10/5/93 – 12/28/10
Melissa Martinez was stunning, that was the one thing everyone who knew her said. She was lanky with long, shapely legs, and a trim, muscular body that reflected how much she loved the surfing, rock climbing and riding her horse. The standout feature among all of these was her face with her flawless skin that picked up its radiance from the sun, and her large, olive-colored eyes. “She gave off a beautiful vibe, an aura,” said her best friend Cecily Rizzuto. “You wanted to be with her all the time.”
Behind those beautiful eyes, was a hint of defiance, of anger, though, as her life had been rocky since the beginning.
Her mom Rebecca Snook and her father Angel Martinez met in high school in Colorado when Angel was 15. By the time he was 16, Rebecca was pregnant with their first child, a son named Anthony. The couple broke up, but got together again after Angel had graduated and was home on leave from Marine boot camp.
Rebecca called Angel when he returned to Camp Pendleton and told him she was pregnant again. Angel was happy, and they decided to marry. Then she called to tell him there was a chance that this child was not his.
“I thought about it. She promised this would never happen again,” Angel said. “I still wanted to get married. I told her if we did this, this child would be mine and I would never treat the baby any differently than I treated Anthony.”
They married in April 1993, a few months before Melissa was born. Right from the start, Rebecca had a hard time adjusting to life on the base at 29 Palms, particularly after Angel was shipped off to Japan. “I don’t think there are 29 stumps in 29 Palms,” Rebecca said. “I was a single mom with two infants on a Marine Corps base. It was a very terrible time.”
When Angel returned from Okinawa, he was assigned to the base at Quantico, Virginia. In early 1997 the marriage fell apart. Rebecca left to New York and Angel refused to let her take the children with her. Anthony was miserable but Melissa seemed to adapt well to the change. “She was my little girl,” Angel said. “I would come home from work and she would run into my arms. She was interested in the things I was doing. She would put on my army boots and walk around the house.”
Eventually, Rebecca moved to Scotts Valley, California, where her parents then lived. When Angel was discharged from the Marines, he moved there too. In fact, for a few years they shared a house, with Angel living in a small apartment in the basement and helping out with the rent. At work in 2001, he met his future wife Jennifer. They married and he moved into her house with her parents. Rebecca and Angel shared custody of Melissa, while Anthony lived mainly with his maternal grandparents.
“Melissa was fearless,” Angel said. “She would try anything. I had her surfing. They have junior life guards here and she would jump into freezing water. She liked rock climbing, just like me. I didn’t think of whether or not she was my daughter for years. She was daddy’s girl. When I worked on a car, she was out there working on it with me.”
January 2007, Rebecca, who had a child by another man, moved to New Orleans with him. She brought the kids with her, but in the summer of 2008 Melissa came to visit her dad in California and said she didn’t want to return to New Orleans.
Rebecca was heartbroken by this. She asked if Angel would allow Melissa to skip a few days of school to come to Mardi Gras. Melissa did her homework in advance and spent ten days in New Orleans with her mom. When she came back, she was never the same, Angel said. “She was withdrawn and wouldn’t interact with her family.”
During that visit, Rebecca told Melissa that Angel was not her biological father, he later found out when Melissa confronted him about this. Jennifer was overcome by how hostile Melissa had become. “From that moment on Melissa hated us,” Jennifer said. “I’m not related to anyone in this household, she said.”
Angel and Melissa made peace when Melissa told him that no matter what, he would always be her father. Yet her rebellion against the rules Angel set escalated. She started sneaking out of the house late at night and stealing money from Jennifer’s purse. Her grades, which had never been all that good, plummeted.
“There was no respect,” said Angel. “I was at a loss about what to do. We were fighting all the time. I told her I can’t do this any more. If you want to go live with your mom, go live with your mom.”
They feared Melissa might run away if they gave her too much warning, so they told her the night before they were sending her to live with Rebecca, although they didn’t tell her they’d bought the tickets. They woke her up early the morning of September 5, 2009 to take her to the airport.
“She freaked out. She ran away,” Angel said. “We called the police. When they caught her, we told her she could either get in the car with them or get on the plane. The whole drive to the airport she was texting her boyfriend and swearing at us.”
Rebecca embraced a different approach to raising her daughter. “I was a very willful child,” she said. “A very difficult child to raise. I did some really stupid things. It’s a miracle I survived. So my approach to her came with a lot of empathy. There comes a point when the parents of willful children make a choice to accept or not. The victory is to love her for who she is and not who you want her to be.”
Rebecca told Melissa her home was a “judgment free zone” and that she would rather know what Melissa was doing than judge her. At first Melissa was suspicious and hostile, insulting her mother. Over time, as Rebecca proved to be true to her word, they became more like friends than like mother and daughter. Melissa’s friends, the homeless kids she was meeting at her job at Mona’s Café on the eastern edge of the French Quarter, were welcome at Rebecca’s home on the other side of town, Irish Channel. Melissa was enrolled in an online high school, just like her good friend Cicely, and, Rebecca said she was on track to graduate on time.
Despite how close Rebecca felt she and Melissa were, Rebecca was not aware of much of the details of the life lived by Melissa’s friends in the 9th Ward. “Initially I didn’t have a very clear view,” Rebecca said. “She had friends there and she had other friends uptown, and my niece. She just opened up to people and I thought this was another crowd she was getting involved with. I knew she was very fond of Jonathan and I had asked her to bring him by to meet me.”
The night of the fire, Monday the 27th, Rebecca missed Melissa’s text message because Rebecca’s phone was on the fritz. Mother and daughter were used to texting each other often throughout the day. When Rebecca hadn’t heard from Melissa by the next afternoon December 28th, she sent Cicely and her boyfriend out to look for Melissa.
Cicely and her boyfriend went to the St. Roch Tavern, where the distraught friends of those who had perished in the warehouse directed them to the site of the fire. Cicely called Rebecca sobbing, and Rebecca called her own mom, who reminded her of a prophetic dream she’d had the night before Melissa was born that Melissa was in a fire and she couldn’t get her out. When her mother told her about this dream, she hung up on her. “The grief is astounding,” said Rebecca on the May evening I met with her in New Orleans. “I’m at a point where it’s worse than it’s ever been. I’ve hit the point where everyone else seems to have moved on, but I haven’t.”
This tragedy further splintered the already splintered family. Rebecca wouldn’t allow Angel to bring Jennifer to Melissa’s memorial service in New Orleans and Rebecca wasn’t invited to Angel’s ceremony in Santa Cruz.
Jennifer and Angel have tried to find someway to comfort themselves in face of the tragedy. “Her whole thing was let me out. Let me out. Let me be free, and she got to die that way,” Jennifer said.
“She was headed on a path,” Angel said. “She would have been with Jon (Guererro) and she would have followed him and we would have no idea where she was. There would be no peace with that.”
Rebecca was never one to put photos of her children up around the house, but she’s changed since Melissa’s death. She started to place them around and she found her youngest son Nicolai starring at one of him and Melissa at a N.A.S.A base when he was much younger.
“Is that me?” Nicolai asked Rebecca.
Yes, she told him.
“I really want a time machine,” he said.
“He cried a little bit,” Rebecca said. “I did too. That’s what we all want, all of the parents.”