Twenty-five years. A quarter of a century. That's how much time has passed since a 4-year-old Bakersfield girl went missing while playing in front of her apartment on May 10, 1990. Her body was found 11 days later, partly buried in a cotton field off Bear Mountain Boulevard near Highway 99.

Her name was Jessica Martinez, and to this day her killer has never been caught. Yet many people recall her story because something about Jessica struck a nerve in the city. Many have taken to social media recalling her case.

"I remember this like it was yesterday when they found her across the street in the field where I lived," David Gleim wrote on Channel 29 Eyewitness News’ Facebook page.

Jennie Guillen was more direct.

"This case still haunts me,“ she wrote. ”I always use this case to tell my children how easy it is for horrific things to happen."

And though she did not know Jessica or her family personally, Kim Stricklin takes Jessica's case to heart.

"I still think about her...the world changed that day.“

Indeed it changed for many people, none more so than for Jessica's family. I think it's fair to say the reason Jessica's case is still in the news is because of her mother, Nellie Martinez.

As a reporter, I've seen dozens of homicide cases go into the cold case file and essentially be forgotten. Leads dry up. The case gets transferred from one investigator to the next, who must review and catch up on what has and hasn't been done.

Understandably, many victims’ families grow frustrated and just give up pursuing the case.

Not so with Nellie Martinez, who continues to press Bakersfield police on eventually bringing her daughter's killer to justice.

"I have been a thorn in their side, making them work on mi hija's case," said Martinez.

She's aware police can't tell her everything they are doing, but feels her involvement has kept her daughter's case from sitting idle. Within the last year, she's learned police have re-interviewed witnesses and tested people for DNA evidence who were previously untested.

BPD Detective Christopher Feola is the current investigator on Jessica's case. Sgt. Martin Heredia admits Feola can't work on it full-time, as there are other cases to be worked on as well.

Last year, Martinez also managed to get the Kern County District Attorney's office involved in working closely with police. The office has mostly facilitated meetings involving its own representatives, including D.A. Lisa Green, the BPD and Martinez.

"We try to be in every meeting with them poring back over everything," said Deputy District Attorney Andrea Kohler. "Is there something that was overlooked?"

Kohler remembers Jessica's case well, as she had been on the job for two months at the D.A.'s office when the crime happened.

"When you have a little girl disappear and brutally murdered, it's special," said the veteran prosecutor.

The way Jessica disappeared is what frightened so many parents and other children who were with her that day 25 years ago.

At the time, the Martinez family lived in a huge apartment complex known as Timber Cove Apartments in the 5000 block of Belle Terrace. Nellie Martinez was at work and had left her daughter and then-8-year-old son, Rudy, in the care of another family member, who was in a wheelchair.

"I was playing with her that day it happened," said Michelle Marie Morales, who also lived at the apartment complex. "It went from playing to looking for her, it was so sad when she was finally found. Can't believe it's still unsolved."

In the days after Jessica's disappearance, I recall parents saying they would no longer allow their young children to play outdoors by themselves. Just a few years earlier, in 1987, another little girl had disappeared while also playing in front of her home in the 400 block of Washington Street in east Bakersfield. To date, Deisey Hererra has never been found and no one arrested.

A prime suspect in Jessica's case is convicted sex offender 62-year-old Christopher Lightsey, who lived at the same apartment complex as the Martinez family in May of 1990. But police have not been able to gather enough evidence to make an arrest and Lightsey has maintained his innocence.

Just a couple of weeks ago, after a story ran on Eyewitness News about Jessica's case, the Bakersfield Police Department received a call from someone purporting to have information to share about the case. But the caller disconnected before the dispatcher could provide re-contact information.

The BPD is requesting the caller call the non-emergency number at 327-7111 or the Secret Witness line at 322-4040.

I pray that whoever called or calls in the future is not some demented person playing his or her version of a sick joke planting deliberately false information. Jessica and her family do not deserve that, so don't even think about it.

Sgt. Heredia admits that solving this case is more likely going to depend on someone coming forward with new information, rather than relying on DNA evidence investigators have in their possession.

Yes, 25 years is a long time. But no matter how long it may take to solve this case, Nellie Martinez keeps determined to see this through.

"I owe it to Jessica, I owe it to her as her mother," said Martinez. "I'm going to see to it as long as I live that there's justice for Jessica."

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.