Updated Nov. 9 at 10 a.m.
When Frankie Martin went missing on a spring day in 2016, his family came together to search for answers – and again, when they believed they found one late last month.
Following a tip from a source on Oct. 24, Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe and Undersheriff Steve Miera made their way to a makeshift campground just north of the John Dunn Recreation Area. They discovered human remains at the bottom of a jagged 110-foot ravine less than a half-mile away.
They believe they may belong to Martin, the Arroyo Hondo man who went missing April 19, 2016.
“The remains were somewhat intact and readily identifiable as human,” said Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe in a prepared statement. “It did appear that they had been there for a while. Clothing was also found on the remains as well as a cell phone in the pants pocket.”
After an initial assessment, the cell phone appeared to be Martin’s. Investigators also matched the clothing with descriptions of what Martin had been last seen wearing – a black baseball cap, a green hooded pullover, a black T-shirt and Converse tennis shoes.
“After further investigation, consulting and meeting with some of Mr. Martin’s family, we are nearly certain of it now,” Hogrefe said.
Martin’s family also hopes the search has come to an end.
“There is some chance that it couldn’t be him, but I would say it is based on the pictures we looked at,” said Tamie Benally, one of Martin’s six sisters. “We are just so glad to have some type of closure.”
Hogrefe has removed Martin from missing persons databases and the Taos County Crime Stoppers website, however, he stopped short of making any definitive conclusions about the remains until the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator comes back with an official finding.
The remains have been collected and turned over to OMI, which will perform DNA testing to identify the body and determine cause of death. A positive identification may take as long as “five or six months,” Hogrefe speculated, whereas a cause of death determination could come through in as little as a few weeks.
But even with those crucial pieces of information in hand, getting to the bottom of exactly what happened to Martin when he disappeared from the eye of a surveillance camera at a corner store in Arroyo Hondo last year might take some more digging.
A puzzle perhaps partly solved
Before he disappeared, Martin had been working as a dishwasher at Medley restaurant, located along State Road 150 south of Arroyo Hondo. He was also just beginning to cut his teeth as a wildland firefighter battling blazes in national forest around the county.
He lived with his ex-girlfriend, Cedar Mortenson, in a house just around the corner from the store where a surveillance system captured his last seen movements April 19, 2016. According to police reports, the footage shows a distorted, but definite image of Martin buying a few items before he walks out the door on foot.
It was the last time anyone saw Martin alive.
Investigators would later discover that a white pickup truck driven by someone who knew Martin pulled up to the corner stop around the same time of day. Authorities are not commenting on this person’s possible relevance to the case at this time.
Mortenson and one of Martin’s sisters, Arlene Pearson, became concerned when Martin never returned home. Calls made to his cell phone went unanswered. They searched for Martin around Arroyo Hondo before reporting him missing on April 21. Martin always called his mother on her birthday, but not that year.
At Martin’s home, investigators with the Taos County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that the 25-year-old had left behind his wallet and car keys. He didn’t appear to have taken an extra set of clothes with him. His car was still parked out front.
While Mortenson said at the time that Martin had talked about suicide and described the idea of jumping from the Río Grande Gorge Bridge, she was unaware of Martin having any specific plans to kill himself.
The mystery of what happened to Martin built with each passing day. But his case was obscured when a well-known Taos woman went missing two weeks later – the second Taos County woman to go missing in less than six months.
Holly White, the then 49-year-old office manager of the Taos Center for the Arts, went missing May 6, 2016, just four months after Naomi Chaney, a 36-year-old mother who lived in the Carson area, also disappeared. Chaney was later identified as the victim of a grisly murder in the Carson area, but her body was never found.
Both women are still missing.
The next piece
Elaine Graves, a private investigator from Santa Fe assigned to both the Martin and White case, agreed with Hogrefe that Martin’s case cannot yet be put to rest.
Graves and Hogrefe both declined to comment on what the discovery of the remains means for the three primary scenarios they have considered for the case – deliberate disappearance, suicide or foul play.
But Graves did say that identifying a body of a victim in any missing persons case is a major and often rare victory. Even if the outcome is not what a victim’s family desires, the sense of not knowing, not having a body to put to rest, sometimes torments victim’s families for life. “His family is just so happy to know where he is,” she said, “to not have to be looking anymore.”
While Graves continues to follow leads in the investigation, she, too, is confident that they have placed a major piece in the puzzle. “I am certain that this is Frankie,” she said. “There is no doubt in my mind that this is him.”
After Martin went missing, Benally said that she and Martin’s other siblings came together at her home in Albuquerque and at their mother’s house in Gallup, N.M. They shared stories about Martin and prayed for his safe return.
“We kept his memory alive by sharing the good things that we went through,” Benally said.
Now that she believes they have finally found her brother, she had a message for other families in Taos County whose loved ones are missing. “We felt lost without our brother, too,” she said. “The pain is overwhelming and heartbreaking. There is someone out there that knows. I would just let them know to not give up hope.”