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The Victoria Martens Case: ‘We want to make it right for this little girl’

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

In the early morning hours of Aug. 24, 2016, the Albuquerque Police Department homicide detectives’ group text thread lit up.

Investigators arriving at the Arroyo Villas apartment complex on Irving and Golf Course NW had walked into the now well-documented scene – 10-year-old Victoria Martens’ body, dismembered and burned in the bathtub of her family’s home.

“‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever been to,’ ‘this is terrible,’ ‘what is going on,’ ” former homicide sergeant Elizabeth Thomson recalled the detectives texting one another.

That began the saga in which Victoria’s mother, Michelle Martens; Michelle’s boyfriend, Fabian Gonzales; and Gonzales’ cousin, Jessica Kelley, were arrested and, two weeks later, indicted for murder, aggravated criminal sexual penetration, tampering with evidence and a slew of other crimes in connection with Victoria’s death.

Then – late last month and almost two years after those arrests – District Attorney Raúl Torrez made the bombshell announcement that evidence showed Martens, now 36, and Gonzales, now 33, were not even present in the apartment during the hour and forty five minutes when they believe Victoria was killed. His office dropped the murder and rape charges against the couple.

He also revealed that a sample of partial DNA taken from Victoria’s body showed that another suspect had been at the scene of her death – a “John Doe” whom the DA has charged with murder and whom authorities are desperately seeking to identify.

The announcement not only shocked the community, but raised multiple questions: How did the investigation of such a high-profile crime turn so quickly in the wrong direction? And why did it take nearly two years for prosecutors to drop the murder charges – charges they began to question more than a year ago?

Torrez, in a lengthy interview with Journal reporters and editors last week, said he believes the case went off the rails almost immediately – with conflicting and false statements Michelle Martens made to police immediately after Victoria’s death. He also said that, while evidence had been collected, not a lot of follow-up testing was done – in part because everyone believed her admissions.

While Torrez’s office and APD detectives continue to work on the case, both agencies said changes are being made to prevent similar issues in the future.

“I don’t want a case like this to get this far down the road it went down before it gets turned around,” Torrez said. “There’s a strong argument to be made that, if the right things had been done in the first 12 hours, that wouldn’t have happened.”

Both the city and the DA’s office have new administrations since Victoria’s death. Torrez took office in January 2017 and Mayor Tim Keller came into office in December 2017.

Torrez said he has been talking with Keller, police chief Michael Geier and the deputy chief, as well as the homicide unit, about problems with the investigation, as well as his own staff on how to do things differently moving forward.

“As a result of this, our prosecutors are being much more proactive and aggressive early in the investigation to try to identify and develop information immediately,” he said, adding that he has also talked about that with the APD homicide unit and chain of command. “Part of that conversation was ‘I need you to make a commitment to go get these phone records and all of these things so this is not left undone.’ ”

The Albuquerque Police Department did not make anyone available for an interview this week and did not respond to questions about what has been done in response to Torrez’s team’s investigation.

But the city did send a statement from Commander Paul Duran of the Criminal Investigations Division, saying that when it realized the investigation had been off track based on “false statements from Michelle Martens,” the department assigned two experienced detectives to help the DA’s office with the case.

“This team was able to find more information that brings us closer to the truth and bringing everyone else responsible for this horrific crime to justice,” Duran’s statement reads. “Under the new administration, we restructured the department and started working closely with the District Attorney and our federal partners on this case. We’re also conducting a review of what happened during the initial casework two years ago. Everyone could have done a lot better, so we’re looking at issues that need to be fixed, including interview training and prioritizing resources for major crimes. Like our entire community, we want to make it right for this little girl.”

Martens’ interviews

A transcript of the interviews with Martens shows she offers several different explanations for how Victoria died and eventually agrees to most of what the detectives asked her. She at first tells the same story Gonzales told detectives in his interview – that Kelley woke them up in the middle of the night, hit her over the head and told her she had killed Victoria – and then Martens changes her story again and again until she says she watched Gonzales and Kelley hold down and rape her daughter, then cut her up and put her body parts in a trash bag.

A forensic psychiatrist working with the DA’s office told the Journal that Martens’ statement was contaminated by the detectives’ questions and that she didn’t realize she was incriminating herself in the crime. He also said she is incredibly passive and naive and was in denial about what had happened.

Former homicide sergeant Elizabeth Thomson, who retired last December, said she watched her detectives interview Martens and was struck by her emotionless demeanor at the time.

“We’re trying to make sense out of it, but she doesn’t seem to be trying to make sense out of it,” Thomson said. “That’s what hit me the strongest. I’m a mom – if something like that happened to my child I would not be sitting there sort of defending. … Where was the anger?”

Thomson said that made Martens’ admission more believable and it seemed impossible that she had not been involved in her daughter’s death.

Torrez and the lead prosecutor he put on the case, Greer Rose, agree that Martens’ personality and attitude played into the way police treated her during the interview. Rose described a more recent interaction with Martens, saying she still doesn’t act like most people do.

She is “just unique in a way I haven’t seen before,” Rose said.

“We have the benefit of knowing all those things about her now, but at that moment, they didn’t have that,” Torrez said. “I think the key takeaway is what kind of steps are going to be taken to do the comprehensive training, so this doesn’t happen again in the future.”

He said, overall, that he believes the investigation would have been better if everyone had taken a step back.

“I think slowing down is a big component to this,” Torrez said. “And then having the right people with the right skill set in the room and having the kind of conversation they need to have with people.”

Thomson, however, pointed out that all charging decisions were ultimately made in consultation with the then-District Attorney and the Office of the Medical Investigator. And, she said, much of the evidence they have now was not immediately available.

“We did the best that we could with the information and the resources we had and the realistic use of those resources,” she said. “Even under ideal conditions, they could not have done the DNA analysis that day or within a week – that was not going to happen.”

Little follow-up

When Torrez took office four months later, he asked for an update on the high-profile case.

What he found was troubling.

Not only were Martens’ statements to police contradictory, but it appeared very little follow-up investigation had been done since the case had been handed over to the District Attorney’s Office. Evidence was still sitting at APD’s crime lab and had not been processed. Few witnesses had been re-interviewed or pressed for more information. No one had sent away for the cellphone data to be extracted.

So Torrez put Rose, an experienced prosecutor, in charge of re-examining the case, along with a team that eventually consisted of her, prosecutor James Grayson, a paralegal and two APD detectives.

As it turned out, APD’s crime lab had stopped testing DNA that winter while it installed new equipment and trained staff on new processes. So the DA went first to the New Mexico Department of Public Safety crime lab, then to another lab, in Florida, for more advanced testing. In all, the DA spent almost $100,000 on DNA testing alone.

Torrez said almost every step of the way involved Rose making multiple calls to follow up again and again – pushing Google, the Combined DNA Index System, crime labs and others to turn over more information and run more tests. He said that should have been pushed for earlier.

“It should have been handled very, very differently, even if the statement component were handled the same way, then the next phase is a long way from done,” Torrez said. “We’re not done; we’re just getting started.”

He did not fault APD for all of the delays – saying that under his predecessor Kari Brandenburg, prosecutors typically took responsibility for making sure DNA tests were ordered and cellphones were analyzed.

“That’s not how those things should be handled,” Torrez said. “We’ve been working hard in the last year and a half to try to get APD to take a more active role after a case is closed by arrest, rather than just saying, OK, it’s closed by arrest, we have a statement, we’re done.”

Thomson also expressed frustration that the DNA hadn’t been tested earlier and said they had been grateful to use the DA’s sway to get it into the state lab.

But in the first several weeks after Victoria’s death, she said, they weren’t able to find any evidence that either corroborated or contradicted Martens’ story.

“We were trying to follow the pieces of information that we were gathering, and what does it say, where does it lead us,” she said. “I remember trying very hard to put the pieces of the puzzle together. This incident doesn’t have clear-cut puzzle pieces.”

Discrepancies

Delays in DNA testing and searches of the suspects’ cellphones – as well as the length of time if takes for those things to be completed – meant doubt wasn’t cast on Martens’ statements until nearly a year after they were arrested, Torrez said.

Meanwhile, he said, re-interviewing witnesses revealed obvious discrepancies between Martens’ account and what was seen that night. Witnesses recalled seeing Victoria’s lifeless body, wrapped in blankets, being carried down the outside steps of the apartment building, then back inside around 8:45 p.m. – about the time Martens and Gonzales returned to the apartment complex. A later check of their cellphone information, provided to the DA last spring, confirmed that the couple had been elsewhere for the prior hour and forty-five minutes.

Although the witnesses, some of whom were juveniles, did not realize it at the time, Rose said the details they gave in their descriptions strongly suggested that the little girl was already dead.

In response to questions about why the discrepancies in the case were not made public earlier, Torrez said he did not want to make any announcements until investigators were certain of the facts. But, he said, the suspects’ defense attorneys had been kept up to speed all along, since they were receiving the same documents and new evidence as the prosecutors.

Upcoming trials

The first trial, that of Michelle Martens, was supposed to start Monday but she pleaded guilty a little more than a week ago to child abuse resulting in her daughter’s death. She faces a 12 to 15 year sentence, but, since her crime isn’t classified as a “serious violent offense,” her sentence could be cut in half for good behavior.

Prosecutors hope Martens can shed some light on who the mystery suspect might be based on previous visitors.

Gonzales is set for trial next October and still faces charges of child abuse and tampering with evidence.

The third suspect, Kelley, faces all the original charges, and her trial is expected to start next January. Torrez said he hopes his office does not have to make a deal with her to get more information about the mystery man who left his DNA behind.

Authorities are still seeking any information that could lead to the arrest of that man.

Thomson said she hopes that by moving forward instead of casting blame on investigators, the community will focus instead on trying to ensure that nothing like Victoria’s death ever happens again. She said it was the most horrific case detectives have ever investigated and it deeply affected everyone who was involved.

“Sometimes, these situations don’t present with a nice package for the prosecutor,” Thomson said. “That’s what the criminal justice system is. You say this is what we have, a jury of your peers takes a look at it and decides it is beyond a reasonable doubt that this is what happened.”

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