By Kevin S. Giles
My recent post about the lingering mysterious hit and run death of 63-year-old widow Montana Martinz attracted a record number of readers to my website.
Within two days, the number of “hits” topped 1,000. My story also generated dozens of emails and instant messages from readers who ventured theories about who drove the car that killed Mrs. Martinz in Deer Lodge, Mont., on Oct. 15, 1966. Most commonly stated was that the driver was “the son of a prominent businessman,” coupled with another persistent theory that the driver disappeared after police began investigating. Some people remain convinced that a young teenager drove the car that killed her. Others think the driver was a young adult, in one case the father of new twins who moved his family out of town soon afterwards. Many readers used the word “coverup” to explain their interpretation of the mystery.
If you’re just now joining us, here’s some brief background: A coroner’s jury empaneled soon afterwards concluded that two and possibly three drivers were racing when Mrs. Martinz was struck. Paint chips taken from her body indicated the car that hit her was a new, blue, 1966 model Chevrolet or Buick. The jury ruled that she died “by an automobile driven in a careless and reckless and criminally negligent manner by a person unknown.”
It’s perplexing why so many people remember her tragic death but, like me, don’t have a clue why the initial law enforcement investigation lapsed into silence. I thought at first that passing time obscured our collective memory of a 50-year-old crime. Now it’s clear that the outcome, presuming there was one, was never disclosed.Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot
In fairness, the investigation could have languished for lack of evidence. Or perhaps a teenage driver was prosecuted in the secrecy of juvenile court, as the law would require. Because all the investigators of the crime have died, we’ll never know for sure. But doesn’t it seem likely that if a driver was caught and held accountable, juvenile or adult, that the rumor mill in a town of only 4,000 people would reach consensus on that person’s identity? Or that law enforcement would tell the victim’s family what happened?
Several readers who knew Jack Martinz, the only child, recalled that he talked freely over the years about his frustration at never knowing who killed his mother. He floated names, hoping to learn more. He told people that nobody in law enforcement would tell him who was responsible, even when he asked again and again. Jack died 44 years after his mother’s death, in 2010, still wondering.
If the driver, or drivers, responsible for killing Mrs. Martinz received a free pass for some reason, what value do we assign her lost life? Was she less important than the person who killed her? Classification of a traffic death as an “accident” ceases when a driver flees the scene. In Montana, then and now, the law views a fatal hit and run as homicide.
The sorrow that surrounded the passing of Mrs. Martinz wasn’t reported (other than a few paragraphs written about her funeral), nor did the papers reveal her warmth as a human being. News accounts said nothing about her life as a farm wife before retiring to Deer Lodge, or that her husband died only months before she did, or that neighbors considered her everyone’s grandmother. She was a name and an address, a statistic, a woman remembered for being knocked out of her shoes from the crushing blow of a speeding car.
My mother, who remembers the night Mrs. Martinz died, asked me what goal I had in mind when I decided to pursue this story. As a boy, I was shaken by the description of the accident scene, troubled in knowing the driver fled and hid from the law. As a journalist, 50 years later, I do what all conscientious journalists do: give voice to the vulnerable and shine light into the darkness. To my mother, I said this: It’s about justice. Mrs. Martinz deserved better.
To me and possibly hundreds of other people, the hit and run death of a quiet widow who walked to the store for bananas and ice cream remains raw and hurtful, 50 years later.
Somebody out there knows exactly who killed her. Somebody, perhaps, who read my first story. Yet, as silence persists, the mystery continues for the rest of us.
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)