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Hero too tough for pain to shake him

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Ray Marteliz lost half his index finger to a rattler bite. Another strike almost killed him.

But he still keeps four pet rattlers in glass cages in a bedroom at home. He still snares them under houses for people who call his animal removal business. Catches them in a pillow case and slings it over his belt.

"I just like reptiles. I always have," he said, as he sipped a glass of skim milk at a diner on North Nebraska Avenue.

Marteliz, who is 52, also likes helping the police catch criminals. He once took a gun from a drug dealer in his neighborhood. In another incident, he alerted police to a car used in a hit-and-run accident, then helped disarm one of the crooks, who pulled a knife.

But on May 20, when he tried to help a lone police officer catch the man accused of murdering his neighbor's mother, Ray's heroics almost cost him his life.

Since then, he has been in constant pain. He has been pushed to the financial brink. And almost no one seems to care.

But that hasn't changed his attitude. After all, he grew up in West Tampa, a place that's turned out plenty of hard-headed, stubborn men.

"If it happened again, I'd do the same thing. That's just who I am," he said.

Jenny Marteliz, finishing a plate of eggs, just nodded in agreement.

Ray Marteliz was a hero for just one day.

Jenny, Ray's wife, had caught the end of a story on television news. Details were sketchy. Police were looking for a blue, dual-wheel pickup truck. A license number flashed on the screen. So did a picture of her neighbor, crying.

At 7:30 p.m., she drove to Eckerd Drugs at Florida and Waters. In the parking lot, she saw a blue, dual-wheel truck with the right tag number. She called 911, then Ray.

When he arrived, Ray saw a car blocking the truck and a police officer struggling with the truck's driver. He rushed over and offered to help. He heard the engine running and reached in to switch it off.

That's when the suspect hit the gas.

Ray was smashed between the truck and the police car, then tossed over the hood. Four more squad cars were smashed before police collared Christopher S. Olsen. Olsen, 34, is facing a string of charges, including first-degree murder in the brutal beating death of 75-year-old Pat Wilson.

Ray Marteliz is facing a stack of unpaid bills. He's slowly recovering from a shattered right leg, broken ribs, a punctured lung and a bad case of road rash. Doctors say more operations are necessary, and it could be a year before he's able to work again.

Marteliz has no insurance. "Who'd insure a guy who catches poisonous snakes for a living?" Because he owns a vacant lot next to his home, Marteliz was told he doesn't qualify for food stamps.

He and Jenny have had to turn to food banks.

Jenny has taken over the business. She crawls under houses after opossums. Wades in ponds to snare snakes. Then she comes back to their tiny frame house to take care of Ray and the Marteliz menagerie: three pit bullterriers, one cat, five kittens, three raccoons, two squirrels and the room full of snakes.

"The person I'm most proud of is this lady right here," Ray says, patting his wife on the shoulder.

Ray also talks about the help he's gotten from the county Victim Assistance Office. And the fruit basket the staff at Key Bank sent after his story appeared in the newspapers.

He gets up from the booth gingerly and struggles outside on his crutches. But outside, on a cloudy afternoon, he is smiling.

"My son called me today. I haven't spoken to him since he was 6 years old," he says.

The boy, taken from Marteliz after a bitter divorce, is married and has a son of his own. He wants to reconnect with his father.

"I just got a son and a grandson today," Marteliz says. "How could I complain about anything?"