In Loganville: a peaceful neighborhood, a monstrous crime

Neighbor of slayings suspect: ‘She was really depressed’

Etelvina Garcia shared a platter of grilled beef and rice with the new family shortly after they moved in to her tiny mobile home park in Loganville.

She chatted occasionally with Isabel Martinez and Martin Romero. Noticing the couple’s five young children, Garcia said she also offered to lend a hand.

“I told her if she ever needs some help watching the kids, I am happy to help,” Garcia, 53, said in Spanish. “But she said no, she was a stay-at-home mom and she was there to take care of the kids.”

After about 2 a.m. on Thursday, police believe, Martinez fatally stabbed her husband and four of their children. The fifth child, 9-year-old Diana, was airlifted to the hospital with serious wounds.

The tragedy took another turn Friday morning, when Martinez put on a bizarre show at her first court appearance — smiling, waving her arms and giving two thumbs up to the cameras. She was charged with five counts of malice murder and six counts of aggravated assault and held without bond.

Meanwhile, federal authorities said an immigration hold was placed on Martinez, which means the government suspects she is in the country without legal permission and could be eligible for deportation.

Neighbors said the Martinez-Romero family seemed to fit right in when they moved into this small neighborhood stretching over a single curved street. With only about 25 homes, it was quiet, but also full of families.

A Hispanic family like most of the other families here, the children — Axel, 2, Dillan, 4, Dacota, 7, Diana and Isabela, 10 — quickly joined the gaggle of kids who gathered virtually every afternoon to play.

The children usually came together at a communal play set that sits on a patch of land just outside the Martinez-Romero home. The simple dark green play set consists of two swings, a small slide and arched roof. But the one circular street, perfect for loops on a bike, and an abundance of leafy trees created a place where children played endlessly in this little corner of Gwinnett County.

Pedro Ramirez, 15, says he immediately felt a sense of relief after moving into a tiny mobile home park in Loganville four years ago.

Flowers — red geraniums, yellow daisies, pink azaleas, dotted the front yards. It was a stark contrast from his previous home in the Raleigh area, where music blared, young men openly sold drugs and gun shots were not uncommon. Here, he was lulled to sleep by the gentle rustling of leaves in the evening breeze.

And within a few days, he realized this was a place where people cared about their homes — and one another.

Upon arrival, word quickly spread that Pedro’s father was struggling to land a job. Neighbors arrived on their doorstep with gallons of milk, boxes of cereal, cheese sticks.

“They were doing it for the kids,” said Pedro, a rising freshman at South Gwinnett High School. “That’s when I knew this was a place where people really look out for each other.”

Standing in front of his home on Friday, the teenager was the only person outside. He was still in shock over the carnage across the street.

“When I heard about it, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. … If I were to describe this neighborhood to a friend at school, I would say it is quiet, safe and peaceful.” 

Neighbors had already connected with the Martinez-Romero family multiple times, even though the family hadn’t lived in the neighborhood very long. While the kids jumped right into the circle of kids here, adults also reached out to Isabel Martinez and Martin Romero.

A neighbor who lives on the edge of the neighborhood shares tomatoes and peppers from her garden, going door-to-door to hand-deliver her bounty. Others, Garcia said, make tacos to share with neighbors.

Garcia said Martinez, until recently, seemed cheerful and upbeat. She seemed to dote on her children. Garcia said she even joked to Martinez that she should give her youngest a little more independence.

“She always had the toddler on her hip at all times,” Garcia said in Spanish. “And I told her you shouldn’t carry him all the time.”

But many, including Garcia, noticed a dramatic shift after Martinez’s father died recently.

Martinez seemed distraught. Garcia said she invited Martinez to join her in prayer, and they prayed together on at least one occasion in Martinez’ home. Garcia, a regular at a Bible study group at St. Oliver Plunkett Catholic Church less than a mile away, also encouraged Martinez to attend Mass.

“She was really depressed,” said Garcia. “She put her hand on her chest, and she would say, ‘I can’t breathe.’ … I told her everything would be OK. That she could get through this. That she could get through this if she trusted and had faith in God.’”

Garcia said others in the neighborhood also checked on Martinez. Garcia said she noticed Martinez’ husband had stayed home from work in recent days also, and she thinks he was also concerned about his wife.

On Thursday evening, several people gathered outside the Martinez-Romero home to pray. They lit candles, set up a wooden cross and rested a sign against the house with the names of each slain child — spelled out with glitter sticks.

Pedro said his younger sister, 5-year-old Kelly, was particularly close to 7-year-old Dacota.

He said his family decided not to tell Kelly about the death of her friend, and instead told her that Dacota had moved.

As Kelly returned home with her family Friday afternoon, the little girl turned toward her friend’s house, where balloons swayed in the warm breeze, where people had left flowers, notes, teddy bears. The candles still flickered under a blazing hot sun.

Her dad ushered her inside.

RELATED: Murder in Gwinnett: Mom charged with killing 4 children, father

— Erica Hernandez contributed to this article.

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