Days before she allegedly stabbed and killed virtually her entire family, Isabel Martinez prayed over some candles for her recently deceased father. She was very upset because he had practiced witchcraft in her native Mexico, and she believed his soul was condemned to hell. Holding some rosary beads, she put the candle flame to her hands.
That sacrificial pain, she said, would help her father get out of hell.
Isabel Martinez showed signs of a troubled soul in the days before she allegedly killed four of her children and her husband.
The account above, offered by a family member, sheds a little light on the confounding, troubling questions that surround Martinez’ early morning stabbing rampage on July 6. How could she do it? How could any mother do it?
“I don’t think she’s a criminal. I think she’s crazy,” said Orlando Romero, the woman’s brother-in-law.
In the slumbering quiet before dawn, authorities say the 33-year-old mother calmly grabbed a black knife with a serrated blade from the kitchen and one-by-one killed 2-year-old Axel, 4-year-old Dillan and 7-year-old Dacota Romero and 10-year-old Isabela Martinez. And when her husband, Martin Romero, tried to stop his wife, she cut him down, as well, police said.
Before Martinez attacked her 9-year-old daughter Diana, she asked the girl’s forgiveness as she told her she was going to the sky to meet Jesus, according to the girl’s account in a report by the state child welfare agency. Diana said she cried, pleading with her mother that she didn’t want to go see Jesus. Isabel told her to forgive her and that she loved her.
Then came Martinez’s strange behavior in court. She not only showed no remorse, she played to the news cameras, flashing a thumbs-up sign and pressing her hands together in a pose of prayer.
The world through depressed eyes
Isabel Martinez doesn’t fit neatly into any scripted profile of a maternal child-killer, but, then again, experts say there’s no one narrative for such people.
We don’t often see the likes of Andrea Yates of Texas, who drowned her five children in a bath tub, or Cobb County’s own Kisha Holmes, who killed her three children before taking her own life (and that of the fourth child she was pregnant with).
“One size does not fit all,” said Phillip Resnick, a psychiatry professor who has evaluated parents who kill their children for more than 40 years. He added, “Sometimes there are red flags, sometimes there aren’t.”
In all likelihood, Resnick believes the killings were planned. “People just don’t snap,” Resnick said, and not all who commit filicide are psychotic, in that they have no grasp on reality.
What makes Martinez’s case such an outlier is her alleged attempt to kill her entire family, including her husband. Also, women account for only five percent nationally of familicides, the term used to describe a parent killing their entire family, said Resnick, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Resnick identified a handful of motives in his 2007 World Psychiatry study on maternal filicide. Sometimes the children’s death comes as the unintended result of a cycle of abuse. Sometimes the parent feels overburdened by the child, or wants to do something to hurt their spouse. The most common motive is that the mother has somehow convinced herself that killing her child is in the child’s best interest.
“Looking at the world through her depressed eyes, the mother believes her child is better off in heaven,” Resnick said.
From a relative’s eyes
Orlando Romero is the brother of Martin Romero, Isabel’s husband. They were neighbors in the Loganville mobile home park where the killings occurred. He said the family seemed normal before Isabel’s toxic reaction to her father’s passing.
“They argued like all families do, but they didn’t harm one another, and they never mistreated the children” Orlando Romero said. “They were both good parents and you could tell they loved each other very much.”
The state child welfare agency actually got a good look at the family in early 2015, when a complaint reached the agency that the father was disciplining the children by hitting them. The parents acknowledged at the time that they sometimes hit the children with a belt on their behinds but not to excess.
There was no indication of chaos in the home. When visiting for unannounced visits, caseworkers with the state Division of Family and Children Services found the Martinez’s domicile “clean and organized.” The children were “quite well-behaved,” according to the DFCS report, although there was some concern about Martinez’s “protective capacity.”
Sandra Romero, a cousin of Martinez’s late husband, told the agency that the children were always “healthy and happy” and she found their mother to be “very caring.”
The agency closed the case shortly thereafter.
Two years later, weeks before the stabbing incident, Martinez’s father died and, according to those who know her, that’s when everything changed.
“She used to be a calm, happy person,” said neighbor Pedro Ramirez, 15. “She invited us over to her house, had barbecues.”
“Now she’s yelling at people,” Ramirez said. “She’s just very upset.”
She became fixated on the idea that her father was in hell, and then she burned herself with the candle, Orlando Romero said.
There are about 500 cases annually in the U.S. of parents killing their children, according to a 2014 study by Brown University. Data shows that 72 percent of the children killed were age 6 or younger, with mothers about as likely as fathers to commit filicide, which means the killing of a child.
Michelle Oberman, a professor of law at Santa Clara University and co-author of the 2008 book, “When Mothers Kill,” said the Martinez case is unique in many ways.
“What you tend to find is someone with a chronic, longstanding struggle with mental illness,” she said. “Someone who has been isolated.”
One question overrides all: Was she suffering from mental issues, and if so, how might they affect the case against her?
“On one side you have people say a mother would have to be insane to kill their children” Resnick said. “On the other side people say there is no worse crime and it deserves the harshest punishment.”
But he noted that no crime has a higher success rate utilizing the insanity defense than maternal filicide.
“Juries are much less sympathetic to fathers who kill,” Resnick said.
Two family members remain
Now there are only two people remaining in the family.
Isabel Martinez — the woman who authorities say killed her family members and then dragged their bodies together into one room — sits in the Gwinnett jail. She told a DFCS caseworker that a family friend committed the killings, but she offered no name.
In that same interview, Martinez described a family trip to Savannah days before the incident. There, she felt “a devil-like spirit,” and she felt the waves trying to take her and her children away, according to the DFCS report.
She said she doesn’t want to hear about her children, though she is aware 9-year-old daughter Diana Romero survived.
Diana, a fourth-grader at Magill Elementary School, was interviewed by a DFCS case worker at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta while recovering from her wounds. She described in wrenching detail watching her mother stab her siblings and father before turning the knife on her.
She said her mother was calm the whole time, and that she cut herself before calling the police.
Experts say these cases are often accompanied by a suicide attempt. Was this such an attempt, or perhaps a desperate person trying to invent a false narrative?
When Isabel Martinez spoke with the DFCS caseworker, she said the mysterious family friend cut her when she tried to resist him. The wounds were not deep.
Diana, for her part, is doing better. She’s out of the hospital. Orlando Romero said his niece is grateful for people’s outpouring of support.
Other instances where parents killed their children.
- In South Carolina in 2014, a man named Timothy Ray Jones Jr. allegedly killed his five children, ages 1 through 8. He then drove them to Alabama, where he buried them. He reportedly claimed the children were planning to kill him.
- In Texas in 2001, Andrea Yates, who had a history of mental illness and was later found not guilty by reason of insanity, drowned her five children in a bathtub. They ranged in age from six months to 7 years.
- In New York in 2010, police believe Leisa Jones slit the throats of three children, the oldest 14 years old, before starting a fire that killed her and a fourth child.
- In California in 2004, a man named Marcus Wesson shot and killed nine of his children and grandchildren, who ranged in age from 1 to 25.
- Georgia — and Gwinnett County itself — have also been home to high-profile cases involving the deaths of multiple children.
- In Douglas County in February 2015, Cedric Prather shot six people and himself. Four of the six victims, including a 7-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl, were killed. Prather also died.
- In January 2015, ex-Marine Kisha Holmes killed her three children inside their Cobb County apartment before taking her own life —and that of the fourth child she was pregnant with.
- On Feb. 9,2011, Elvis Noe Garcia-Nolasco stabbed three of his children inside their Gwinnett County home, initially blaming the incident on his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. Two of the children, ages 1 and 3, died from their injuries. (Eight days later, a methamphetamine-fueled explosion claimed the lives of three more Gwinnett children. They were 21 months, 3 years old and 4 years old. Their mother was one of three suspects charged.)
- In July of 1999, a northeast Atlanta man named Cyrano Marks shot and killed six people, including four of his girlfriend’s children.