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Man’s death only unsolved homicide of 2020

By A.J. Etherington

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    BILLINGS, Montana (Billings Gazette) — It was fast approaching 9 p.m. on Nov. 30, 2020 when Billings Police responded to gunshots at Fourth Street West and Broadwater Avenue. There they discovered Manuel “Manny” LaMere Martinez had been shot dead and was lying in the road, where he was also run over by a passing truck. He was dead at 30.

Martinez’s case is the only unsolved homicide of 2020 — a singular loose end from a year that witnessed a record 22 homicides in Billings, 19 of which were deliberate.

Despite the busy street, police found little evidence pointing to a suspect. They say Martinez’s lifestyle provides few answers to who may have killed him — let alone why. He had few known contacts leading up to his death, he had no cell phone showing where he had been, if he was planning to meet someone, if he had made any calls, or sent any texts, police said.

The only clue from the scene is a poor-quality alleyway security video showing a man running away.

Detectives have not released that video publicly fearing it could lead to more false reports than accurate tips. They described the man in the video as about 6 feet tall, wearing a dark hoodie and pants with white shoes, a baseball cap and carrying a backpack. They could not identify the man’s skin or hair color or any other physical features.

Police have offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Soon after the shooting, they called on homeowners in the area to review surveillance footage. Their efforts have yet to produce a public lead.

In early June, Billings Police Lt. Brandon Wooley described why Martinez’s past has made reliable leads hard to come by.

“You’ve got substance abuse, mental health issues, detachment from friends and family, which doesn’t give us much to go off of when your victim wasn’t with anybody, hasn’t talked to family in weeks or months because they’ve been on the streets,” Wooley said.

But family and friends say Martinez was in contact with them and that on the night he was shot he was trying to get home to Tacoma, Washington. They describe a man whose 30 years were full of turmoil, loss, and substance abuse. But his grim demise was a fate none who knew him would have predicted for the soft-spoken, kind man who grew up between Billings and Tacoma. He left behind a son, countless brothers and sisters and a loving grandmother.

A shaky start Martinez was born in Tacoma in 1990 to a 16-year-old girl named Michelle LaMere. His father, Richard Martinez Sr., had family elsewhere and was quickly out of the picture. In time, LaMere had four kids, but her struggles to raise them eventually overwhelmed her and they were taken away. Three of the boys went into foster care, and Manuel went to live with his paternal grandmother Susan Kitaji and his step-grandfather Danny Kitaji in Tacoma.

As an alter boy at the family’s church, he helped serve Mass. His Catholic grandparents were very active in the church and family gatherings would be held on Sundays when everyone was off work. Martinez got by in school and teachers seemed to like him. He made friends easily and enjoyed an audience.

“He was a joker,” his paternal aunt, Julia Garza of Olympia, explained. “He liked to have fun and make people laugh. He was very animated when he was younger.”

But as he got older he became more reserved. He transitioned to the role of “spectator” rather than “participator,” said Garza, and he started to struggle in school.

Martinez’s teen years became unstable. His grandparents separated and he began to make poor decisions about school and friends. He ended up in an alternative high school, but things got worse. At about age 15, his grandmother sent him to live with his father, Richard Martinez Sr., who had moved to Billings.

“My mom, I think, felt he needed the guidance of his father,” Garza said.

His outlook did not improve in Billings. He dropped out of school and started using drugs and alcohol regularly. Eventually, his grandparents would reunite and he moved back to Tacoma with them. He entered Job Corps and earned his GED in his early 20s. When he met his future fiancée, Joylene Simmons, it looked like things were really going his way.

He had been a bright, cheerful and optimistic man when the two of them met in 2013, Simmons said. She was 44 years old — he was 22. A mutual friend had introduced them at a restaurant and Martinez asked her out to a movie. They saw “Lincoln” in a Tacoma theater.

The attraction was hard to explain, she said. She hadn’t been looking for a man half her age. It was “his smile” that made her say yes, and their time together grew into a domestic partnership.

“‘This is my lady,’ he would say when we’d go out,” Simmons joked, because people often assumed she was his aunt or mother.

Discovering his Native heritage Martinez was born into a mixed family, his mother a Native American, his father Hispanic. He had a large number of half brothers and sisters, but was not raised with them. His father had 13 kids with different women and moved around between Montana, California and Washington.

His mother died when she was 24 from complications of AIDS, soon after she gave birth to Manuel’s younger half-brother. Martinez was eight years old. She left behind four sons.

He was devastated by the loss, and later in life began to explore the Native American heritage that came to him through his mother, who was from Chippewa Cree heritage in Montana. Martinez joined in peyote ceremonies and sweat lodges when he stayed in Billings with his father.

Before he had met Simmons, Martinez had had a son he named Quemshi Yuk-Weh-Lut Warrior.

Simmons also had a Native American heritage, from a Pacific Northwest tribe. He was given a Native name, Blue Star Water Boy. He learned the traditional weaving style of the Pacific Coast’s tribes and he attended weaving conferences with Simmons, some as far away as upstate New York.

They took road trips across the country, favoring places where they could enjoy gambling. Martinez had all the luck of a young man, Simmons said. She complained light-heartedly that she would lose what he would win, breaking even at best. But she enjoyed their time together.

Simmons took Martinez on Canoe Journey, a yearly gathering where hundreds of members from the coastal tribes of the Pacific Northwest take to the seas in traditional vessels to travel among the various villages. Martinez reveled in the yearly gatherings. He grew closer to his ancestry with Simmons at his side.

Martinez obtained custody of his son during this time and the father-son duo lived with Simmons in her Tacoma home alongside her own children and grandchildren.

“He was the love of my life,” Simmons said recently, nearly in tears. She was still processing his death.

They were together five years, but along the way Martinez surrendered to old habits. His drug addiction grew from marijuana and alcohol to include meth and heroin. It took a toll on Simmons, her kids and grandkids. Things would disappear from her house and strangers would visit Martinez during the day while she was at work. She worried about these visitors and would sometimes stay home from work.

Martinez tried treatment programs three times. Simmons remembered taking him to the inpatient facilities herself, but he never stayed long.

“He practically made it home from treatment before I dropped him off,” she said with a sad laugh. The problem became too big to manage.

“When it got that far, my life became miserable — he was the love of my life, actually, and I miss him dearly — but I just couldn’t live like that anymore,” she said, the pain and exhaustion clouding her voice.

In 2018, Simmons contacted the maternal grandmother of Martinez’s son Quemshi and the boy went to stay with her. Then Simmons called police and had Martinez removed from her home.

He had never physically harmed her, or anyone else, during their time together, but the emotional turmoil had to end. She had no regrets, either. Even knowing how Martinez’s life ended, she knows kicking him out was the right choice for her and her family.

Martinez returned to live with his grandmother, who had been diagnosed with leukemia, although it was in remission. His grandfather would be diagnosed with kidney cancer soon after he moved in. After surgery it would reappear on his bones. Martinez helped the couple as best he could.

He got a job at a seafood processing company and helped his grandmother care for her dying husband. Martinez had a deep admiration for his grandfather and he took the illness hard.

In late January 2020, Martinez’s grandfather, Danny Kitaji, 64, passed away from the flu. His immune system had been compromised by the cancer treatment. Martinez watched firsthand as the man who raised him succumbed and passed away. That sent Martinez on another spin downward.

“He took it really rough,” Garza, the aunt, explained through heavy sighs. “He just went recluse. He couldn’t function at that point, so I don’t believe he kept his job. He went through some mood swings, and my mom kicked him out.”

Martinez’s grandmother found a bottle of liquor in his room, confronted him and kicked him out. He couch surfed in Tacoma for a while before leaving for Billings.

He lived with family members and eventually moved in with a new girlfriend. He had a job in construction. His relationship still suffered dramas, and on occasion he would find himself without a place to sleep. As far as anyone knows, he never quit drinking.

Sometimes, when Martinez would get drunk, his girlfriend — who could not be identified or contacted for this story — would kick him out, said Garza. He’d apparently spend some of those nights at the Evangelical United Methodist Church on Broadwater where he would later be shot.

The pastor there at the time, Wendy Ochs, said Martinez’s girlfriend had also told the pastor, after he was killed, that Martinez would end up sleeping at the church when he did not stay with her.

Ochs met Martinez once, about a week before he died. She arrived at the church to find him outside asleep, but he awoke to her presence. She invited him in for coffee. He accepted and they had a brief conversation. Then he left before the students at the adjacent elementary school arrived for the day — an unwritten rule in the unwritten agreement between the church and the people who shelter there.

“Folks sleep outside our church frequently,” Ochs said recently. She assumed the people sleeping there did so because the church was tolerant of their presence and the location along a busy street made them feel safe. As far as she knew violence was rare.

The morning after his death, police issued a statement describing the crime. They said Martinez “was known to frequent the church.” Descriptions of Martinez as a “transient” or as homeless began to circulate. Garza took issue with the labels. She believed they devalued her nephew’s life and made it easier for people to ignore his homicide.

But Martinez was certainly in transition. He had been kicked out of his girlfriend’s house days earlier, Garza acknowledged. He had called his grandmother in Tacoma and the family was trying to get him a bus ticket home. But, for reasons Garza cannot recall — she thinks it was weather or COVID related — he was forced to wait in Billings for the next bus to Washington.

He spoke to his grandmother on Thanksgiving just four days before he was shot.

That deadly night Garza believes Martinez had been waiting for his ex-girlfriend that night. He was going to stay with her because he was ill-equipped to sleep on the streets in the cold. The night before temperatures had dropped to 29 degrees and were expected to fall to freezing again that night.

Garza had her own ideas about what happened and why. Her family told investigators Martinez had complained that his life was being threatened by a person in Billings who was trying to “intimidate” him. They passed as much information as they could to detectives.

The Billings Police Department said the case is actively being investigated. Detectives would only be actively investigating the case if they had credible leads and information to go off of, explained Wooley, the police lieutenant. He stressed that they still need the public’s help with any information about the night, and the offer of a $1,000 reward still stands.

Martinez had made plenty of bad decisions, Garza admitted. Having been in a relationship with an alcoholic herself, she agreed the women who had thrown him out over the years were likely justified. “I’m not naïve,” she exclaimed. But she also knew her nephew to be someone who took his inner demons out on himself and not others.

His loss of family, estrangement from his father and siblings, the loss of his mother and then the loss of his grandfather all tormented him, but he never took it out on anyone with violence or anger, she said. “He was not a bad person. He had no malintent. He was a gentle giant.”

She lamented the timing of it all. Had Martinez been able to leave Billings right away or had he figured things out just a little sooner, Garza believes he’d be a different person.

“He had a lot of adversities in his life. He had to mentally process a lot,” she explained. “He was there many times I was not there for my parents. He was the rock at that time for my parents. He had points in his life where he was strong. So, I would say he was a young man that was trying to find his way. Trying to find his own rock.”

Garza fears her nephew’s death will go unsolved, but she hopes for closure.

“I definitely want justice for my nephew, absolutely,” Garza said. She believes the warm weather and gatherings of people will draw out information about her nephew’s homicide. “There’s somebody out there just bragging about what they did.”

In March 2013, Susan Kitaji posted a photo on Facebook of Martinez and her standing side-by-side. It shows a taller Martinez leaning over and wrapping his arm around her shoulder. Neither is really smiling. More than a year later, Martinez commented on the picture from a hardly-used Facebook page under the name Manuel LaMere. He wrote: “Love you grandma and grandpa sorry for my choices and actions hope you and grandpa are happy ……grandpa is a good man you both taught me good life lessons.”

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