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Ten years later, Jennifer's mom loses hope

Published Nov. 14, 1992|Updated Oct. 12, 2005

Her family remembers her wide brown eyes, how she loved animals, the way her feet turned in a little when she walked. But to Tampa Bay, Jennifer Marteliz was the little girl on grocery bags and milk cartons marked "Missing Child." She captivated a community when she vanished without a trace.

Sunday marks 10 years since the dark-haired 7-year-old disappeared on a Monday after school. No body ever was found, and no one has been charged.

But six weeks ago, her mother saw something that convinced her Jennifer died in 1982.

"I thought (Jennifer) was going to come back and go to work with me, and we were going to do mother-daughter things," said Kathy Longo, her voice breaking. "Now I know that she's been murdered. I have no more hope."

This latest twist in a mystery that has confounded investigators comes in two documents.

One is a rambling 22-page statement given by a neighbor to Tampa police. The neighbor said in 1983 that he had psychic "feelings" about Jennifer's case. The other document is an expert analysis of the statement that calls the neighbor's words a confession, Longo said.

A prosecutor who took up Jennifer's case four years ago won't comment on the documents but confirmed the investigation is again active.

Said Longo: "I want the State Attorney's Office to give my daughter justice."

A second-grader at Shaw Elementary, Jennifer walked home that day, like most days, to her father's duplex at 1204 E 98th Ave.

The last person to see her before she disappeared was her best friend. The child would later recall, under hypnosis, Jennifer taking the mail from the mailbox.

The disappearance became a community's obsession, and investigators put the word out to anyone who would listen: She was 4 feet tall, 60 pounds with black hair, bangs and big brown eyes.

The years that followed were especially hard on Toni Lisa, Jennifer's older sister by five years. Her mother was terrified to let her do anything alone. Even later, when Lisa wanted to go to a teen club, Mom followed. Mom sat at a table. Mom watched.

It wasn't supposed to be her case.

Judy Hoyer is considered the top prosecutor of white collar crimes at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. Hers is a concrete world of contracts, ledgers and business people with sticky fingers. The numbers either add up or they don't. Black or white.

Then came Jennifer.

Hoyer had just finished a case in 1988 when a witness asked if the prosecutor would talk to his wife.

Kathy Longo arrived hoisting a briefcase bulging with six years of her search. She had dug through garbage cans for evidence and followed leads to Chicago and Texas.

"I wanted somebody to listen to me," Longo said.

Certain that her daughter had been kidnapped by her ex-husband, Longo convinced Hoyer to help. Two months were enough to convince Hoyer that the father, Billy Marteliz, was innocent.

It didn't matter. Hoyer was hooked. Jennifer was no longer just another case.

The police file on Jennifer was huge. Hoyer spent Friday afternoons poring through it. That spring, she found it.

"I just kept staring at it and thinking, "How can this be here?' " she said. "I figured there had to be some explanation that would tell me that what was so obvious to me wasn't so."

The document was the statement from Thomas P. Welnicki, who was staying in the other half of the duplex where Jennifer lived with her father at the time of the girl's disappearance.

Welnicki, who said he was psychic, told police he had "vibes" Jennifer had been abducted for money by two men, a younger blond man and an older man, according to a Tampa police report.

The blond man, whom Welnicki said Jennifer knew and trusted, lured her into the home by telling her that her grandmother was waiting. The older man strangled the girl when she struggled, Welnicki said.

According to the statement, the young, blond man was haunted by something Jennifer said to him before she died: "You're a nice man, I like you."

"He can't bear to hear it . . . he can't even close his eyes anymore, he can't get drunk to the point anymore where . . . he doesn't hear it when he wakes up. . . .," Welnicki said of the man's feelings.

Welnicki also appeared obsessed with the blond man's teeth. Several times he repeated that the man's teeth were beautiful, perfect, white. Welnicki's own teeth have been described as bad.

Welnicki, 42, has arrests in Tampa dating to 1976. He is serving an eight-year prison sentence at the Hendry Correctional Institution on 1991 heroin charges. Recently, he was brought to the Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview for undisclosed reasons.

Welnicki was aware of the subject of this story but did not return a reporter's calls.

"He's well aware of what's going on," said Superintendent Rodney Sistrunk. "He doesn't want to talk to any news media."

Welnicki was transferred back to Hendry County on Friday, Sistrunk said. The blond New York-born laborer is scheduled for release in 1994.

Hoyer won't comment on the substance of Welnicki's statement or what it might mean. But she did say, "Everything I've done since that time has reinforced my initial belief."

She said she couldn't understand why Tampa police investigators didn't follow it through.

"The best I can figure out was the advice they got from the State Attorney's Office at the time was that there was no body, therefore no crime," she said. Hoyer recently had workers dig up two fields near the duplex with no results.

On one, an apartment complex was built a few years ago.

One summer evening in 1991, Hoyer sat on baseball bleachers, cheering her son Adam, 6, when a little girl ran by.

"Everything just stopped," Hoyer recalled. "I couldn't hear anything."

Jennifer, she thought.

The girl ran away, her dark hair streaming behind her. Later, Hoyer saw the girl again and heard her call the coach, "Daddy."

Hoyer introduced herself. "Hi," he said. "I'm Frank Longo."

He was Kathy's brother _ and Jennifer's uncle. The little girl was Jennifer's cousin, born just after the disappearance. The girl's resemblance to the cousin she never met was so uncanny that the girl would sometimes tease that she was Jennifer.

On her desk in February, Hoyer found a flier from the Laboratory for Scientific Interrogation about a system for analyzing words and word choice. She sent investigator Jack Mehl to take the course.

That's where he met Avinoam Sapir.

At first, Mehl had his doubts about the orthodox Jew with the doctoral degree and the shirttail that hung out as he wrote on the blackboard. By the second day, he said it might be the best course he had ever taken.

The system analyzes statements or transcripts and makes determinations about the words. It is not an accepted field of expertise although Sapir has testified as a polygraph expert. He agreed to analyze Welnicki's statement.

Hoyer won't comment on the contents of the thick analysis or any progress she has made in the case.

"All I can tell you is that we have an investigation, and I'm looking forward to discussing it with (newly elected State Attorney Harry Lee Coe III). . . .," she said.

Hoyer was sitting with Sapir, taking down some personal information on her legal pad.

Your birth date? she asked.

He said Nov. 6, then paused. Without knowing why, Hoyer jotted down 1949.

"How did you know?" Sapir asked.

Nov. 6, 1949, is Hoyer's birthday, too. After writing the month and day, she wrote the year automatically. Remarkably, Sapir was born the same day.

Later, he called. "I was just wondering," he said, "what time were you born on Nov. 6, 1949?"

"What time were you born?" the prosecutor countered.

"One o'clock in the afternoon," he said.

"Well, I was born at 6 o'clock in the morning," she said, relieved at the seven-hour difference.

"I was just curious," Sapir said. "By the way, do you know the time difference between Tel Aviv and Florida?"

"Uh," said Hoyer, "it's six hours to London."

"Ah," Sapir replied. "And one more hour to Tel Aviv."

Sapir, a believer in destiny, tried to reassure Hoyer about the case, which had become important enough to take up her weeks around each Christmas.

"I deal with evidence," Hoyer said. "I can't be worried about some greater plan. All I can look at is what's on the table in front of me, and whether the sum of that adds up to guilty or not guilty.

"But it was strangely comforting."

Six weeks ago, Hoyer gave Welnicki's statement and Sapir's analysis to Longo, who said she had always believed Jennifer was alive somewhere.

"She said, "You're not going to like what you read,' " Longo recalled.

She stayed in bed three days. She finally acknowledged to herself that Jennifer was murdered.

Recently, Longo ran into Jennifer's best friend, the girl who was the last to see Jennifer on the last day anybody saw her. Longo remembered how she had told the children she would take them all to Disney World when Jennifer came home. She had been so sure she would have to fulfill that promise some day.

She ran into Teresa Hall at the State Fair, and Longo was shocked to see that the young lady was there with a boyfriend.

"I couldn't help crying," Longo said. "She was so big."

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