At Unusual Hearing, Daughter Recounts 25-Year Quest to Catch Father’s Killer


This article by James C. McKinley Jr. appeared in The New York Times.

Thanksgivings were the worst. Every year, when the family gathered, Joselyn Martinez would be reminded of her father’s death, how he had been gunned down in Upper Manhattan in November 1986.

Every year, she would redouble her online searches, scouring websites for information about the man the police had said was their prime suspect, a teenager named Justo Santos who had fled to the Dominican Republic after the shooting.

Finally, after a quarter-century of searching, hundreds of dollars paid for background checks and hours spent poring over the case file at the 34th Precinct, she located a man in Miami whose name and birth date matched.

“I never gave up,” she said on the witness stand in a Manhattan courtroom on Monday, as Mr. Santos sat at the defense table. “I would never give up.”

Ms. Martinez, a 37-year-old model, recounted her quest during an unusual hearing before Justice Robert M. Stolz of State Supreme Court, who is weighing evidence to determine whether Mr. Santos’s constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated when the police and the Manhattan district attorney’s office waited 26 years to arrest him. Testimony is to continue on Tuesday.

New York has no statute of limitations on murder, but under a 1978 ruling in People v. Singer, an unreasonable delay in prosecuting a defendant can constitute a denial of due process.

The prosecutors, Julie Nobel and Elizabeth Lederer, called Ms. Martinez to bolster their argument that the authorities did not have enough evidence to act before June 2013, when Mr. Santos was arrested in Miami and admitted to shooting her father.

Mr. Santos’s lawyer, Lawrence Herrmann, has argued that the evidence against his client should have been presented to a grand jury in the late 1980s, when eyewitnesses first identified him in photos and he admitted to the shooting during a taped telephone call with a detective.

The events at issue date back to the night of Nov. 22, 1986. Jose Martinez was working at his business, the Rincon Dominican Restaurant on Dyckman Street in Inwood, when three young men came in and made rude comments to a waitress, court papers said.

Mr. Martinez and others grabbed the men and threw them out. The fight spilled outside, where, the police say, Mr. Santos, who was 16, fired three shots. Mr. Martinez was hit in the chest.

Within weeks, the police had identified Mr. Santos as a suspect and had posted wanted posters with high school yearbook photos of him. In January 1987, detectives learned that he had flown to the Dominican Republic. He admitted to the killing in a telephone call with Detective Joseph Rivera, though he said he was being choked when he pulled the trigger, court papers say.On Monday, Ms. Martinez, who was 9 when her father was killed, testified that the wanted-poster picture had become seared into her mind. She looked for him in crowds. She learned his last name and variations on his first name from the detectives who visited her mother.

Ten years passed. Ms. Martinez visited the precinct and discovered that the police had a full name for the suspect: Justo Jonah Santos Abinader. The case file, she recalled, said he had been arrested in the Dominican Republic. She said she learned that Mr. Santos had been convicted of a crime there, but could get no other information.

Mr. Santos’s lawyers have said their client pleaded guilty to an unspecified crime in the Dominican Republic in connection with the shooting of Mr. Martinez and served a year in prison there.

In 2006, Ms. Martinez started to search for Justo Santos on Myspace and Facebook, and by using Google. She paid for background research reports, but they produced too many leads.

When Thanksgiving 2012 came, Ms. Martinez said she visited the precinct again and cajoled detectives into letting her see the case file once more. This time, she said, she found a date of birth that matched that of a Justo Santos she had found living in Miami. She “sent everything over” to detectives, she said.

On cross-examination, Ms. Martinez bristled when Mr. Herrmann asked a series of questions suggesting that the police and the district attorney’s office should have been able to do what she did. “He killed my father,” she said, her voice rising. “Who wouldn’t search?”

Over time Mr. Santos had built a new life, his lawyers said. He found a steady job, started a family and was granted citizenship in January 2009 after lying about his criminal history.

After her testimony, Ms. Martinez said it was surreal to see Mr. Santos in court after so many years. “I made a decision at 9,” she said. “It’s unbelievable.”

For the original report go to

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