The comfort of friends; the compassion of strangers
The technicians at his eye appointment tell Arturo Martinez-Sanchez to be sure to use lubricating eye drops — artificial tears, as they’re called — if his eyes feel dry.
That’s not a problem, he says.
“I could cry any time,” he says.
Arturo’s left iris and pupil are gone, the result of a childhood accident — a shard of glass from a soda bottle damaged his retina, leaving behind a milky gray circle and no vision.
But it can still cry.
Now vision from his right eye is compromised, too, after an intruder broke into his family’s home, raping and killing his wife and daughter and severely injuring him. The couple’s two youngest children, Cristopher and Alejandro, slept through the attack.
The head injuries inflicted upon him stole vision in the bottom left quadrant of his right eye. It’s not a life-altering setback. His central vision, the most crucial spot, was untouched, but for a man without sight in one eye, it represents another frustration on top of monumental grief.
“OK, you see those four lights? In the center, there will be a blinking light,” says Tess Reyes, a diagnostic technician at Westfield Eye Center in Las Vegas, who is testing his peripheral vision. “Press the button every time you see the blinking light.”
Arturo leans forward and peers through a glass lens into the machine. As if playing a video game, his finger jabs a button each time the light blinks.
Click. Two seconds pass. Click. Five seconds pass. Click.
Each time Arturo, 39, misses a blinking light, the machine notes the location with a dark mark, thereby creating a map showing where he has lost vision.
A half-hour later, he meets with his ophthalmologist, Dr. Kenneth Houchin, who compares the test results with those from July.
“It appears to be just about the same, although there could be some lightening in this area that might be encouraging,” Houchin says, pointing to a dark blob in the troubled lower left quadrant close to his nose. “We’ll know within a year. Whatever is still lost in a year’s time after the injury will likely be permanent.”
Today is Oct. 15 — six months since Arturo lost much more than his vision. He’s wearing a white T-shirt with images of his wife and daughter that says, “In Loving Memory of Yadira Martinez & Karla Martinez.”
Arturo keeps his days as structured as possible. He drops off Cristopher, 10, and Alejandro, 5, at school, then heads to the boxing gym he reopened in July. Paperwork and maintenance await him. He pumps up-tempo music from his iPhone over the speakers. Occasionally, his coaches stop by, sometimes with their children, for a workout before activity picks up toward evening.
He regularly checks his phone calendar, careful not to miss appointments with his lawyer, doctors, family or the state program that helps crime victims cover medical bills. It could easily feel overwhelming for a newly single father with a brain injury.
“Every day I have something to do,” he says. “Every single day.”
At 3:15 p.m., for instance, he picks up his boys from school and brings them to the gym.
And it becomes apparent to Arturo that, for all the people helping him piece back together his life, he can use his gym — his passion — to help others. This is a place where he feels needed versus needy. It gives him purpose.
Arturo is telling a 19-year-old who aspires to become a professional boxer how to balance on two straddled hand weights.
“Your feet have to be parallel,” he says, motioning with his hands.
Then Arturo turns his attention to a 23-year-old who just started coming to the gym. Arturo flashes him a thumbs-up when the young man punches cleanly and quickly into the air. Quick instructions follow: an elbow adjustment here, a stance tweak there.
Arturo makes teaching look natural, wending his way through the gym — past hanging punching bags, over mats, around the boxing ring — dishing constructive criticism and bits of praise where necessary. He’s in his element. It’s therapy.
But it’s not the only therapy he needs.
That’s why he regularly escapes the gym for a couple of hours and, with Cristopher and Alejandro, attends counseling sessions.
Arturo knows therapy won’t erase Cristopher’s memory of what he saw. But he does what he can. He lavishes the boys with more kisses, a sentiment he learned from his wife, but affection alone is not enough. Words hold power, and sometimes simply talking through feelings soothes pain.
Arturo says his kids need counseling more than he does, but then he pauses to ponder the question: Is counseling helping?
“It’s good for me,” Arturo says. “That’s why I’m doing it.”
With his therapist, Arturo discusses the past, present and future. The boys sometimes draw pictures to express their emotions. The underlying theme, Arturo says, is about moving forward.
If he and the boys discuss what happened to their family, it’s often within the confines of his red Ford Escape — after they leave counseling and drive back to the boxing gym. That’s their quiet time for reflection.
Arturo invested money and sweat into the home at 1016 Robin St., updating the bathrooms and kitchen and painting bedrooms for his young family. But it wasn’t where he wanted to raise his family. Built in 1957, with a pollen-ridden fruitless mulberry out front, the home is not far from a rough neighborhood.
So in July 2007, the couple bought a new, much larger home in a North Las Vegas neighborhood with freshly poured sidewalks, young trees, parks and landscaped streets. Two weeks after Alejandro was born, they moved in.
Arturo and Yady bought their kids a trampoline for the backyard. They bonded with neighbors, enjoying cookouts and holidays together. It was their dream home.
But, like tens of thousands of other Las Vegans, the family found themselves saddled with a house they could no longer afford. Like many of their neighbors-turned-friends, they lost their home.
The family returned to its Robin Street house, which Arturo had been renting out, in December 2011, four months before it would become a crime scene.
Arturo has no plans to ever live there again. For now, he is living with his sister and her family.
In October, he shows the Robin Street house to two commercial real estate agents whom he had recently met.
“Just come on in,” Arturo says, turning toward the front door.
The phrase rolls off his tongue with ease, like a seasoned homeowner welcoming guests.
Plywood covers four front windows; piles of leaves surround two abandoned garbage cans on the side of the house. Arturo carefully undoes two locks bolting the front door and steps inside, joined by Brendan Keating and Sean Margulis.
The two were moved by his story splashed across newscasts immediately after the killings: Devout Catholic man, severely wounded in a hammer attack, forgives man suspected of killing his wife and daughter.
The two men, Bishop Gorman High School graduates, gave him a few hundred dollars to pay a bill and, more important, a standing offer of help in any way going forward.
The men’s generosity is not unique. The savageness of the attacks triggered an outpouring of support, eliciting prayers worldwide and surprise deliveries in the mail.
A winemaker in Washington state sent Arturo bottles of wine and a note: “I read your tragic and heartbreaking story. I can’t imagine your pain. However, as a Christian myself, I was awed by your capacity for forgiveness. Your story to me is a true example of walking in the word. Please accept some of my wine as a fellow Christian.”
An elderly woman living in Las Vegas began sending $100 checks addressed to the “Arturo Martinez Family,” with “donation” written in the bottom left corner. A retired man now living in Las Vegas called homicide detectives and asked how he could give workout equipment to Arturo’s gym. Others have donated time and labor.
Later, a wealthy Henderson couple would establish funds for Cristopher and Alejandro that they can access after they graduate high school, perhaps to pay for college.
And then there’s Barbara Buckley, director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, who took Arturo as a pro-bono client after receiving a call from the Mexican consulate. She has been helping him sort out legal matters in the aftermath of the tragedy, such as applying for a U Visa, which extends temporary legal status for immigrant victims of crime.
Buckley agreed with Arturo that he should consult with someone in the real estate business to figure out what to do with the house.
That leads to today and the tour of the house he’s giving these two real estate agents. He wants advice about what to do with it. He carries a flashlight and points out blue splotches covering the walls. It’s the color left behind by chemicals used to remove bloodstains.
“There was blood right here,” Arturo says, pointing to a wall in the master bedroom near where his wife died. “There were two or three palms — her palms.”
This is Arturo’s fourth time visiting the house since the killings. It’s eerie, devoid of almost any sunlight. But Arturo has most markings memorized, such as this one: the faint outline of a cross within a blue stain. He theorizes it’s the handiwork of the cleaning crew who entered after investigators left the home.
The tour seems almost mechanical, and maybe it’s a defense mechanism.
“Every time I come to this place and I see this,” he says, pausing, “I don’t know. It’s just crazy.”
In the backyard, Arturo shows them a balance beam he bought his daughter. He yearns now for a new home for him and his boys.
“I’m having my first baby — a girl — in 20 days,” Keating tells Arturo. “Walking through the house evokes a lot of emotions, so I want to do anything that I can to help you.”
The comment about pending fatherhood lights up Arturo, who rattles off what any new parent should expect: lots of crying the first few months, followed by toddlers trying to grab everything in reach. He smiles broadly while reminiscing.
“It’s something that is incredible,” he says. “Every time my kids were born, it was amazing.”
As the trio heads back to the front yard, Arturo spots Cristopher and Alejandro skateboarding on a neighbor’s driveway. A car is approaching north on Robin Street.
“Watch the car! Watch the car!” he yells.
The time-honored tradition comes each Oct. 31 as opposing forces unite, darting up and down streets on a common mission. Goblins run with princesses. Witches confer with superheroes.
And, under darkened skies, the line between good and evil appears blurred. On Halloween, children embody heroes or villains and face their fears — the spider in the bush or the boogeyman surely lurking around the corner — on a quest for candy.
For most kids, fear is based on the unknown. It’s irrational.
But Cristopher and Alejandro know horror.
Alejandro dons a Spider-Man costume. His older brother, who will attend middle school next year, wears his regular clothes.
“Oh my gosh, all these lights,” Cristopher laments, as parents snap photo after photo.
The group calls itself the Junction Peak family, an ode to the North Las Vegas street they lived on before foreclosures splintered their tight-knit community. Last year, Arturo and Yady dressed as pirates as the families went trick-or-treating.
As this Halloween approached, Arturo’s former neighbor, Heather Zmak, sent him a text message: “I know tomorrow is going to be hard for you, but all I can think about is every year we went trick-or-treating together.”
That’s all it took. Tonight, four families, including Arturo and his boys, meet at the northwest valley house of his other former neighbors, Fred and Tessa Haas. The kids fan out to different homes as the adults follow.
Zmak and Fred Haas lag behind for a minute as they watch their friend Arturo interact with his boys. They are assessing him.
“He looks good, huh?” Zmak asks.
“Yeah, he sounds good, too,” Fred Haas says.
Arturo releases a deep, from-the-belly laugh as he watches Cristopher and Alejandro scramble between homes, then check their loot after each stop.
“Candy, candy, candy,” the young Spider-Man murmurs as he crosses a street.
The scene is festive. Orange lights adorn homes. Giant, inflatable pumpkins fill yards, along with light-up skulls and fake spiders.
Meanwhile, a man dressed as Michael Myers, the terror-inciting character in the “Halloween” movies, walks ominously around the neighborhood, silently staring from behind a white mask.
His shtick works. Zmak’s 6-year-old daughter, Joleigh Courtney, jumps and wraps her arms around Arturo.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “You’re safe.”
Up the street, there’s a garage converted to a haunted house. The kids run toward it, but Alejandro backs off, frightened.
Arturo scoops Spider-Man into his arms and carries him through the dark space offset by strobe lights — all the while assuring him there’s nothing to fear. It’s just a few pretend zombies. Alejandro whimpers the entire time, softening only when they exit.
“See, I told you,” Cristopher says. “It’s not scary.”
As the group reconvenes outside, the Michael Myers imposter tries again. He makes a beeline toward them, but it’s of no use. The children and parents feign blood-curdling screams and laugh.