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the Angel and the Accused

Published Jun. 30, 1996|Updated Sep. 16, 2005

She had money. She had status. Marriage to a prominent Tampa attorney and four precious children. But, until Feb. 3, 1995, Rosalie Martinez did not have a cause.

That day she met Oscar Ray Bolin Jr.

He was a poor carnival worker from rural Indiana, an accused serial killer facing trial in the murders of three Tampa Bay women. It was her job to convince a jury he didn't deserve the electric chair.

That morning, she put on a white skirt with a slit in the front, a long, white jacket and a red blouse. She sparkled with diamonds: Three-carat earrings. A five-carat wedding ring. And a $5,000 Ebel watch.

At the Morgan Street jail in Tampa, she walked down a long hallway, past inmates screaming catcalls, to the last cell.

"Mr. Bolin?" said Martinez, 37. "I'm from the public defender's office.

"God has sent me here. I'm going to be your angel. How can I help you?"

They talked non-stop for eight hours.

"I can't tell you the electricity," Martinez said. "It was profound. It was like a connection. You're just like wow. This is weird. I was meant to be here."

She had come to the jail to do a job. She left with an obsession.

Bolin was innocent. He must go free.

Her crusade would cost her a job, strain her relationship with her family and lead to courthouse gossip _ which she denies _ that she had had sex with Bolin.

But the man she calls "my Oscar" is worth it, she said.

"I have a better relationship with him than most people do with their husbands," she said. "I care for him very deeply."

Does she love him?

"No comment. How could Oscar and I say that?" she said. "How can I say what happens tomorrow?"

So, does she love her husband?

"I do love my husband and children, and I do have an affection for Oscar only because we're war buddies. That's all it is. . . . I'm just being kind. People would like to make it more."

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Before she met Bolin, Martinez's life seemed idyllic.

She spent her days shopping at boutiques, taking her four kids to the Academy of Holy Names or managing the law offices of her husband, Victor Martinez, a private criminal defense lawyer in Tampa.

"I was a whatever girl. I was very laid-back. I never had a cause. I wasn't a save the whales or pro-choice person. I was Victor's wife or (the children's) mother."

Rosalie Cacciatore, a good Catholic girl from a strict Sicilian background, met Victor D. Martinez at a basketball game between Tampa Catholic, her school, and Jesuit, his. Jesuit won.

Martinez's family is old Tampa stock. The family opened one of the first dry-cleaning businesses in Ybor City, back when Ybor boomed with cigar factories, not the thumping bass of dance clubs. Martinez's father is Victor J. Martinez, who is medical director of Community Health and Human Services in Hillsborough.

Rosalie followed her husband as his legal career blossomed. He attended South Texas College of Law, called E.J.U. by the many attorneys who followed former Hillsborough State Attorney E. J. Salcines there. Returning to Tampa, Martinez became an assistant state attorney, worked for noted defense lawyer Barry Cohen and then became an assistant federal public defender. He opened his current practice, specializing in federal criminal defense, in the early '90s.

Rosalie Martinez enjoyed the fruits of Victor's success: A $375,000 house in Hickory Creek in Brandon. Designer clothes. A Mercedes 300.

She loved her husband; she loved her children. She kept herself busy, opening her own court reporting business at one point. Still, she chafed under the role of dutiful wife.

"I've never had my independence, really. I've never had my own identity," she said.

"I missed out on a lot. I wanted to break away from my father's controlling manner, and I ended up with a prettier package," she said.

That began to change in 1994. Bored with running her husband's law office, Martinez sought a new job from an old friend: Julianne Holt, the Hillsborough County public defender. They had known each other more than 25 years.

Holt gave Martinez the newly created $26,000-a-year job of social service coordinator. For a year, Martinez worked to connect her clients with halfway houses, mental health services, drug rehabilitation centers. She received scores of letters of thanks and commendations.

Estella Good, a figure in the Eddie Lee Sexton murder-incest case who suffocated her 9-month-old child, sent Martinez a Happy Thanksgiving card with a hand-drawn guardian angel.

Martinez then decided to become a "mitigation specialist." As such, she would scour killers' backgrounds for facts that might persuade a jury to spare her client the death penalty, things like a history of child abuse or alcoholism.

Her first client was Oscar Ray Bolin Jr.

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Natalie Blanche Holley, 25, was a restaurant manager. Stephanie Collins, 17, was a popular high school student. Teri Lynn Matthews, 26, was a bank clerk.

All three were killed in 1986, stabbed or beaten, their bodies abandoned by roads in Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

Bolin was tried, convicted and sentenced to death three times. Then, in 1994 and 1995, Bolin caught a break the women never had. He got a second chance at life. The Florida Supreme Court overturned all three convictions.

That's where Martinez came in. In the second round of trials, assuming he would again be convicted, she would seek evidence that might lead to a life sentence for her client, rather than the electric chair.

After that first intense conversation with Bolin, Martinez's purpose changed. A jury hears mitigation evidence only after it finds a defendant guilty. That, she believed, did not apply to Bolin.

"I've become obsessed with the fact that they put him on death row and he's innocent," she said. "They labeled him a serial killer. Do you know how awful that is? Can you imagine? It's a horrible thing they've done to this man.

"He is not a killer. He is not a killer. It's unfortunate that I was the only one that saw it," she said.

Martinez began spending hours with Bolin, 34, sometimes coming to see him before and after work. She even took vacation days to be with Bolin.

Her children, ages 14, 12, 7 and 6, complained about the time she was gone, she says. Her husband thought Bolin was "using" her.

"I've spent more hours with him than with my own family, I'm embarrassed to say," Martinez said.

As Martinez continued to dig, she grew fascinated with the politics of Bolin's trials. After his arrest, police accused Bolin of hatching an elaborate plot to kidnap the family members of top sheriff's officials, including Hillsborough Sheriff Walter Heinrich.

Martinez began to think that incident drove police and prosecutors to ramrod an innocent man through the system. Investigators, she said, had fabricated stories, planted evidence and ignored other potential suspects.

I'm on to something, she thought.

That's when the trouble started.

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On May 12, 1995, Martinez and Bolin met in an attorney booth at the jail to discuss the case. At some point during the interview, Martinez says she may have placed a consoling hand on Bolin's shoulder.

"I could have done this," she said, putting her hand on a reporter's shoulder and pressing down with her thumb.

But a Hillsborough corrections deputy saw it differently. In a memo, he wrote that he saw Martinez rubbing Bolin's neck in a "caressing manner." Both Bolin and Martinez deny anything like that occurred.

The contact concerned sheriff's officials.

"That's just not something a professional visitor would be doing," said Capt. Charles Ellison, commander of the jail.

Scandal arrived Aug. 3.

It was a big day for Bolin. A judge was to make a key ruling on whether to allow prosecutors to use confessions allegedly made to his ex-wife.

Before the hearing, Martinez went to see Bolin alone in his holding cell to measure him for the suit to wear to trial.

Both Bolin and Martinez vigorously deny anything happened _ other than that she promised to find him an Armani tie. But when Martinez tried to go into the courtroom, a court official pulled her aside and told her not to go inside. The press was waiting to take pictures, the person said.

Confused, Martinez hurried to talk to Holt. Holt told her she had been seen in a "compromising position," Martinez said. Holt, she said, wanted to "hush everything up."

Martinez wanted to confront her accusers.

"I spend time helping him. So I'm a whore? Because I'm a woman? Because I look good, smell good? It's ridiculous. It makes me so mad," she said.

Holt would not comment directly on Martinez's case, but said her office would never cover up a personnel matter. But she did acknowledge that she was called by an "independent agency" about Martinez.

"(Martinez) was told she was going to be contacted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office with regards to an allegation," Holt said, adding that she wasn't given details. She took Martinez off the Bolin case, Holt said, not because of the allegations but because Martinez was spending too little time on her other cases.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has no record of an incident on Aug. 3.

On Aug. 10, Martinez quit.

The more she thought about it, the more her situation paralleled Bolin's.

Like Bolin, she had been falsely accused, the victim of a plot by powerful people. Like Bolin, she was completely innocent. Like Bolin, she would fight.

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When he found out Martinez was off his case, Bolin exploded.

He demanded that the public defender's office be taken off his case. After all, if it wouldn't defend its own employee, what could he expect as a client?

"They retaliated against her any way they could. They attempted to slander her," Bolin told the Times in his first media interview. "It is not politically correct to respect Oscar Ray Bolin and look under rocks and see what people have done."

At the end of August, the public defender filed a motion to withdraw. Bolin got two new, court-appointed lawyers. By September, the lawyers and Bolin's parents had brought Martinez back aboard the defense team, this time working for free.

Nothing would stop her this time. She was not the same person.

"I was a caterpillar before" she met Bolin. "I metamorphosed into a butterfly.

"I'm going through my adolescence," she said of her experience with Bolin. "I've never had a chance to speak out or be assertive or rebel."

And if her husband objects?

"I won't have anybody tell me otherwise. . . . I've always been the dutiful little wife. It's my turn."

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On June 19, Martinez had spent 13 hours with Bolin at the Pasco County jail in Land O'Lakes.

Stylishly dressed, as always, she sat across from him in a $600 Chanel suit, glinting with jewelry. She has gone from a size 20 to a size 10 since meeting Bolin, losing some 70 pounds to stress, she says.

Bolin, a round-faced man with square glasses, sat on the other side of a thick plate of plexiglass, clad in his $14.35 blue inmate jumpsuit and $6.55 jail slippers.

His retrial in the murder of Teri Lynn Matthews is coming up in August. Martinez predicts an acquittal. She and Bolin eagerly showed a reporter the flaws in the case, flipping through notebooks meticulously indexed by Martinez.

"Go to Q26," said Bolin, referring to a tag in an FBI report.

"I'm looking, I'm looking," Martinez said as she scanned page after page.

Neither can fully articulate their attachment.

Said Bolin: "I think she's a remarkable individual."

Said Martinez: "It's very complicated. He's turned my life upside down."

Outside the jail, as rain fell in humid night air, Martinez again struggled to explain her feelings for Bolin. She pulled a collapsible luggage carrier closer to her. It was loaded with two boxes of documents.

"I do have a lot of feelings for Mr. Bolin, and he has a lot of feeling for me," she said. "I think God has placed us in this position because our paths were meant to cross."

She believes he is incapable of the crimes he's accused of. And she is proud of her work defending him.

"He's charming. He's sweet. He's intelligent," she said. "I've given him life."

She stopped to call her husband on a cellular phone to tell him she'll be late again. Victor will understand, she said. She loves him.

"He loves me," she said. "He respects me as an intellect."

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Victor Martinez said he supports his wife's efforts. He understands her passion.

"If she believes in something or believes in the person, you really have her," Martinez said. "She's one of these undyingly loyal types, like the old Italians."

At first, he said, he worried that Martinez was being "bamboozled" by Bolin. But as she got more involved in the case, those fears faded, he said.

"There's a certain amount of family jealousy that comes in because the kids want to spend time with their mom, and I want to spend time with my wife," Martinez said. "She's had to do a lot of juggling the last year."

And he isn't worried about his wife becoming too involved with Bolin. It just won't happen.

"I don't think she's his type. Let me put it that way," he said.

Martinez never believed the courthouse rumors his wife and Bolin had become romantically involved.

"I wasn't upset. I was more frustrated that I was never able to come to understand with any particularity what it was that was being alleged. For me it was more frustration. I never had that concern."

He was read his wife's answer to the question, what would happen if Bolin is acquitted? Rosalie Martinez had responded:

"Oscar Ray Bolin and I may run into the sunset together. Who knows? I'm not going to tell you anything about that. I have a husband and four children."

In reply, Victor Martinez commented:

"I think that if anything, it's Rosalie being a little flippant. In the beginning . . . she'd joke with me, maybe if he's acquitted of the next three murder cases, I'll just run off with him into the sunset and live in some trailer park in Indiana somewhere.

"You need to know my wife a little better than you do to understand the absurdity of that kind of thing happening. I don't want to say she's too good for him. She's got a certain position, a certain standing in the community. There's a great deal of disparity between the type of life and person that I am and the type of life and person of Oscar Ray Bolin."

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On Wednesday, Rosalie Martinez stepped outside the jail to have her picture taken for this story. Later she joked with a reporter about running off into the sunset with Bolin.

Really?

Martinez laughs.

"Stay tuned," she says. "I'm telling you, stay tuned."

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