Twists and turns dominate first day of murder trial: Troy Martin faces charges in 1998 death of sister near Bagley
BEMIDJI -- Troy Martin sat quietly before a jury of 14 people in courtroom Wednesday, the first day of his second-degree murder trial in the death of his sister more than 15 years ago.
Martin, 41, is charged in the Oct. 28, 1998, death of Leisa Renae Martin, at a rural Bagley, Minn., home. Her body was discovered three days later in Mahnomen County.
In a case that went cold for nearly 11 years, Leisa’s death remained a mystery until January 2010 when Troy and Leisa’s brother, Todd Martin, was arrested for DWI and assault on a peace officer.
In custody, Todd Martin confessed to murdering his sister, but said he didn’t act alone, that his older brother Troy was his accomplice in the asphyxiation death of Leisa, who was 31 in 1998.
Todd Martin, 38, of Bagley would go on to plead guilty to aiding an offender and being an accomplice after the fact in January 2012. He faces more than fours years behind bars.
Based on Todd Martin’s confession, Troy Martin was indicted by the Clearwater County Attorney’s Office. However, in another twist to the case, that indictment was later thrown out by an appeals court because of how the case was handled in Clearwater County, according to reports. Prosecutors then had to file new charges against Troy Martin, which led to Wednesday’s jury trial in Bemidji.
Those twists and turns were all on display Wednesday, as attorneys on both sides argued their case -- the prosecution saying that Troy Martin’s actions led directly to his sister’s death, while the defense argued he was sleeping during the altercation. Allegations of missing evidence, conflicting recollections of the events surrounding Leisa’s death and ill advisement by a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension special agent were just some of the elements that arose on day one Wednesday.
Beltrami County Judge Paul T. Benshoof began the trial Wednesday by addressing the defense and prosecuting attorneys before opening statements. “It’s the whole issue of what happened with Leisa’s body,” Benshoof said.
In all, testifying Wednesday were: Michael Roy, the man who found Leisa’s body while looking for firewood; Leimona Martin, Leisa, Troy and Todd’s mother; Kris Lee, Leisa’s best friend and neighbor; Ann Marie Gross, a BCA forensic scientist, Dr. Fred Martin, Leisa’s father and Stephanie Morey, presumably the last person outside the Martin family to see Leisa alive.
Eric Schieferdecker, an assistant attorney general for the state of Minnesota, is prosecuting the case. His opening statement focused on Leisa’s life and addressed the relationship between Leisa and her younger brothers before her death. Leisa was a Bagley High School graduate, attended North Dakota State University and worked at Herberger’s in Bemidji.
“Friends described her as feisty, even more when drinking,” Schieferdecker said.
Schieferdecker presented the jury with photographs of Leisa. He asked her mother, Leimona Martin, if she recognized the first photos. “Yes, it’s my daughter Leisa,” Leimona said in a small cracked voice.
Schieferdecker also showed photos of Leisa after her death, topless, lifeless. Her killer or killers left her body covered in autumn leaves approximately 20 feet from Strawberry Mountain Road just across the Mahnomen County line on the White Earth Indian Reservation. Schieferdecker said the scene was staged as a sexual assault.
“There is not a forensic silver bullet in this case,” Schieferdecker said. “Forensic science was different in 1998.”
According to court documents on Leisa Martin’s autopsy, the cause of death was asphyxia due to assault. The pathologist, Dr. Susan Roe, observed petechial hemorrhages, red spot indicators of asphyxia, or lack of oxygen, on Leisa’s sternum.
According to documents, Roe also noticed a small hemorrhage behind the trachea and a small hemorrhage within the esophagus, which could be attributed to the struggle of trying to get breath. Roe stated that Leisa’s chest was compressed to the point that she would not have been able to breathe adequately. Her blood alcohol level was 0.144, but was not a factor in her death, Roe reported.
While Leisa’s cause of death was asphyxiation, it was not due to strangulation; pressure was applied below the neckline, according to Schieferdecker. The scenario prosecutors are presenting is that Leisa and Todd returned home late Oct. 27, 1998 after an evening celebrating a friend of Leisa’s birthday. Todd and Leisa argued on the porch of their mother’s home, where all three siblings lived, 1.5 miles south of Bagley. At one point, one or both of the brothers restrained Leisa, causing her to stop breathing, prosecutors allege. Todd Martin has previously stated in court documents that Troy was the person who held Leisa down and that he and Troy both thought she just passed out.
Prosecutors allege Troy told his brother to get his 1989 Camaro and the two disposed of Leisa’s body and devised a cover story that Leisa angrily walked away toward town and they never saw her again.
Defense attorney John Undem countered that Troy Martin was sleeping during the alleged altercation that evening. “Todd Martin has not told the same story twice,” Undem said in attacking Todd’s past testimonies.
Kris Lee testified that she was Leisa’s best friend and has known most her life. Leisa Martin was going to take Kris to the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Fargo the next day, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 1998. The pair was supposed to get together at noon, but Lee couldn’t reach Leisa. After repeated calls, until about 3 p.m., she said that Todd Martin finally answered and informed her that he and Leisa had gotten into a fight the night before.
Concerned, Lee walked over to the Martin home where she discovered a beer bottle by the stairs, another beer bottle in front of the deck and signs of what she believed to be a struggle. She said she recognized scenes of a struggle because she served two, four-year tours in the U.S. Army and three years in the National Guard.
According to court documents Todd Martin told Lee he watched Leisa walk out of the driveway heading north toward town, that he stood in the dark for about 20 minutes and went to go look for his sister, but he drove south. Lee found that to be odd.
Lee, Leisa’s friend Stephanie Morey and Todd Martin filed a missing person’s report on Oct. 28. After leaving the Bagley Police Department, Todd Martin vomited, Lee testified.
On that Friday, Oct. 30, Lee said that a shallow grave was found behind a shed on Leimona Martin’s property. Court documents state that all the rocks were stacked on one side and all the dirt was on the other. Lee said she questioned Troy Martin about the grave. Troy Martin’s response, according to comments in court and the court complaint, were that it must have been neighbor kids playing a prank.
“It came out after the search that there was a grave dug behind the shed,” Lee said. “I laid
inside there and I could fit in there so I knew Leisa could fit in there.”
Lee also testified that she and Leimona had encountered Fred Martin, the trio’s father who was divorced from Leimona, the day before at the shed. His truck was backed up to the shed and when he came around the corner, he looked startled, Lee said. “He looked pale, grey,” Lee said.
According to court documents, inconsistent testimonies have been given by Todd Martin, Fred Martin and Troy Martin since the case was brought to light four years ago. Court documents state that during Todd’s DWI arrest, he told law enforcement that when he informed Fred Martin of what he and Troy had done, his father told him not to talk to anybody. Leimona Martin previously testified that Fred Martin had asked her to talk to Todd and convince him to confess to the whole thing and say Troy had nothing to do with Leisa’s death. Fred Martin’s testimony on Wednesday was brief, and at times rambling.
Troy Martin faces a second-degree unintentional murder charge that carries a maximum penalty of 40 years imprisonment.