If there's a positive side to working in the news business, it's that it can bring you to know people who have faced the most tragic losses and yet somehow are able to endure, achieve and rise above adversity. One such person is Nellie Martinez. Let me tell you a little something about her.
Years ago when I was sent out to cover a story about a 4-year-old girl with an angelic smile who had disappeared while playing in front of her home, little did I realize the many lives to be impacted.
The child was taken on May 10, 1990, as she played outside the family's apartment on Belle Terrace in the southwest. In a flash she was gone. A frantic search was on with police chasing leads and the child's family putting up posters everywhere with her picture on it, pleading for help in finding her.
Each day that passed without finding the little girl was excruciating for the family. Eleven days after her disappearance, she was found -- partially buried in a cotton field off Bear Mountain Boulevard near Highway 99. Her name was Jessica Martinez. Nellie Martinez is her mother.
Martinez was at work when Jessica disappeared. To say that Martinez was a workaholic is an understatement, as she held two jobs most of her adult life as a single parent to provide for three children, Rudy, Jessica and Romero. But losing Jessica would transform her life and pull her in many directions.
There were weeks, months and years of crying. Anger at the person who robbed Jessica of her life at such an early age. To say that Martinez was emotionally devastated is putting it lightly, requiring medication to get her through days and nights of despair when she would awaken and think it was all just a very bad dream. Except it was very real.
But rather than wallowing in sorrow, the young mother was determined not to let her daughter's case get lost in the maze of police work. From the beginning, Martinez demanded to know what Bakersfield police detectives were doing to solve her daughter's case. She would call and march down to police headquarters asking about all aspects of the investigation.
The original detectives in the case are long gone, retired and new ones were assigned. But 24 years later, Jessica's case remains unsolved.
"They really didn't do anything for 10 years," said Martinez.
She feels police dropped the ball in failing to do a more thorough job of investigating suspects, in particular Christopher Lightsey, a convicted sex offender who lived just a few feet in the same apartment complex as Jessica.
Lightsey spent 17 years on death row for the murder of an elderly man in a separate case but is currently housed in Lerdo Jail awaiting a retrospective competency hearing. The California Supreme Court found in 2012 that a Kern County judge violated state law by failing to appoint an attorney and allowing Lightsey to represent himself during a 1994 competency hearing.
Lightsey has denied killing Jessica.
Martinez has kept pressuring police and the Kern County District Attorney's office to do whatever needs to be done to bring Jessica's killer to justice. She's been told by well-meaning friends that for the sake of her own health, she should just let it go.
She'll have none of that.
"I'll be damned if I just lay back and say it's too painful," said Martinez.
And along these 24 years, Martinez has transformed her life. Where once she was unable to speak about her daughter's case without breaking down, Martinez is now an advocate for others who have lost a loved one to violence. She speaks publicly at events such as National Crime Victims Week and privately with other women who are going through a similar experience as she did.
And as a single mother, she raised two boys, now men. Her eldest, Rudy Martinez, is 32, married and father of three children. He also served in the U.S. Air Force with three tours of duty in Iraq.
Her youngest son, Romero Martinez, is 24 and will be attending college in the fall.
And just earlier this month, my wife and I had the pleasure of attending the wedding of Nellie Martinez and Robert Mesa Jr. Though Robert proposed years ago, Martinez knew she wasn't ready to take that step. And Mesa, an affable and courteous gentleman with a big smile, understood that, patiently waiting for his bride.
"This toast is for my mom, it's a new chapter in her life," Rudy Martinez said at the wedding as everyone lifted their champagne glass.
Well said, Rudy. Well said.
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.