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Fool for Love?

She gave up everything--her home, her husband, her children--for a man whose future likely holds only death row. Was she duped? Or did Rosalie Martinez find true love with an improper stranger?

September 16, 1996|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TAMPA, Fla. — When Rosalie Martinez first laid eyes on serial killer Oscar Ray Bolin Jr., he had been brought from Florida's death row to a small holding cell in the county jail here to await the first of his three retrials.

Convicted of the brutal rapes and murders 10 years ago of three young women, 35-year-old Bolin is considered by authorities to be a dangerous psychopath, a smooth-talking con man and an escape risk who has made direct threats on the lives of police. So when she was escorted into Bolin's cell, Martinez says, two guards toting shotguns stood nearby.

"I felt like I was going in to see Hannibal Lector," she says.

Face to face, Martinez nervously introduced herself, then told Bolin: "I am your angel. I want to save your life."

"Prove it," he replied.

That initial meeting 18 months ago lasted five hours, Martinez recalls, and almost from the beginning, "I felt an affinity for Mr. Bolin. He was in a 9-by-12-foot cell, with just a bed, desk and toilet. I felt his isolation, his confinement, his loneliness.

"It affected me. Because I felt the same way. And it left me breathless."

*

At 36, Rosalie Martinez might seem a little young, and perhaps a little too firmly ensconced in Tampa's moneyed society, to undergo a very public and tumultuous midlife crisis that has stunned her family--especially her four young daughters--shocked her friends, and scandalized the country club set in this Gulf Coast city. Although for the last two years Martinez was a social worker with the Hillsborough County public defender's office, she was best known through the pages of the local newspapers as the wife for 17 years of top criminal defense attorney Victor D. Martinez, himself the scion of one of this city's oldest and most prominent families.

Victor Martinez's father, Victor J. Martinez, is medical director of the county's Community Health and Human Services and a pioneering cardiovascular surgeon. He traces his lineage to the founders of Ybor City, the historic Tampa neighborhood once home to the city's earliest Spanish-speaking settlers.

With a $375,000 home in an exclusive oak-shaded enclave in Brandon, east of Tampa, closets full of designer clothes, plenty of expensive jewelry, and a Mercedes 300 to shuttle the couple's children, ages 14, 12, 7 and 6, from school at the Academy of Holy Names to ballet lessons and soccer games, Rosalie Martinez seemed to be living a full, enviable life.

But as Bolin's first retrial on murder charges began in New Port Richey, north of here, last month, Martinez began hinting to local reporters that while working on his case as a mitigation specialist--scouring his background for reasons he should be spared the electric chair--she had fallen in love with the man.

Bolin had been granted a second chance when the state Supreme Court ruled that his ex-wife should not have been permitted to testify against him when he was first convicted. For months Martinez had spent hours each day talking to Bolin in his jail cell, virtually neglecting her family. She spent two weeks on the road, visiting Bolin's hometown of Portland, Ind., and then following the trail of his hardscrabble, trailer park life through the hills of Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.

Sure, Martinez said, Bolin had been a drifter, a carnival worker, a long-distance trucker, had dealt in drugs and had pleaded guilty to a vicious gunpoint rape in 1988.

But "my Oscar," as she called him, was no killer, Martinez insisted, and she talked unabashedly of her romantic fantasy of riding off into the sunset with Bolin once she proved his innocence.

By the time Bolin's first retrial began last month in the Pasco County courthouse, Martinez was estranged from her family and had quit the public defender's office under pressure after jail officials suggested she'd had sex with Bolin in his cell.

The trial itself often seemed a mere sideshow to a more sensational affair, the romance between the improbable and the doomed.

One day Bolin threw a tantrum, shredding his prison-issue underwear and refusing to get dressed when jailers told him he couldn't wear the Brooks Brothers briefs Martinez had tucked into the pockets of the designer suit she had bought him.

The next day, the courtroom was abuzz after a reporter handed Martinez a note informing her that her husband, Victor--who days earlier had expressed support for his wife--had filed for divorce.

"I was shocked, hurt," says Martinez, who fled the courtroom and telephoned her husband from the hallway while reporters listened in.

The day after that, the judge kicked Martinez out of the courtroom when she began shaking her head as Bolin's stepbrother testified that he saw Bolin beat and drown a woman whose body was then wrapped in a sheet.

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