New evidence has shattered the widely believed narrative of how 10-year-old Victoria Martens was killed in Albuquerque. Right after her death in 2016, detectives interviewed her mother Michelle, and based on that, they pinned the homicide on her and two other adults. But two years later, the District Attorney says that story is false, and DNA evidence points to another killer, who’s still out there.
Elise Kaplan of the Albuquerque Journal has been covering this story from the start. She spoke with KUNM about how Michelle Martens’ story changed while she was being interrogated.
KUNM: As you reported this story, did you gain any insight into why detectives ended up just going with what she had said in that interview?
KAPLAN: We haven’t heard much yet from APD. I have talked to a former sergeant who was actually in the room during that interview. And the way she described it to me was that Michelle just had none of the normal characteristics that they see in grieving family members, and especially not a grieving mother. She never really asked, “Where is my baby?” “What’s going on?” And I’ve read the transcripts, and you don’t see anything like that.
But she also wasn’t really emoting in the way that homicide detectives are used to seeing people act when they have a horrible tragedy happen?
KUNM: Just because she was emotionless, that it seemed correct to assume she had been involved ...
KAPLAN: Yeah, and that she wasn’t upset. All of these homicide detectives had just seen the worst thing that they’ve ever seen, and it was deeply affecting them. And they’re trying to figure it out. Why isn’t this mother trying to figure it out? And why isn’t she angry? And why isn’t she upset?
KUNM: Do you have a sense of why Michelle Martens would say that she was there when her daughter was killed when it looks like she wasn’t?
KAPLAN: They way it had been reported kind of in criminal complaints was that she said all this stuff had happened. After reading the interviews, I got much more of the sense that she would say “mmm hmm” when someone would say “Did this happen?” So she would kind of agree when they asked her a question. She would say “Yes.” Frequently, the first several times, she would say “No,” and then she would finally say “Yes.” And that was presented as her saying she was there and she watched this horrible rape and murder happen.
So I think that’s kind of a fine line, but it’s important to distinguish that she wasn’t necessarily saying she was there. She was agreeing with detectives who asked if she was there in a lot of cases.
And then she did give some statements, but it’s hard to know how much those were contaminated or just flat-out fabricated.
KUNM: So the new District Attorney Raúl Torrez says some evidence collected wasn’t tested at the crime lab. What else didn’t happen?
KAPLAN: The cell phones weren’t searched right away, and that was another important part of it. Someone from the DA’s Office had collected all the cell phones, and those were all turned over into evidence, but there hadn’t been extensive search warrants served on them yet. So a lot of the information that came out that kind of corroborates Michelle and Fabian’s story about not being there at the time is from those cell phones. And that wasn’t discovered until much later.
With the DNA stuff, the crime lab apparently stopped testing DNA for a period of time. When I talked to Sgt. Liz Thompson, who is now the former homicide sergeant, she said they were kind of grateful to have the prosecutor step in, more sway, to be like: Hey, we’re getting this case ready for trial. Let’s kick this up to the state lab. So I think some of that just needed to be pushed more than it was initially.
KUNM: Were you surprised by the lack of urgency in getting all of this evidence processed? You’ve been doing this kind of reporting a long time.
KAPLAN: I was, but I also came away with a feeling like an exhaustive amount of work was undertaken by Torrez and the team that he set up with Greer Rose, another prosecutor, a paralegal, and actually two APD detectives. To me it sounded like they were on the phone constantly, catching up everything. They sent out DNA samples to a lab in Florida. They spent $100,000.
There was a little bit of delay, but then there was such a monumental effort to get it all tested that I don’t how much the delay really played into it. There was a year-and-a-half of testing.
KUNM: So eventually, this stuff got followed up on—DNA testing, phone records, locations. Has anyone talked about whether the delay in getting that information together and just kind of rolling with that initial Michelle Martens interview, let the killer or one of the killers, off the hook?
KAPLAN: I’ve asked that question. I haven’t gotten any kind of definitive answer. I think it’s an important question to be asking, but people just seem to say: It’s impossible to say at this point whether or not that could have happened. And looking back, we just don’t know yet.
Murder charges have been dropped against Michelle Martens and her boyfriend, Fabian Gonzales, though they’re still charged with child abuse resulting in death. Gonzales' cousin Jessica Kelley faces all original charges of sexual assault and homicide.
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