ST. PETERSBURG — A month before she died, Leeza Martinez sent her cousin a message.
Alana Martinez Esparza was at Walt Disney World with her family, a couple hours from where Martinez had been living in St. Petersburg. Martinez asked if they could meet up, if the family wanted to see her, Esparza recalled.
The cousins hadn’t talked much in recent years, and Martinez had moved from her hometown of Houston to Florida in early 2019. But it appeared a reunion was in sight. They agreed to meet at the hotel where the family was staying.
The meet-up never happened.
Weeks later, on the afternoon of May 16, Martinez’s boyfriend shot and killed her in the St. Petersburg home they had lived in together. Her 2-year-old daughter was in the home when it happened, according to police. Detectives arrested Temidayo Ayoola on a charge of second-degree murder.
Then, last month, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office dropped the charge. Ayoola, 25, said that Martinez, 27, had pulled a gun and pointed it at him, Assistant State Attorney Thomas Koskinas said. They couldn’t rebut his claim of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. They filed a no information in the case Nov. 2, meaning they would not pursue the case.
Within a day, Ayoola began threatening violence against another woman, court records show.
“Yeah bitch I got this gun license just for you and (your daughter),” he wrote to Aaliyah Knight in an email Nov. 3 that included a photo of his concealed carry license, according to court records. “They filed no information bitch.”
A week later, he was caught trying to trade in a toy gun for a handgun at a Broward County firearms store, according to an arrest report. He was arrested on a charge of violating a domestic violence injunction Knight had filed against him.
The chain of events was laid out in a petition asking a judge for permission to seize Ayoola’s guns through a court document called a risk protection order. A judge granted it Dec. 1 and set a compliance hearing for Dec. 16, noting that there “has not been a satisfactory showing at this time that they are in full compliance with that order.”
Knight had dated Ayoola before Martinez. Ayoola had also introduced her to Martinez. Knight remembered her as a woman so kind her nickname was “Sweet Pea,” she said in an interview. She doesn’t believe Ayoola’s self-defense explanation, she said, because of the escalating pattern of abuse she’d experienced from Ayoola. The last time Knight saw him last year, he threatened her with a gun, she said.
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“In a way, I went through the same situation she went through,” Knight said. “The only difference is I was able to escape, and she wasn’t.”
The investigation into Martinez’s death is ongoing, police said, and prosecutors are aware of the risk protection order, according to Koskinas.
“Are we still paying attention to it? Absolutely,” Koskinas said. “Is it possible that things could occur that could alter the course of the case? Yes, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
He declined to elaborate further.
Ayoola said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times that he didn’t send the message to Knight. Rather, someone was framing him, he said, but he declined to say who. He also denied abusing Knight and Martinez. He declined to comment on the Broward arrest because, he said, the case was still active.
On the day of the shooting, he had asked Martinez to leave and offered to help her find a place to stay. She told him to leave instead. They started arguing, he said, and he called 911. He told the operator there was an “unwelcome female guest” in his home, according to his arrest report. What he meant by that, he said, is that his religious beliefs dictate that a woman is supposed to be diplomatic and peaceful in a disagreement, and that Martinez wasn’t acting that way.
He didn’t want to argue in front of the child, so he tried to go outside, and Martinez wrapped herself around him to stop him, he said. Ayoola noted he has arthrogryposis, a joint condition that has left him without use of his legs.
“I’m physically disabled,” he said. “I’m not a fighter.”
He asked her to let go of him. Then, she went to her purse, pulled out a gun he had previously given her as a gift, and cocked it. He pulled out his gun and fired at her, he said, then called 911 again. It was 3 minutes after the first call, according to his arrest report.
In the months since her death, Martinez’s family has tried to piece together her life in Florida. Recent photos from her phone showed that she had lost a lot of weight. Her daughter, who now lives with foster parents, was malnourished when she was taken in after the shooting, Esparza, 27, said.
They found posts on social media of Martinez renouncing her birth name and committing to a religious group under a new name, her cousin said. The group, which Ayoola was also involved in and through which he and Martinez met, appears to have elements of the sovereign citizens movement, according to social media posts, meaning they don’t believe some of the nation’s laws apply to them.
Martinez’s relatives have a lot of questions about what happened the day of her death. Martinez didn’t grow up around guns and, to their knowledge, had never used one. They learned that the murder charge was dropped through a Times reporter.
“There’s no justice at all,” Esparza said.
Her cousin grew up in Houston, with her mother as her primary caretaker, Esparza said. Martinez’s father had substance abuse issues and wasn’t in the picture much, she said.
She was funny, her cousin said, and worked in cosmetology and retail. She liked hip hop music and cooking soul food and Mexican recipes her mom taught her. She loved children and, after she had her baby, being a mom.
Around 2010, her mom got sick with diabetes and had her foot amputated. Martinez became her driver, shuttling her to doctor’s appointments and on errands. Her mother died in 2014.
That left a void in Martinez’s life that her cousin believes made her vulnerable to what came next. Martinez met a man in her neighborhood that Esparza believes was part of the religious group she later joined. She had gotten pregnant, and he told her there were better jobs in Florida. She had her baby in Houston, then left for St. Petersburg.
Meantime, Knight had started talking to Ayoola on Twitter, she said. They began long-distance dating and, soon, she moved to Florida.
“I guess it was me just being young and naive,” she said.
They at first lived with another couple but then moved into their own place — the same home where Ayoola would shoot Martinez years later. It was when they were living alone that the abuse started, she said. At first it was verbal. He accused her of cheating and called her names, Knight said. Then it got physical.
For months, she tried to stick it out. She was pregnant and felt like she had to stay, she said. But soon, she worked up the courage to tell him she didn’t want to be with him anymore. He refused to move out, so she started packing up her things one evening so she could leave instead. He got angry and acted as if he was going to destroy a couch that Knight was planning to return, she said.
The situation ended with him calling the police, and they arrested Knight. Prosecutors later dropped the battery charge against her.
A police officer wrote in her arrest report that Knight grabbed Ayoola to try to get him off the couch and that Ayoola struck her back. She was eight months pregnant at the time.
He only retaliated, he told the officer, to defend himself.
If you or someone you know is in a relationship with domestic violence, call one of the following 24-hour hotlines: Pinellas County — 727-895-4912; Hillsborough County — 813-247-7233; Pasco County — 352-521-3120.