The following story was compiled from public court records, newspaper coverage and interviews with public officials and residents. Thanks to Gary Newlon for his research assistance.
By Kevin S. Giles
Half an hour past twilight, with only a sliver of a moon rising, Montana Martinz began her fateful walk home.
Cradling a sack of groceries, the 63-year-old woman left the IGA supermarket on the main street of Deer Lodge, Montana. It was Oct. 15, 1966. The wind off the mountains felt cold. She stepped briskly through pools of light under the streetlamps.
Four blocks later, she entered the intersection of Fifth Street and Texas Avenue. She was three minutes from her house at 524 Conley Avenue. Mrs. Martinz lived alone. A year earlier, her husband Peter had died at St. Joseph Hospital of coronary thrombosis. Their only child, a son, was grown and gone.
She must have heard the roar of an approaching car. She must have heard the wailing of tires as the driver locked his brakes. In the house on the corner, Mrs. Clifford Miller was putting her children to bed “when there was a horrible thud, like something had hit the side of the house.” She looked out the window in time to see a car “driven at great speed” heading east on Texas Avenue.
The car hit Mrs. Martinz with such force that it crushed her right hip and ribs and threw her violently into the air. She fell on the top of her head on the asphalt road, dying instantly from a fractured neck and severed spinal column.Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot
Mrs. Bill Pitt, meanwhile, was taking her grandchild for an evening ride before bed. She drove down Main Street, past the IGA, and turned east on Texas Avenue where she saw a body in the intersection. She stopped and place her coat over Mrs. Martinz before running to the Miller house for help. Mrs. Miller hurried into the street to assist Mrs. Martinz. Mr. Miller called Police Chief John Wilson.
The ice cream and bananas Mrs. Martinz bought at the store lay 58 feet from her body. Her scarf was found 38 feet away near a shoe. Undersheriff David Collings determined the point of impact was 60 feet from where Mrs. Martinz landed in the street.
He also measured skid marks on the pavement where the car’s driver had braked: 50 feet two inches before she was struck.
Except for flashing lights and curious neighbors, the night was still. When Mrs. Pitt arrived on the scene she was alone on the long street. The driver who hit Mrs. Martinz had fled.
At first, the investigation was exhaustive. The Montana Highway Patrol and the FBI got involved. The county attorney empaneled a six-person coroner’s jury. The local Silver State Post newspaper, covering the testimony, quoted witness Bill Young, 19, who told the jury he was driving south on Main Street when he saw three cars ahead of him make swift turns onto Texas Avenue. He followed, and after making the turn, he saw the second car pass the first. “He heard brakes being applied and saw something fly into the air and thought it was a dog,” the newspaper reported.
The FBI laboratory in Washington, D.C., testing paint chips taken from the clothes of Mrs. Martinz, concluded the car that hit her was a blue 1966 model Chevrolet or Buick, a nearly brand-new car. “Highly significant facts have been established which may result in substantial developments in the case within the next few days,” Sheriff Everett Burt told the Silver State Post.
Then, nothing. Just what happened in the aftermath apparently wasn’t shared with the public. Newspaper coverage ceased. Rumors persist today, 50 years later. The most common one holds that authorities identified the car’s driver and as many as three other boys riding with him. They were “playing chicken” with other drivers, possibly driving with their headlights turned off. The boys were told to join the military or face prosecution, the rumor goes, so they enlisted and left town.
That scenario seems unlikely, given how aggressively authorities pursued the case in the first few weeks. Leaving the scene of a fatal accident in Montana is homicide. Four days after Mrs. Martinz died, the coroner’s jury concluded that she died “by an automobile driven in a careless and reckless and criminally negligent manner by a person unknown.”
Retired District Judge Ted Mizner was a senior at Powell County High School in Deer Lodge when the hit and run occurred. He had nothing to do with the case, but recently reflected on the jury’s findings from so long ago.
“I think it could be successfully argued that charges could still be filed in the case if the county attorney did not determine the identity of the perpetrator until recently,” he said. Homicide in Montana isn’t subject to a statute of limitations, he said.
It’s also possible, Mizner said, that the case could be dismissed if a past county attorney knew who was involved but didn’t file charges “in a reasonable time.” That’s what is known as prejudicial pre-indictment delay, separate from the statute of limitations, he said.
All the investigating peace officers have died, as has Malcolm “Scotty” MacCalman, the county attorney who questioned witnesses before the coroner’s jury. If evidence of a possible prosecution exists in the courthouse, it’s not apparent to people elected to office decades after the crime was committed. Records at the Montana Highway Patrol in Helena no longer exist, said spokesman Eric Sell, because they’re purged every 10 years or so.
Mrs. Martinz’ granddaughter, Julie Schumacher, said her father never knew who killed his mother. “I know my father was upset that the truth was never discovered nor disclosed but it seemed to be pretty sealed up,” she said.
Like everyone else, the family was left to interpret rumors and wonder why justice wasn’t done. The son, John “Jack” Martinz, died in 2010. He thought the driver was the “son of a prominent businessman,” Schumacher said. “Kid disappeared and the entire thing was kept quiet.”
Cathy Kiss, now Cathy Curran, lived across the street from Mrs. Martinz and remembers being like a grandmother to Cathy and her brother. “We were very close to her and her death was very sad to us as young children,” Cathy said. “She was a very sweet lady who spent a lot of time at our house after her husband died.”
Fifty years later, more questions than answers remain. Adult or teenager? Was the killer identified? If not, how did the driver disguise the banged-up car? Why didn’t anyone else who knew of the crime come forward? Did authorities know who killed Mrs. Martinz but couldn’t find enough evidence? Or were the rumors true, that possibly boys of privilege were told to get out of town? And why did John Martinz spend a lifetime wondering who killed his mother?
It’s presumed that somebody has lived with the guilt of killing a woman who went to the store for bananas and ice cream. Only the killer knows whether failing to admit the crime over the years was worse than that moment of impact, when Mrs. Martinz flew into the air and crashed to the pavement and died. Even today, the killer could choose to walk into the police department or Sheriff’s Office and end the mystery – and decades of guilt and suspicion.
Powell County Sheriff Scott Howard, in a recent interview, said he would “launch an investigation” if anyone admitted to the crime. He joined the Sheriff’s Office 20 years after the hit and run occurred. Like other law enforcement officers in Deer Lodge, he has no first-hand knowledge of it. Lewis K. Smith, the current county attorney, said that because the hit and run happened before records were stored on computers, researching the case would require “going back through the oldest boxes in our archives.” Jill Paull, the clerk of court, found the original transcript of testimony before the coroner’s jury but said she was unable to find other references to the case without knowing a specific name of a possible defendant.
Mrs. Martinz was carried to her grave at Hillcrest Cemetery by friends and family stunned that such a heartless deed could happen in their small town. On October nights, a big yellow moon rises over the mountains and casts faint light into the shadows at the cemetery. There lies Mrs. Martinz, 50 years later, who walked to the store on a Saturday evening for the apparent makings of dessert.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. He published One Woman Against War in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)