A Fight to the Death

Frank Rodriguez was sentenced to die twelve years ago. Are we there yet?

At the age of 54, Martelli was an exemplar of the term "spinster." A deeply religious woman from an old Italian family in north Denver, she worked as a bookkeeper and lived with her 87-year-old mother. Martelli's life, says her sister, revolved around her family, her job at a Denver glass company, and the Catholic church. There was nothing else.

November 14, 1984, was a busy day at the House of Glass at Fifth Avenue and Broadway, and co-workers say Martelli was happy to see quitting time roll around. It was about 4 p.m. and still light when she left the office to walk to her faded 1975 Monte Carlo, which she'd parked in a nearby lot.

The Rodriguez boys, who'd been looking for cars to steal, spotted Martelli as she took a shortcut through an alley to her car. They jumped her just as she reached the Chevy.

A witness testified at trial that Martelli struggled with the two men before being forced into the car. Her eyeglasses were broken in the scuffle. The vehicle then careened down an alley and struck a parked car as Martelli frantically honked the horn for attention, the witness said. But the Monte Carlo and the brothers were gone before police were able to get to the scene.

Officers throughout the city were told to watch for Martelli's car. When they found it less than six hours later, she was already dead.

The story of what happened that day was revealed in court by Patricia Thomas, a teenage acquaintance of the brothers. Thomas and her 23-year-old boyfriend, David Martinez, had been acting as lookouts for the Rodriguezes that day, watching for cops while Frank and Chris prowled cars. After kidnapping Martelli, the brothers swung the car around and picked up Thomas (then seventeen) and Martinez.

Using money they took from Martelli, the group stopped at a housing project in southwest Denver to buy drugs. After the deal was done, Thomas and Martinez piled into the front seat. Frank then piloted the car west on Sixth Avenue, toward the mountains, as Chris raped Martelli in the backseat.

Once in Golden, the group decided to turn around and head back to Denver. Frank parked the car in a warehouse area near the South Platte River, then took Chris's place in the backseat so that he, too, could sexually assault the terrified woman.

When Chris complained to his brother that he was "taking too long" with Martelli, Frank slugged Chris in the face. The physical altercation was soon followed by a verbal one--Frank allegedly wanted to kill Martelli because "she seen our faces." Chris Rodriguez, Thomas said, didn't want the woman dead.

Frank Rodriguez had what in his mind was a solid reason for killing Martelli. The last time he and his brother kidnapped and raped a woman, she had lived to tell authorities. The two had spent six years in prison for that crime. Frank was paroled in April 1984. Chris got out in September, less than two months before the attack on Martelli.

Frank won the argument.
With tears running down her cheeks, Thomas told a hushed courtroom that when Martelli pleaded for her life, Frank, who had a knife, screamed at her and called her "stupid." Then Martelli began to pray and, Thomas testified, "I could feel the pounding. I could feel the seat move." Martelli was stabbed 28 times. During the attack, she reportedly cried, "God help me, I'm dying." The doctor who performed the autopsy would later testify that he believed Martelli had been tortured before she was killed. Someone, he said, had run the blade of a knife across her throat before stabbing her.

When Frank was finished, he, his brother and Martinez stuffed Martelli's body in the trunk of the car. Then they drove over to a friend's apartment to party. It was about 6:30 in the evening. They used Martelli's money to buy beer and burgers later that night, and Frank gave the murder weapon to his friend's two-year-old boy to play with.

Police caught up with Frank about 9:30 that night, when he took the Monte Carlo out to buy more beer. Martelli's body was still in the trunk.

The legal battle in the Martelli case began even before the Rodriguez brothers went on trial.

Frank's case was delayed for almost a year due to wrangling over which lawyers would represent him at trial. According to Heher, Denver District Judge Lynne Hufnagel "arbitrarily" decided that the public defender's office had a conflict of interest and ordered its attorneys thrown off the case. Actually, Hufnagel's ruling was more than simple caprice. Unknown to the public defenders at the time, the prosecution was cutting a secret deal with Rodriguez's girlfriend, Margie Marquez, to testify against him--and the public defenders were representing Marquez in another matter. The office, however, protested Hufnagel's decision all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court and eventually won the right to represent Frank.

Before that issue was settled, Chris went on trial. Armed with damning physical evidence--one of Chris's pubic hairs was found on Martelli's body--prosecutors with the Denver District Attorney's office had decided to seek death for the Rodriguez boys. Thomas had also agreed to testify for the prosecution after being offered immunity. Martinez didn't testify but was given a plea bargain under which he received a twenty-year sentence. He was paroled in January 1995, and with the exception of a DUI arrest in Wheat Ridge two months ago, has apparently managed to stay out of trouble.

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