system based on some hard lessons that need to be learned about these cases.”
He said he does have concerns about how some of the statements Martens made – often contradictory hmms or uh-huhs in response to questions – were presented as the definitive account.
In response to Torrez’s revelations, APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos released a statement saying, “This is one of the most horrific crimes our community has faced. APD has devoted some of our most experienced detectives to the investigation and they have been instrumental this year in unraveling the misleading statements Michelle Martens made initially. Our department is working closely with the District Attorney and our federal partners on the investigation to ensure it results in true justice on behalf of Victoria Martens.”
Torrez has also made changes within his own office in regards to the case, reassigning the two prosecutors who had been handling it.
“It was my sense that we needed to have a more experienced team involved and we need to have dedicated resources,” Torrez said. “I’m not going to second guess at this point what information they had access to.”
In response to questions about the way the police had presented the case against his client, Martens’ defense attorney said it was in some ways, understandable.
“What police saw there that night was horrible,” Gary Mitchell said, choking up outside the courtroom where Martens had just pleaded guilty to child abuse. “Something that nobody can even imagine, and they were deeply, emotionally involved and hurt by that. And from that, people jumped to some conclusions that frankly took us months to unravel and months of hard scientific work to figure out exactly what happened.”
Journal staff writer Katy Barnitz contributed to this report.