If her father were alive, Christina Martinez knew, he would not approve of her riding in this car, through these unfamiliar neighborhoods, with these three men. She looked out the window. The green Mitsubishi made its way down Beverly Boulevard, but not in Hollywood. Here the street stretched through the Los Angeles outskirts of Montebello and Pico Rivera, past the East L.A. sheriff’s station, past billboards in Spanish scrawled with graffiti, past check-cashing shops, liquor stores, taco stands, and men wearing long sleeves to cover their tattoos. This was a warm Tuesday in August 2009, and the moon was bright.
Christina, who was 20, called the men in the Eclipse her friends, but they were hardly more than acquaintances. She had hung out with them a few times, and they knew her boyfriend, Kilo, whom she had been dating for two months. She had spent much of this evening with Kilo at the home of his cousin, in Bellflower, north of Long Beach. The three men had stopped by, but mostly stayed outside.
When it came time to go, Kilo stayed behind. The men offered to give Christina a ride home. She accepted, because rides were not easy to come by, and because she’d accepted rides from the driver before. Christina and her son, Alexander, only a year old, lived with her mother, farther north in Lennox, next to Los Angeles International Airport. To the west was the beach. On the way, the men said, they might walk on the sand and smoke a little weed.
Christina was small, not even five feet tall. Even with the front seat pushed all the way back, she fit comfortably in the back, behind the driver. She wore shorts, Kilo’s black T-shirt, and Etnies, size 5 ½, with pink E’s on the sides. She had dark hair, freckles, arched eyebrows, piercings beneath her bottom lip, and a star tattooed on her right shoulder. She carried a white backpack with cow designs, along with a small red bag with a turtle print. Inside were her makeup, Social Security Card, zebra-printed sunglasses, and a marijuana pipe.
The Mitsubishi turned east. Christina realized: They were headed away from the beach. They stopped for gas, some cigarettes, and two Arizona iced teas. Then they headed east again.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
No one answered. Lil Wayne spewed from the stereo.
Christina felt a twinge of uncertainty, but she let it pass. Maybe the men had another stop to make before turning west toward the ocean.
Her dad, she thought, had not been so different from these men. Her father had been in the Lennox gang. Christina was his first daughter and he was strict. He had not allowed her to cut her hair, and the rule was the same for her mother. Women, he said, should have long hair, and at one point, Christina’s reached so far down her back that she could sit on it. Her father did not let her go to parties. He did not even let her walk down the block alone. She had to stay inside and do homework and her chores.
But she rebelled, cutting her hair despite her father’s wishes, dying it purple, orange, red, and yellow. She thought she was smart enough and tough enough to do whatever she wanted, go wherever she wanted, and ride with whomever she wanted.
To Christina, growing up in Lennox didn’t seem as scary as outsiders might think. Her dad had carried weapons, and he’d known whom not to cross. He died when she was 18. She didn’t talk about her dad much, but she missed him. Sometimes, she dreamed about him.
The driver of the Mitsubishi was Jose Miguel Ayala, 27, also known as Mike. She knew Mike always carried a knife. It had a royal blue handle. But Mike had been almost fatherly. They had even worked together. Not long after her father died, Christina had become a promoter of raves and other musical events, and she brought Mike into the business. Christina liked the hard-driving rave parties, featuring electronic, trance, happy hardcore techno, and house music. She had met Mike through mutual friends, and had recommended him to be a promoter, too. They passed out fliers in Hollywood and around Los Angeles. Sometimes they earned $500 apiece for a weekend of organizing and promoting. Mike called Christina by her rave name, “Candy,” and sometimes he called her his “daughter.” She called him “daddy.” Mike drove her to run errands more than once. He had even spotted her a few dollars when she needed them.
But Mike could be intimidating. He took everything personally. Any little argument, she knew, could set him off. Just recently, for instance, she had gotten into a silly quarrel with Kilo—she couldn’t even remember what it was about. They had all been at the home of Kilo’s grandparents in El Monte. Mike, who lived in El Monte too, was at the house, and he took Kilo’s side.
“This is between me and my boyfriend,” Christina said at the time.
Mike flared. He yelled at her. “You have to leave,” he said. “Leave my ’hood now!”
Christina ignored him and stayed. She and Kilo argued some more. But Mike insisted that she leave. He threatened to hurt her if she didn’t, and she finally called her mother to come pick her up.
Christina saw Mike afterward, and they didn’t speak. Now, five days later, at Kilo’s cousin’s house in Bellflower, when Mike offered to take her home after a stop at the beach, it seemed his way of letting their disagreement go. If he was ready, Christina thought, so was she.
Next to Mike in the front seat sat Vincent Mendoza, 21, who went by Vince. Christina knew he carried a knife, too. It was silver. To her right in the back seat was Eddie Meraz, 24, whom she knew the least. She had been around him only twice—once at a pool party just days ago, which had been at Vince’s house. Eddie had brought carne asada and beer.
Now Christina could see that they were headed toward the hills southeast of Los Angeles. Mike was sweating, driving 50 miles per hour through 30 mph zones in Whittier, past Spanish-style apartment buildings, pick-up trucks and older cars, and homes shielded from the sidewalks by sculpted trees. He drove through an intersection near the mouth of Turnbull Canyon. The road narrowed and wove into dirt hills on the left, past tree branches on the right that hung over the street like claws.
Mike cocked his head. He had an indecipherable tattoo, partly inked-over, on his neck.
“I’m going to have to tie your hands,” he said.
“What?” she said.
“Tie her hands,” Mike told Eddie.
Christina looked at Eddie, confused. Suddenly, Eddie was holding a rope.
“You’re not going to touch my hands,” she said, pulling her arms to her chest.
The speed limit had dropped to 15 miles per hour, but Mike paid no attention. The car hurtled past a yellow sign that showed an arrow with a swerving tail, indicating switchbacks. Mike looked angry. Christina did not know why.
Eddie reached for her hands. Christina dodged him. Was he serious? Eddie looked nervous.
Mike told him again: “Tie her fucking hands.”
Christina Ivonne Martinez was born in Lennox. Her mother, Monica, was 17 at the time and worked in a Laundromat. Now in her 30s, Monica Martinez still looked so young she was sometimes mistaken for Christina’s sister. The large Mexican-American family lived on a 755-square-foot lot owned by Christina’s grandparents near Los Angeles International Airport, where planes roaring overhead looked as if they might flatten the neighborhood if they landed too soon. Christina’s family used every inch of the lot for their three houses. The gated front house was for her grandparents. The back house was for Christina’s aunt and uncle. The middle house was for Christina, her parents, three brothers, and a sister.
Christina’s father had worked off and on as a waiter and a bartender. One of her favorite things to do was to sit with him and watch the movies he liked—Scarface. The Godfather. Carlito’s Way. She liked Stephen King movies, too, and she was fond of zombies and vampires. Nothing could scare her. When other girls in the neighborhood taunted and threatened her, she stood up to them and cursed back in their faces. Christina might have been small, but she had heart. She would fight back if she had to, but somehow it never came down to that. Despite a few close calls, Christina had never been in a real fight.
Sometimes friends who came to her house said, “You live in the ’hood!” To Christina, the ’hood was home, and it didn’t seem so bad. She did not dwell on the drive-by shootings or the gunshot victims who sometimes rolled along the sidewalks in their wheelchairs. Occasionally she heard shooting on her block, but she did not worry about her safety. She knew her father used drugs, but she never saw him do it. She had fond memories of her childhood: going to Six Flags Magic Mountain with her parents; tumbling around in an inflatable jumper in her backyard; taking her first school field trip, to the Lennox Library, where she held hands with a boy.
She had been baptized and confirmed in her grandparents’ Catholic faith. They kept a sacred heart of Jesus sticker on the front window of their home. Christina didn’t go to Mass regularly, but she believed in God and guardian angels. She also believed that spirits lingered on earth, and she thought she was in touch with them sometimes. She adored children, especially her siblings. All three were younger than she was, and she babysat them whenever she had to and gave her mother advice about how to take care of them. Sometimes Christina was more like the mom in the family. When her mother went out, Christina would say, “Okay, what time are you coming home?”
When she became a teenager, Christina loved the feeling of being in love. On her 18th birthday, she moved out of her family home and in with her boyfriend at the time. This maddened her father. They argued, and the rift had not been fully resolved when her mother and sister found him unconscious one morning at the family home. He was overweight and had been taking methadone for drug withdrawal, but it was a stroke at 35 that killed him that morning. Christina did not cry until days later, when she saw her father in his casket.
Similarly, she did not fret when she discovered she was pregnant. She enrolled in a high school for expectant mothers and got her diploma when she was five months along. After Alexander was born, she took good care of him. She did not dwell, either, when she and Alexander’s father broke up. She had her way of surviving this life. Keep moving, she told herself. Step by step. Don’t look back.
Now what? Eddie was trying to knot it around her wrists.
“She doesn’t want . . . ,” Eddie would recall saying.
“Do it!” Mike screamed.
With one hand on the wheel of the Mitsubishi, he reached for his knife with the other. He flashed its blade toward the back seat. Eddie was almost twice as big as Christina. It would have been easy for him to overpower her, but he trembled and fumbled as Christina squirmed and dodged.
Mike pulled over and leaned into the back seat. He placed the blade of his knife on Christina’s throat.
“If you don’t stop moving,” Mike told Christina, “I’m going to fucking kill you.” Christina cried. “Why are you doing this to me?”
Of the three men in the car, Christina knew Mike the best. He had grown up in El Monte, a 20-minute drive east of Los Angeles. He looked older than 27, with his haggard face, fleshy jowl, and coarse black hair. He earned his GED through Bassett Adult School, in La Puente, and had taken some classes at Rio Hondo Community College. He was married and had an eight-year-old daughter, but was separated from his wife and had not seen his little girl in four years. For the last two years, Mike had lived with his parents in El Monte, where he contributed $300 a month toward rent. He listed his employer as “Club Chaos,” where he earned $20 an hour.
Police reports said it was suspected that Mike was a member of the El Monte Flores gang, one of the largest in the San Gabriel Valley. And Mike had spent much of the last seven years in and out of prison—for burglary, possession of stolen property, possession of drug paraphernalia, driving with a suspended license, drag racing on a highway, and failure to appear in court. He had also been arrested for home robbery and intention to commit larceny, for which he served two years. After his release, he was arrested again for making threats to cause “great bodily injury” and death to his ex-wife and another man. That time, he was sentenced to 32 months in prison.
Christina knew Vince, too, but not as well as Mike. Vince was slim, with a hollowed-out face and a bulging Adam’s apple. Vince had also grown up in El Monte, and lived two houses away from Mike, but he did not have a criminal record or any known gang ties. That summer, he had returned from basic training for the US Army at the Fort Knox military base in Kentucky, and was staying with his parents. Vince got into arguments with his dad and sometimes ended up staying the night at the house of his other neighbor, who was Mike’s girlfriend. Vince, too, had a girlfriend, Stephanie, from Monrovia, California.
Stephanie was scared of Mike. She thought he became mean when he was high and drunk, and she heard he had given his girlfriend—a friend of hers—a purple eye. Vince didn’t seem to have Mike’s dark spirit. To her, Vince was nothing but sweet.
Earlier that night, Stephanie had been at Vince’s house when Eddie came over. Vince’s cell phone rang. Vince had walked away from his phone, so she answered. It was Mike. He was on his way. Mike told Stephanie that he and Vince were going to “confront” a girl named Christina. He told Stephanie not to tell Eddie about the plan. Stephanie considered Eddie a friend. She hung up and suggested that Eddie not get in the car with Mike and Vince. She thought there was “going to be trouble.” Eddie ignored her.
Christina knew Eddie the least. He had a buzz cut and a face shaped like a papaya, with a dent that ran from the left of his forehead across the center. He had been a softhearted youngster, to a fault. When the ice cream truck drove down his street playing its tune, his mother would give him $5. His brothers and cousins insisted that Eddie buy their ice cream first, and he seldom had money left for his own. Eddie’s mother thought her son didn’t know how to stick up for himself.
As Eddie grew, he played clarinet in his junior high marching band. On weekends, he attended meetings at his mother’s Jehovah’s Witness congregation. Week after week, Eddie put on a suit and tie and followed his mother from door to door spreading The Good News. But Eddie never felt as worthy as his brothers, who went to Cal Poly Pomona and USC and had careers. Eddie dropped out of high school, worked for a towing service, and used marijuana to fit in. On his 18th birthday, he started smoking meth.
* * *
One thing Christina did not know is that there had been repercussions from her argument with Mike, the one she thought was all over. Word of the disagreement had reached Christina’s former boyfriend, the father of her little boy, police would report. The baby’s father got the impression that Mike had beaten Christina, and the police were told that the former boyfriend vowed to retaliate. Kilo found out. He told Vince, and Vince told Mike. Now Mike thought Christina had put a hit on him. Mike, the police said, wanted revenge.
Before leaving on their ride, Eddie would say later, Mike had gone into the bathroom at Kilo’s house in Bellflower and injected himself with meth. Eddie said he watched Mike “slam” it —shoot the drug straight into his bloodstream. He asked Eddie if he wanted to slam, Eddie said. At Narcotics Anonymous, Eddie had learned that slamming was highly addictive. He feared that if he started doing it he would never be able to stop. So he smoked the meth instead.
Now, in the green Mitsubishi, Mike had grown impatient with Eddie’s inability, or reluctance, to tie Christina up. Vince reached over from the front passenger seat and punched Christina—hard, several times. Now it was up to Eddie: Be a part of this, or be a punk. Eddie tied Christina’s hands in front of her.
Christina didn’t move. She could see Vince holding a needle and a syringe. Vince turned to Mike, in the driver’s seat. “Where do you want it?”
In her neck, Mike said.
Vince leaned into the back seat and plunged the needle into the left side of Christina’s neck, over and over—five times.
Each time, she felt a stabbing pain. She did not know what Vince was injecting. Police would say it might have been insulin. Christina grew nauseous. She was terrified.
Mike turned off the engine. They were in Turnbull Canyon. Eddie pushed Christina out of the car. Mike grabbed her shoulders and steered her away from the Mitsubishi.
She gasped for breath. She coughed, then choked. Her body grew hot, and she began to feel numb. She spat in the dirt.
“Why are you doing this to me?” she asked, again.
Vince and Eddie stood behind her, near the car. Mike clearly was in charge. He guided her toward a steep embankment, almost a cliff. He untied her hands. “If you trust me,” Mike said, “nothing is going to happen to you.” He put his arms around her. “Do you trust me?”
Was he playing a sick joke? Christina thought.
He pushed her to the ground. She felt a blow to her head.
“You set me up,” Mike said.
Another blow. She tried to cover her head with her hands. It felt as if she were being beaten with something heavy. A bat? A rock? It didn’t hurt much, because she was numb. She could hear sneakers crunching on the pavement next to her. Another blow to the head. Then a blow to her ribs.
Another to the head. She was bleeding. Her eyesight faded. Her hearing grew muffled. Christina lost consciousness.
Mike was using rock. It was bloody, and the sound made Eddie sick. “All right,” Eddie said. “All right.” Mike stopped.
Now it was quiet. Eddie could hear no cars as they stood there under the moon and stars.
Slowly, Christina came to. She could not see, but she could hear and feel. She was being picked up by two people, maybe three. She heard someone say, “She’s out. She’s out.” She thought it was Eddie. Then she heard someone say, “Grab her shoe.” She thought it was Mike.
Now she felt herself being carried by each limb, and then hurled, like a sack of trash. That was when she realized: She was going over the cliff.
She sensed herself falling. Then tumbling. Then rolling. Over bushes—the branches digging into her back and scratching her cheeks. Over rocks. The hard edges bruising her. Over sticks. The tips tore at her face, arms, legs, and feet. Finally she stopped. She was 20 feet below the road, and on her back. She still could not see.
But she was starting to feel again. She was lying next to a tree. She turned on her side, then on to her knees, and used her hands to push herself up.
Suddenly her vision returned. Mike clambered down the crag.
“You try to kill me, you try to threaten me, and this is what happens,” he said. He was behind her now.
She knelt and attempted to push him away. Then she saw his blue-handled knife.
“Just let it happen,” he said.
Christina felt the blade against her neck, then ripping her skin. He was slashing her throat. Left to right. One slice cut two inches across, beneath the left side of her chin. It happened fast. The next slice was two times longer, running from her ear line to chin line, and Mike worked harder at this wound, lifting out his knife after at two inches, then thrusting it back in below the initial entry point, creating the shape of a two-pronged pitchfork.
She dropped to the ground and began to gag and gasp for air.
Mike turned and began climbing back up the precipice.
Christina touched her neck. She looked at her hand. It was covered with blood. The blood felt sticky and looked black in the night. She thought her wounds were wide enough that her fingers could slip right inside and touch her vocal chords.
“Oh, my God, I’m bleeding,” she cried.
“She’s still talking,” said someone at the top. It sounded like Eddie.
As Mike climbed, he motioned to Vince, who began to make his way down. Christina could see him holding his silver knife.
Vince maneuvered behind her. Twice she felt him plunge his knife into her neck: two hard jabs, like punches, on the right side, beneath her right ear. More blood spilled out.
Survive, she thought. Keep going. Then it came to her: either I let them kill me, or I pretend that I’m dead. Squeezing her eyes shut, Christina lay still.
She could hear Vince climbing back up to the road. Then she heard the engine start in the Mitsubishi. Tires grated against gravel, then squealed on the pavement.
Christina was in a ravine, at the bottom of the precipice. Coyotes could find her. Maybe mountain lions. Or snakes.
The left side of her cheek felt puffy. Her bottom lip was busted, but a silver lip stud remained intact. Blood ran out of her neck and down her shirt, pooling over the earth beneath her. It felt warm and gooey. Her heart pounded. Her mind raced.
But she did not move.
The sound of the Mitsubishi faded. She heard nothing—no other cars on the road, no sounds of life nearby. Finally she opened her eyes and pushed herself up to a stand. The only light came from the big, round moon.
She looked at her dirt-caked legs. She had only one sock. The other must have fallen off, along with her Etnies. Her long dark hair was tangled and matted with blood, dirt, and grass. She still had her shorts on and Kilo’s black T-shirt. Kilo felt far away. She felt lonelier than she had ever been.
Her whole life she thought she had not needed her father to tell her how to live, but now she wished he could carry her out of this canyon. She couldn’t dwell on it. Alexander, her little son, was asleep. All at once, she felt a mother’s panic: Alexander’s medical insurance card was tucked away with hers inside of her Hawaiian turtle bag. Where was the bag? She had to get home to Alexander.
Survive, she thought. She would not die. Not today.
She stood, took off Kilo’s T-shirt, and wrapped it around her neck to staunch the bleeding. She pulled the ends of the shirt and tied a knot.
Then she started to climb.
Turnbull Canyon is infamous. People tell stories—about suicides there, satanic rituals, extraterrestrial activities, about a haunted burial ground, cults, black magic, torture, the slaughter of orphan children, about a plane crash with 29 dead who were never identified, a hidden missile command center, about a baby’s body found in a swimming pool filled with sacrificed animals, about pentagrams, a gang execution, a colony of midgets, a place where gravity pulls cars uphill, a path into a rock wall called “Hell’s Gate,” and about presences shrieking and speaking in tongues.
The stories were wild, variously affirmed and dismissed, but there was no denying that people had been killed in Turnbull Canyon, not far from where Christina struggled—barefoot, a step upward and a slide downward, blood oozing from her neck. The canyon was a thicket of sycamore, eucalyptus, and pine trees, wildflowers and prickly-pear cacti, with intermittent meadows of green and yellow grass that attracted deer and bobcats.
Visible from the crest was Rose Hills Memorial Park, a 2,500-acre cemetery, one of the largest in the world. Inside stood a six-foot marble kiosk called the Homicide Victims Memorial. It featured a touch screen with biographies “dedicated to those who lost their lives in violent crimes.” One was a 15-year-old boy who walked home from a party in 1979, was kidnapped by two men, then stabbed and thrown from a ridge in Turnbull Canyon. The boy crawled back up to a road and was taken to a hospital. He died during surgery.
In 1992, a cyclist on a Saturday morning ride saw someone in a station wagon throwing trash over the side of Turnbull Canyon Road. The rider noted the vehicle’s license plate number. The trash was the body of a man wrapped in a plastic bag. He had been shot in the head and chest as he slept in his El Monte home. Seven years later, a man kidnapped a woman and forced her to drive up Turnbull Canyon Road with another man in the car. The kidnapper gouged the man’s eyes out, then killed him and pushed his body over a cliff.
In 2002, only a mile east of where Christina was stumbling and falling and cutting her feet on rocks and thorns, three other men from El Monte had tried to strangle a 17-year-old girl in an SUV, as she pleaded: “Please, no. God doesn’t want me to die.” One man shot her in the head. The driver took off with her foot tangled in a seatbelt, dragging her body from Turnbull Canyon Road for five miles before finally ditching it.
Despite the canyon’s sinister history, there were good people who lived in these hills, not too far away from where Christina had been dumped. People built homes at the top, overlooking the San Gabriel Valley, living close to the land, enjoying the scenery and the hiking and horse trails. There were people who might help a young woman from the other side of the city, if they knew she was out there struggling to survive.
One step at a time. Christina climbed and crawled up the precipice, grabbing onto branches to steady herself, digging her knees and toes and fingernails into the bluff. Whatever Vince had injected into her neck was still numbing much of her pain. Why did they despise her so?
Keep moving, she told herself. Don’t look back.
Christina finally reached the roadway. Could she run? She tried. Her legs carried her. Run, she thought. Keep running. My son, Alexander. Keep running. My son.
Exhausted and out of breath, Christina noticed headlights in the distance. Was the Mitsubishi, coming back? Were they circling to make sure she had not escaped? Had they spotted her scrambling up the bluff and turned around to finish her off?
It was the Mitsubishi, she realized, and it was getting closer.
Christina saw a grove of trees. She jumped off the road and crouched under them, trying to blend into the branches and the leaves. Her breath felt heavy and she tried to quiet each one. She prayed they would not see her.
The Mitsubishi drove by, and kept going, until it wasn’t visible anymore. The car left the canyon a second time.
Christina crawled out of her hiding place and stumbled back on to the road. She again tried to run, worried that the Mitsubishi might circle around one more time.
But it would take hours for her to make it back to the Whittier neighborhoods they had passed through on their way into the canyon. She felt like she was going to pass out. She could tell that her body was too exhausted to keep running along the road, diving in between trees whenever she heard a noise.
She remembered her grandparents’ faith. Please God, help me.
She felt herself fading, but managed to stay awake. She knew it then: Her dad was with her. She could tell. She could feel his presence. Despite their differences, she was still his little girl. He was helping her stay awake. Helping her run.
She saw homes on a hill. A light. Stay on the road or climb? The light seemed a mile away, almost straight up, through a tangle of shrubbery. Christina decided to climb.
She found footholds, grabbed branches, and crawled upward and across the face of the hill, slowly and deliberately.
One foot, then the other. One hand, then the other. Her hands shook. Her legs trembled. She lost her grip and tried again. The moon lit her way. Step by step, she kept moving.
She reached the top of the hill and looked around. She was facing a row of backyards. The light was from a streetlamp shining on a house on Altmark Avenue. Inside, the living room window glowed.
Christina climbed over a low fence and ran past pine trees, a fire ring, and some patio furniture. Her movement set off a security alarm. She reached the back door and pounded on it with a bloody fist.
Arlene Boatright had lived in the house on Altmark Avenue for 38 years. It was custom built, with a green-trimmed roof and a red brick chimney. She was 90 years old. She slept in an easy chair in the downstairs living room with the lights on. It was a habit she had acquired when she tended to her husband after he became ill and moved into a first-floor bedroom down the hall.
Arlene and her husband had been about to celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary when he died, in 2007, of congestive heart failure. Arlene had been a cashier and a manager for Montgomery Ward, then for a men’s clothing store in Whittier. Now, 35 years into retirement, she danced the jitterbug five hours a week at a senior center and spent nearly every day at the First Christian Church, where she headed the lay board of directors, worked as a secretary, organized weddings, and greeted visitors. A devout Christian, Arlene read the Bible daily. She kept verses like this one from the book of Daniel: “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, for wisdom and might are his.”
In her spare time, she made deviled eggs and dusted the collection of dolls and crystal figurines that had belonged to her mother until she had died at the age of 103, “still sharp as a whip,” as Arlene liked to say. Arlene kept the dolls wrapped in plastic; one was nearly 300 years old. She attached adhesive to the bottoms of the crystal lilies and unicorns, in case of an earthquake. Her sister had died in 2007, and Arlene had no living family members close by. She had grown used to living alone.
She had injured her femur not long ago, and learned to sleep in her clothes. If she needed to go to a hospital during the night, she figured, she would not have to worry about dressing.
That Tuesday in August, Arlene had fallen asleep around one in the morning in her chair, the kitchen lights on as usual. When her house alarm began to blare around 3:30 a.m., she joggled out of her seat. She thought she heard sounds at the back door.
Never had Arlene received a visitor at such an hour. If this was trouble, she had no way to defend herself. But all her life, Arlene had trusted in God.
She heard a young woman’s voice. “My throat’s been cut.”
Was it her neighbor? Arlene did not hesitate. She turned off the alarm, opened the door and found herself face to face with a shoeless stranger in shorts, a red bra, and only one sock.
She had never seen this child before. At least she looked like a child, so tiny and fragile, with a shirt wrapped around her neck. She had blood on her hands and smeared across her chest and face, and twigs and leaves tangled in her hair. “My throat’s been cut,” the girl said, again. “I know the guys who did it.” They were still out there, she said, and maybe they were following her.
Arlene helped Christina into her kitchen. She closed the back door, now smeared with Christina’s blood.
“I know the car,” Christina said.
Arlene dialed the police. Christina took the phone and asked for an ambulance, explaining that her throat had been slashed.
Arlene took the phone and gave her address. “This girl doesn’t know me,” she told the police operator, “and she said somebody attacked her.”
“Did she come into your house?”
“I just let her in the back door of my house.”
“Is she bleeding badly?”
“Where are you bleeding, honey?” Arlene asked. Then she saw. “It’s her throat. She’s got something wrapped around her.”
“Let me talk to her,” the operator said.
Mumbling and out of breath, Christina answered more questions.
“Did somebody kidnap you?”
“Yeah, they grabbed . . . they brought me to my friend’s house, and they said we were going to go to the beach, and then they just . . .”
“So they kidnapped you? They did all that, but they dropped you off where you are right now?”
“They threw me over here.”
The operator kept her talking. “Do you know who these people are?”
“They were some people that I knew. Some friends, I guess.”
“And they stabbed you in your neck?”
“Yes. Umm, lady, I’m about to pass out.”
At one point, Arlene took the phone to give Christina a rest, but the operator demanded to speak to her again. Christina said the people who cut her were driving a green Mitsubishi Eclipse. She said their names were Mike, Vince, and Eddie.
Arlene and Christina waited. Christina wrote down her mother’s telephone number. Arlene began picking the twigs out of Christina’s hair.
Fifteen miles away, Mike pulled up at his girlfriend’s house. He, Vince, and Eddie dropped off a plastic bag wrapped in a T-shirt. Mike left but then came back again, this time to pick up shovels. At one point, Eddie tried to leave and go home. “I’m out,” he declared. But, he told investigators afterward, Mike told him they were going to finish the job—bury Christina—and that if Eddie left, they would drive to his house and kill his mother. Eddie climbed into the back seat of the Mitsubishi next to the shovels.
After they left, Mike’s girlfriend drove to a shopping center in Montebello, 20 minutes away, and threw the bag into a green dumpster. Inside the bag were used and unused syringes, a blue knife, a silver knife, latex gloves, black gloves, a small red bag with Hawaiian turtle print, Christina’s Social Security card, and a traffic ticket she had been issued a few days before.
Mike drove toward Turnbull Canyon. It was around 4:30 a.m. by the time the three men returned to the canyon for a third time.
Paramedics wrapped Christina in a compression blanket. She was pale and losing strength. The police officers asked her questions, but it hurt to talk. She managed to tell them three letters she thought she remembered from Mike’s license plate: S-M-E.
Several officers left to hunt for the green Mitsubishi. Two in separate cars stopped to compare notes. One said he was going to take another pass through Turnbull Canyon. As he pulled away, he noticed headlights in his rearview mirror. He drove to the side of the road and let the headlights pass. The car was a green Mitsubishi Eclipse. Its license number was 5MEZ353. Not S-M-E, but close enough. Inside were three men. The other officer noticed too. He radioed: “We need to stop that car.”
They did. Pistols drawn, shielding themselves with their patrol car doors, the police ordered the three men to get out with their hands on their heads. It was Mike, Vince, and Eddie. They did not resist.
One officer spotted a large shovel inside the Mitsubishi, along with a smaller collapsible shovel, a rope, and paper towels.
The car was registered to Mike. Investigators found a blue glass marijuana pipe, Marlboro 100s, Arizona iced tea cans, a black flashlight, and a clear glass pipe with white residue that appeared to be meth. In the hatch trunk, they found latex gloves and a green bulletproof vest.
For the next three years, Arlene Boatright would wake up at 3:33 a.m. every day, three minutes after Christina had knocked on her door. Arlene would then lie back in her easy chair until she fell asleep again.
As quickly as she had appeared at Arlene’s back door, Christina was gone, whisked away to the USC Medical Center. There was good news from the police: Christina was expected to live. The officers finally left Arlene’s house around 5:30 a.m. Then, Arlene was alone again.
She did not wash the bloody print of Christina’s fist off her back door. It became a keepsake. Maybe Christina was part of why God had let her outlive all of her loved ones, thought. She wrote about it:
August 4, 2009, at 3:30 a.m., an angel I became.
Knocking at my kitchen door a voice…
Her resolve to live brought her to my door…
It was a time in my life, I’ll never forget at 90 years old
I will always know God must have led me to do what I did.
At the hospital, doctors stitched the slashes on Christina’s neck and stapled the gashes on her head. Two days later, once she had recovered enough to be released, she did not go home to her mother and her little boy. Instead, she hid at an uncle’s apartment near downtown L.A. for another couple of days.
At his sink, she washed the last of the crusted blood from her hair. Her uncle told her not to trust anyone but her family. Not friends. Not Kilo, either. There was no way to know who had been in on the plot to harm her.
Her family closed Christina’s MySpace account and erased her online identity. There were hundreds of people in the Los Angeles area named Martinez. Reporters did not know she lived in Lennox. News crews searched for her in Bellflower, based on police information, and in El Monte, where Mike, Vince, and Eddie lived.
In the mirror, Christina saw the ugly red scars on her neck and wondered if they would ever disappear. She was embarrassed to go out in public. As the summer months passed into fall and then winter, she suffered through bouts of post-traumatic stress. A violent scene on TV would bring her to tears. Sometimes, with no provocation, she ran into the bathroom and sobbed.
Once back at home in Lennox, she stayed in her house, took care of Alexander, watched movies, and played video games. Her rave life came to a halt. No more party promoting. No more crowds.
She identified her attackers in a photo line-up, but it frightened her. There was no way to know which friends of Mike, Vince, or Eddie might retaliate.
Kilo swore he was not involved in the plot against her. He went to the police and told them so. Christina went with him. The police did not arrest Kilo, and later cleared him of any involvement.
Christina followed in her mother’s footsteps, working in the same Laundromat that her mother had years ago. She wanted to do something more with this life she had almost lost, but didn’t know how.
In time, the scars on Christina’s neck began to fade. Her confidence started to grow. She thought often about the elderly lady who helped save her life.
* * *
To receive the best chance at justice, Christina’s attorney told her she would have to testify against the men who hurt her. At first, she didn’t want to do it. She didn’t want to see Mike, Vince, or Eddie again.
But she grew tired of being scared. “You can’t always hide,” she would say later. Christina told her attorney that she would tell her side of the story in court. She wanted to now.
They went to trial in December 2011. The final sentencing did not come to a close until June of 2012, nearly three years after the late night ride to Turnbull Canyon. Vince and Eddie sat in the courtroom.
Mike was not there. He had pled guilty to attempted murder. In his police interviews, Mike had blamed the bulk of the crime on Eddie and Vince, claiming that it happened because they had received an order from a gang leader who went by the name “Bugsy,” who belonged to the Mexican mafia. When police asked Mike why Christina had been targeted, he said it was because she had been telling lies. Mike also told police that he knew about insulin’s effects on the body, and was aware that a certain amount would make a person’s body go into shock. Mike said that after Christina was thrown into the canyon, he could hear her yelling out “Daddy, Daddy.” Mike said he felt bad that he couldn’t do anything to help her.
Mike was sentenced to 39 years to life in prison.
On the stand, Christina told about her ride in the green Mitsubishi, the rope, the beating, and the cliff. When she spoke about Eddie tying her hands and Vince stabbing her in the neck, she looked at each of them. They looked away.
In her interviews with police, which came out in court, she talked about the differences between Mike, Vince, and Eddie: “Mike’s crazy, and obviously . . . any little thing would light his fire, any little thing,” she told the police. “Like even a little argument . . . would cause him to turn against you. To think that I’m out to get him, that I wanted to kill him. . . .”
She said she thought Mike had something wrong in his head.
And that everybody knew Vince was a follower. “Eddie,” she said, “I don’t know why he was there…Eddie looked very nervous.”
The prosecutor showed Christina photos of her injuries. “Do you recognize this?” he asked. The image showed Christina in a hospital gown, a bloody bandage on the right side of her neck and two open slashes on the left, deep and red. She had a dark bruise on her right cheek.
She began to cry. “My lips are busted,” she said. “My nose is swollen, and both sides of my face are swollen.”
“As a result of this incident, do you have any physical problems?” “Yes,” she said. “I get a lot of migraines.”
The prosecutor called the next witness: Arlene Boatright.
Arlene recalled the experience of opening the door and coming face-to-face with Christina, her hands full of blood.
The prosecutor showed Arlene a photograph. “What’s the terrain like between Turnbull Canyon and your house?”
“Very hilly,” Arlene said. “And you go about a few—about 50 feet down …the hill drops straight down to the road. So the girl would have had to come a distance before she could possibly get up the hill.”
“What would you estimate that distance?”
“Probably a quarter mile,” Arlene testified.
* * *
In the months to come, a second chance at life would change Christina. She would refocus on her son. She would refuse to allow herself to dwell on the crime. She would try instead to keep moving forward, try not to look back. Step by step. Christina had her way of surviving this life that she had been born into, and it had worked for her so far.
After the trial, Christina would apply for financial aide and enroll at El Camino College in Torrance, and begin working toward an associate degree and a certificate in childhood education.
Vince would be found guilty at trial of attempted murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, and assault with a deadly weapon, and sentenced to 36 years to life in prison.
Defense attorneys would argue that Eddie was afraid of what would happen to him if he didn’t follow Mike’s orders, that he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and was forced to participate. “Mike is in total and complete control of everyone during this entire incident,” the defense attorney said. The defense would ask the public to ponder this idea: If you felt, as Eddie said he did, that your life could be in jeopardy, would you play hero? Or would you play along?
But Eddie would also be found guilty of the same charges, and sentenced to 33 years to life.
Christina’s dreams about her father would no longer come as often, but she still believed in guardian angels, and she knew that he and Arlene were hers.
Arlene stood outside of the courthouse that afternoon, following her testimony. Christina told her she hadn’t been able to find a flower store nearby, and apologized.
“I don’t need any flowers,” Arlene said. She said the fact that Christina was alive was enough.
Christina began to cry. She knew most people would not have opened the door to a bloody stranger in the middle of the night.
Arlene realized that she had forgotten where she left her car, a 2002 lime green Volkswagen. Christina walked Arlene through the parking lot until they found it.
Christina gently hugged Arlene. Thank you, she said. Arlene hugged her back, and climbed into her Beetle. Christina watched as it sputtered away.
Update about Arlene
On August 9th, Arlene was discovered in her home, after suffering from an apparent fall. A nurse from First Christian Church, who stops by to visit regularly, found Arlene and took her to the Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital in Whittier, California.
“I don’t know what happened. They said found me laying on the floor,”Arlene said from her hospital bed on Saturday, “I’m still trying to get some strength to go home. I just want to get well enough to go home.” She is recovering in the transitional care unit.
Debora Taft, secretary of First Christian Church in Whittier, said Arlene developed an infection while in the hospital. “She is awake and functioning,” Taft said, “but she’s not remembering like before.”
But when asked on Saturday about the night that she helped save Christina Martinez’s life, Arlene said she still remembered it all quite clearly.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.