Sleeping with angels, awakening to a nightmare
In an older, one-story home at 1016 Robin St. lives a family of five — six if you count the puppy.
They have chores to do, places to go on this Saturday, April 14, 2012.
This will be the family’s last day together.
Yadira Martinez cuts her 9-year-old son Cristopher’s hair. He has religion class in the morning, a rite of passage for any Catholic youngster. Later, Yadira drives Cristopher and her oldest child, 10-year-old Karla, to their acting class. Her husband, Arturo, an electrician, takes their little one, Alejandro, 4, with him to the supermarket.
The family gathers in the evening at their friends’ house. On TV, the adults watch Juan Manuel Marquez box his way to a unanimous-decision victory over Sergey Fedchenko while the kids hunker down in another room, glued to a PlayStation.
A guitar comes out next. Yady, as her husband affectionately calls her, slides onto Arturo’s lap as he strums the guitar and softly sings one of her favorite songs, “Romeo y Julieta,” a take on the Shakespeare tale by Joan Sebastian, a popular Mexican musician. Translated into English, it begins:
They told me the story of Romeo and Juliet
And I thought, “What a beautiful story,”
And now it turns out
That this, what I feel for you
Is bigger and more beautiful
Arturo repeats the song four times, buoyed by the spirit of the moment. By now, it’s past midnight. Friends invite them to stay the night, but Arturo and Yady kindly decline. It would be an imposition. Too many people.
They pile into their red Ford Escape and drive home. The children and Yady go to bed; Arturo remains in the family room to watch TV.
“We’ll see you guys tomorrow,” he says, growing very drowsy.
His wife replies for all to hear, uttering her signature bedtime wish.
“Goodnight. Sleep with angels.”
What happens overnight is all but impossible to piece together. And the survivors might be better off not knowing.
The allergy-ridden 4-year-old sleeps in his big brother’s room, which he does frequently, and in the morning sneezes, startling Cristopher awake.
Cristopher creeps out of bed to get his brother a tissue from the bathroom. As he opens his partially closed bedroom door, he finds blood covering the hallway’s tiled floor. Someone, he thinks, must have had a bloody nose.
As Cristopher walks down the hallway, he turns to his left and sees his father, on the other side of the house, standing near the master bedroom door. On the floor is the boys’ mother, naked from the waist down and surrounded by blood.
Bewildered, Cristopher gets the tissue and steps back toward his bedroom as the two most logical words enter his head: What happened?
He leaves Alejandro with the tissue and walks down the hall to his sister’s bedroom. He stops at the doorway, frozen by what he sees: Karla is lying in a pool of blood on her bedroom floor and, like their mother, is naked from the waist down, stripped of the pink, polka-dot pajama pants that she was wearing when they said goodnight.
His sister, older than him by a year and two weeks, is motionless.
Cristopher steps through the family room, heading toward his parents’ room. Standing now in front of his father, he realizes Arturo’s face and head are obscured with blood.
“What happened?” Cristopher asks. “Do you need anything?”
Arturo stares at Cristopher but doesn’t say a word. He can’t physically speak, but it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t have an answer for his son. The same question is plaguing his jumbled thoughts.
Somewhere among the emotions flooding his being — horror, shock, confusion, sadness — a thought occurs to Arturo, a one-time law student in his native Puebla, Mexico. He shouldn’t touch anything. This is a crime scene.
He obeys his natural instinct, with one exception: He closes the eyelids of his dead wife and daughter.
Cristopher returns to his room and his father, wobbly and disoriented, staggers behind him, grabbing at the walls for support along the way. Together, they join Alejandro, who is in bed.
Blood is dripping down Arturo’s face from somewhere on his head. Woozy, he drifts asleep. Next to him, Alejandro is asleep, too. Cristopher is left to himself, wondering in silence what has happened. He notices two holes in his father's head.
The 9-year-old is traumatized and isn’t sure what to do.
Arturo startles awake hours later, about to vomit. He throws up several times as he tries to make his way to the hall bathroom.
When Cristopher checks on him, Arturo motions him to come closer. He gives him a hug in lieu of the words trapped in his mind. He toys with his iPhone, but nothing happens. Maybe it’s not charged. Or maybe it’s his fingers that aren’t working.
That’s why Arturo hasn’t called for help. And because the family doesn’t have a landline phone and Cristopher’s and Karla’s Galaxy S2 cellphones aren’t charged, nobody has called 911. They suffer alone, in stunned, frozen anguish.
Cristopher’s attention turns to his little brother, a preschooler. He leads Alejandro into his own bedroom and tells him to stay put. He lets Alejandro finish leftover Easter chocolate while he sips water. They flip through books to pass time.
Alejandro decides he wants some juice; before Cristopher can stop him, the youngster slips out of the bedroom and sees his mother, sprawled on the floor.
“It’s OK,” Cristopher says, as he guides his brother back to his bedroom.
By now it’s 8 p.m. Sunday and Cristopher realizes a way to fetch help: He’ll go to school Monday morning and tell someone. He wakes up at 6 a.m. Monday, as he normally does, steers clear of the bathroom because of the blood and washes his face using a bottle of water from his bedroom. He changes into fresh clothes, packs his book bag and walks over to his father, who is sitting on a living room couch, listless.
Cristopher climbs into his father’s lap and they embrace without speaking.
Now it’s time for Cristopher to get help. He gives Alejandro, who normally would take a bus to preschool, strict instructions to stay put at home, with their father.
Alejandro agrees and reminds his brother to say goodbye to their puppy named KO, an ode to the family’s boxing gym.
“Bye, KO,” Cristopher says.
It’s 8 a.m. on a sunny, tranquil spring day and Mabel Hoggard Elementary School is alive. Cars pour through the parking lot, the playground is filling and soccer games are in full swing.
In this same neighborhood, Metro Police Sgt. Bobby Johnson’s patrol officers are 90 minutes into their workday. They’re keeping an eye out for a man suspected of sexually assaulting a 50-year-old woman early Sunday morning in a vacant, gravel-strewn lot on the southwest corner of Vegas and Tonopah drives.
The suspect description is vague: a slender black male, likely in his 20s, who is about 5-feet-8 or 5-feet-9 inches tall.
Cristopher’s walk to school takes him past a rusted Neighborhood Watch sign. A half-mile from home, he reaches Mabel Hoggard, a place of familiarity and safety.
Cristopher joins a soccer game with friends, but it’s short-lived as the clock strikes 8:30 a.m. — the time to line up by class, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing a song or two. During an otherwise-cheerful start to the school day, Cristopher is crying.
His teacher, Miss Wagner, notices. Cristopher, the younger brother of her former student Karla, is not a crier.
“Cristopher, what happened?” Candace Wagner asks.
The words that tumbled out of the fourth-grader’s mouth next would set in motion a discovery so heinous that first-responders would wrestle for months with nightmares:
“My mom and sister are dead.”
The dispatcher doesn’t broadcast the details of the 911 call over the radio system. Instead, she instructs officers to check their in-car computers.
Officer Edward Renfer, a four-year Metro veteran who’s on a traffic stop, reads the details on his screen and immediately responds to the call with lights and siren, arriving within seconds of another officer. Together, they approach the peach-colored, wood-and-stucco house at 1016 Robin St. and peer into a front window.
They see a woman’s body lying on the floor and alert other officers pulling up to the house.
Curtains flap in another window at the south end of the home. They hear a tapping sound, and a small head appears. It’s a child with large, brown eyes and shaggy, black hair framing his face.
Not knowing who might be lurking inside, the officers try to lure the little boy out of the window, but he appears confused and drops out of sight. Seconds later, the front door opens.
A man covered in blood staggers outside. The child in the window zips out next and huddles behind the man’s legs. They’re standing just outside the open door — and what if the assailant is just inside?
Renfer sprints and scoops up the boy, as other officers converge on the dazed-looking man they later identify as Arturo Martinez-Sanchez. He could be their suspect. They don’t know. Medical help is on the way, but they need this man in custody just in case.
The moment overwhelms Arturo.
Put your hands up!
Put your hands down!
Put your hands up!
Get on the floor!
Put your hands behind your back!
The next thing he knows, he’s wearing handcuffs.
About 60 seconds have elapsed since officers arrived on scene.
Sgt. Johnson leads four Metro officers into the house to locate any victims, dead or alive, as well as potential predators hiding inside.
They fan in different directions, careful not to disturb evidence. An open jug of milk rests on the kitchen counter, a hint of normalcy among the shades of red staining nearly every surface.
Blood is smeared on every wall, pooling in bathtubs, coagulating on couches.
“The totality of this house, with the odd exception of the boys’ rooms, suggested that something very violent had occurred, and it didn’t matter which wall or ceiling or floor — every surface displayed evidence of something nefarious,” Johnson, a 20-year police veteran, would say later.
As the four officers and their sergeant walk in silence, a puppy with crimson-stained paws darts in and out of a doggy door, creating a flapping sound.
“Dog in ... dog out,” an officer announces, with each flap of the door.
It’s an unnecessary narration but a welcome human sound in an otherwise inhumane setting. They find a woman and young girl, each with severe head injuries that Johnson would later describe as “incompatible with life.” In fact, homicide detectives would report that the mother had been struck on her head twice with a blunt object; her daughter, at least three times.
Yady and Karla are dead, just as Cristopher told his teacher.
No more than 10 minutes have passed since police arrived. As the day progresses, more than two dozen paramedics, detectives, coroner investigators, crime-scene analysts and others will converge on the now-cordoned-off section of Robin Street.
Curious neighbors gawk, cars drive extra slowly before making U-turns at the barricade and reporters roam the perimeter of the crime scene for people to interview.
Amid the frenzy, Noreen Charlton, a senior crime scene analyst, makes two new friends: Cristopher and Alejandro. They’re in her care for the time being as she photographs them for evidence purposes.
Hanging out in a giant, white truck — Metro’s mobile crime-scene unit — the three chat about school, where they ate lunch last week, what movies they hope to see. Cristopher explains every book in his backpack and every drop of blood on his clothing.
Alejandro is shy, not quite able to grasp what his older brother understands about this day and these people. His protector, Cristopher, tries his best to fill in the gaps.
And when Animal Control shows up later, it’s Cristopher who voices concern for their other surviving family member, an American bulldog.
Who is taking his dog? Where would KO be held? Would he be fed on time?
Inside the house, crime scene analysts document evidence until midnight. They will spend three full days processing the scene, the longest time investigators have spent at a crime scene in more than two decades.
Officers patrol the residence around the clock, warding off nosy citizens, all of whom want an answer to the same question haunting detectives: Who did this?
For the Martinez-Sanchez family, Monday, April 16, ends like this:
KO paces inside an animal shelter kennel. Cristopher and Alejandro fall asleep at Child Haven, the county’s facility for children in its temporary custody. Arturo lies in a hospital bed at University Medical Center, sedated from emergency surgery to repair a brain laceration. Investigators would later say he suffered that injury, and a second skull indentation, when he was struck by a hammer at least three times.
And Karla’s and Yady’s bodies await autopsies at the county morgue.