Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Five months before 10-year-old Victoria Martens was raped and killed, the state Children, Youth and Families Department received a call that her mother’s then-boyfriend had tried to kiss the girl.
CYFD forwarded the call to the Albuquerque Police Department.
APD spokespersons said in January, which was reported in a front-page story by the Journal, that their detectives followed up and spoke with Victoria and her mother, Michelle Martens, about the allegation.
But on Monday, Celina Espinoza, an APD spokeswoman, said that is not correct.
She said they didn’t look into the complaint because it didn’t meet certain criteria. She said APD standard operating procedure calls for a follow-up if there is a report of neglect, abuse or a crime. An attempted kiss is not a crime, she said.
Espinoza said the incorrect information was due to a miscommunication on her part.
On Aug. 24, police say Michelle Martens watched as her boyfriend, Fabian Gonzales, and his cousin, Jessica Kelley, raped and strangled Victoria. Officers found the girl’s dismembered body wrapped in a burning blanket in the bathtub of her mother’s apartment. All three have been charged in her murder.
The investigation into Victoria’s death showed she had been sexually abused sometime before the night she was killed. According to an autopsy report, she had a sexually transmitted disease, indicating she had been raped at least a month earlier.
And in her interview with detectives, Martens admitted to allowing at least two other men to rape Victoria, according to documents filed in the case.
The killing and the horrifying details surrounding it shocked the community and led state and local government officials to promise self-reflection and change.
Report of a kiss
The public first learned that APD had been made aware of earlier allegations of potential abuse against Victoria in January 2017 after CYFD released results of an internal investigation.
In an interview in late January, APD spokesman Fred Duran told the Journal that detectives had looked into the allegation that one of Martens’ boyfriends had tried to kiss Victoria.
He said detectives had talked to the mother and daughter.
“The mom had told us that there was nothing going on in the home and that she removed the boyfriend,” Duran said in an interview at the time. “When detectives spoke to the kid she didn’t make any allegations that anything had happened.”
Although Espinoza initially said that CYFD had investigated the claim, she later agreed with Duran that it was APD who followed up even though no dispatch logs or any other records existed that could verify the officers visited the family.
“I do not have any documentation about what the actual interaction between our detectives and the family was for that talk,” Espinoza said.
When asked about the discrepancy between what APD said in January and what she said this week, Espinoza said a reporter had misunderstood her and Duran’s comments.
“Officer Duran said that investigators had followed up on the allegations,” Espinoza said. “There was a miscommunication between (the reporter) and my office that inferred it was APD investigators.”
She said that at the time she thought CYFD investigators had followed up, and that was who she and Duran were referring to.
In the previous interviews, which were taped, both Espinoza and Duran referred to the investigators as “detectives,” and Espinoza referred to them as “our detectives.” APD has detectives; CYFD does not.
It turns out that CYFD did not investigate, according to Henry Varela, a spokesman.
The agency sent the case to APD as is policy with cases that don’t involve a parent, guardian or custodian who lives with the child, he said.
When asked why APD did not attempt to correct the misinformation published in the January story, Espinoza issued a statement that said, in part, “We do our best to answer media questions in a timely, factual manner even under submersible pressure and copious criticism.”
Although CYFD said the caller reported that a then-boyfriend tried to kiss Victoria, the details of the allegation are unclear because the call is confidential under the New Mexico Children’s Code.
Espinoza and Duran have said attempting to kiss a child is not a crime, but several retired and current police officers say they believe the call was serious enough to look into.
“Somebody saw something that made them feel uncomfortable and they reported it,” said Shaun Willoughby, the president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association. “On the surface it doesn’t sound like a criminal act took place, but I think it’s a little premature to make that determination before you’ve done the investigation.”
Attorney Thomas Grover, a former APD sergeant, said sexual allegations involving minors should be taken seriously because seemingly small accusations can lead to more grave discoveries.
“We all know that in (Victoria’s) case there were yellow flags before red flags,” Grover said. “It is probable that something would have been observed.”
He said it sounds like the case fell through the cracks when it wasn’t looked into.
Marie “Sisi” Miranda, a former sergeant with the Crimes Against Children Unit, said it’s likely the allegation was given a lower priority because APD has to investigate more serious cases.
“There are so many false reports, it’s understandable why this didn’t get attention it needed,” Miranda said.
She said although it’s unclear exactly what the caller told CYFD, one of the agencies should have investigated it.
Espinoza said all calls referred from CYFD to APD are screened on a daily basis, and if a case does not meet the criteria of a crime, abuse or neglect, no one from the Crimes Against Children Unit or a field officer would respond.
A request for comment from the mayor’s office was referred to APD.
Espinoza responded that APD could not have prevented Victoria’s death.
“A complete, thorough review of both CYFD and APD’s involvement has provided no evidence that could have helped prevent or alerted investigators to such an appalling tragedy,” she said.
Attempt at reform
After the high-profile case of child abuse resulting in the death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela in 2013, the city commissioned a task force – Miranda prepared the report – to recommend ways APD could improve its response to child abuse cases.
One of the reforms the task force recommended was to train a special group of uniformed officers to detect and investigate child abuse cases. There are currently 35 “care” officers, and Espinoza said they hope to increase that number to 50.
But Willoughby questions why these officers didn’t take this call and if they – like other officers – are overwhelmed with other cases.
He said the department doesn’t have enough officers to investigate these types of calls, and APD officials should continue asking themselves how to mend possible cracks in the system.
“How do we become better as a police department in the wake of such tragedy to make sure we do everything we can to prevent it in the future?” Willoughby said.
The Journal sent questions to police chief Gorden Eden and Espinoza responded in writing.
When asked whether – going forward – an allegation of the attempted kiss of a little girl by an adult boyfriend of the mother raises enough flags to warrant looking into, she said:
“The information that was provided to APD was that the attempted kiss was initiated by a former boyfriend who no longer had access to the child or contact with the family. This is exactly why our agency reviews the cross referenced cases from CYFD. Due to the details provided, this does not meet our SOP in correlation to State Law.”