Spc. Enrique Roman-Martinez’s partial remains were found near Cape Lookout National Seashore after he was reported missing near his campsite on May 23, 2020.

Spc. Enrique Roman-Martinez’s partial remains were found near Cape Lookout National Seashore after he was reported missing near his campsite on May 23, 2020. (U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command)

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Griselda Martinez remembers her mother's request and the Army recruiter's promise: Spc. Enrique Roman-Martinez would be kept safe barring any accidents or incidents on deployment.

Roman-Martinez, 21, of Chino, California, wasn't killed in action. As a paratrooper, he wasn't involved in a training accident.

Instead, he was reported missing May 23, 2020, at Cape Lookout National Seashore. His severed head washed ashore six days later.

Now, as the anniversary of his killing passes, Griselda Martinez said the questions still loom. Her brother's death was ruled a homicide yet no arrest has been made.

Griselda Martinez is one of Roman-Martinez's older sisters.

She described her brother as "shy, quiet, sweet, respectful, never liked to fight."

"He really liked people," she said. "He really gave people the benefit of the doubt."

She said he had an interest in psychology and wanted to help those with post-traumatic stress disorder or mental illness.

Though smart, she said, he struggled a bit in high school.

With a mother who worked three jobs and an absent father, Martinez said, she thinks her brother joined the military at 17 because he wanted to help his family out.

The family didn't know about his plan to enlist until he called from a recruiter's house.

The family was hesitant about signing the paperwork, a necessity because of his age, but Griselda said her brother was adamant.

The family realized it was something he'd do once he turned 18, so gave him their blessing, preferring to know his intentions rather than it being a secret, she said.

"I think the worst part of it all is when the recruiter came to our home with the paperwork and my mom asked if anything bad ever happens in the Army," Martinez said. "We understood that things happen because of war or accidents while training, but my mom said that if she was giving him to the Army, she wanted to know that he'd be brought back home. She was told the 'Army is the greatest place in the whole world.'"

He joined the Army in September of 2016 and was ultimately assigned as a paratrooper to Fort Bragg in March 2017.

At the time of his death, Roman-Martinez was a human resource specialist assigned to Headquarters Company, 37th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.

Martinez said she spoke to her brother at least once a month, if not more frequently.

The week of Memorial Day last year, she said, he mentioned the possibility of providing security for a parade.

"I told him at least you get to go out, and he said he'd rather stay in," she recalled.

A May 26, 2020, news release from the 82nd Airborne Division stated that Roman-Martinez was last seen May 23, 2020, and that friends said he wasn't at the camp all day.

It's not clear what time someone from the group made a 911 call to report the disappearance, but the man told the dispatcher that the group went to bed at 12:03 a.m.

The caller said he woke up at 8:30 a.m., and that the group searched for Roman-Martinez all day.

"We're kind of worried that something happened to him," the man is heard saying in the recorded call.

"We might be afraid that he hurt himself," he said. "We're really not sure."

When asked by the dispatcher whether Roman-Martinez had any known medical or mental health conditions, the caller said, "He wasn't diagnosed, but he did have suicidal tendencies."

He even left his phone and his wallet, the friend told the dispatcher.

Griselda Martinez said she saw several red flags with the call and missing person report — her brother was nearsighted and never went anywhere without his glasses or phone.

"When we heard he was without the glasses, we told investigators that should be the No. 1 reason why you should be panicking," she said. "We knew something happened to him. Whether he was hurt or gone; and another thing was he wouldn't stay out and not show up."

Martinez said the reference about suicide was just as disturbing.

She said she remembered a conversation she had with her brother years before around Christmas about religion, and the topic of suicide came up.

"He said he would never do it, because he could never do that to our mom," Martinez said. "I'll never forget that conversation."

What further bothers the family is the autopsy report that Martinez said rules out any possibility of her brother harming himself.

The report , notes that examiners had only a severed head, as neither the torso nor any extremities were available.

According to the autopsy report, Roman-Martinez's head was found with a "somewhat crescent-shaped, incised vs. chop wound" that was about 3/4 of an inch deep, and part up the cervical spine up to the 7th cervical vertebrae.

"While decapitation is, in and of itself, universally fatal, the remainder of the body, in this case, was not available for examination, and therefore potential causes of death involving the torso and extremities cannot be excluded," the autopsy report states.

The report notes that those camping with Roman Martinez provided no explanation of his death.

"It is, therefore, my opinion that while a definitive cause of death cannot be determined, the findings, in this case, are most consistent with death due to homicide," the medical examiner wrote.

The FBI's Evidence Recovery and Dive Teams went to the seashore in December to assist in a search for more remains, according to a Dec. 10 news release from the 82nd Airborne Division.

A spokesman for the Army Criminal Investigation Command would not comment for this story as to whether Roman-Martinez's other remains have been recovered.

Martinez said investigators have told the family there doesn't seem to be a motive to harm her brother among the other soldiers he was camping with; those people were his friends.

"If they were friends, why did they wait 19 hours to call," she asked. "The excuse was he's a grown (expletive) man and could have taken care of himself. You still don't do that — especially in the Army. From what's been explained to me, everyone sticks together and watches out for each other."

Martin said friends who went to basic training or other training with her brother reached out to express condolences, but no one has mentioned the case.

"I would love for someone to tell me whether he was bullied or if anything seemed wrong," she said. "My brother's gone, and he can't tell me that. No one's come forward. No one's said anything."

Martinez said investigators have told her there's a lack of evidence.

A motive hasn't been established, and no murder weapon has been found, she said.

She said it took three days for an official search to be launched and that in that time rain possibly destroyed evidence.

"I feel like no one took it seriously until they found my brother's remains," she said.

Martinez said there's a fear that her brother's case will never be solved or that no charges will ever be filed.

A spokesman for the Army Criminal Investigation Command said via email Friday that the investigation is ongoing and no further details about the case will be released.

"The joint investigation has thoroughly investigated hundreds of leads, conducted more than 280 witness interviews and multiple searches of the area by land, sea, and air to find out what happened to Spc. Roman-Martinez," said Jeffrey Castro, a spokesman with the Army Criminal Investigation Command.

Castro said multiple agencies have assisted with the investigation to include the National Park Rangers, U.S. Coast Guard, Marine Patrol, Mocksville Police Department, Carteret County Sheriff's Office, Wayne County Sheriff's Office, North Carolina National Guard, and volunteer paratroopers from Roman-Martinez's unit.

Martinez said not having justice in her brother's case adds to the family's grief.

"When you think about someone intentionally hurting your loved one with whatever intent — we still don't know what the motive was, but making him disappear — that's painful," she said.

She said she reflects on the memories of when she last saw him, when she last heard his voice, when she last gave him a hug.

"And you just think, wow, you're never going to have that again," she said. "He was such a good person, so loving and so caring, and to think that someone cut off his head and hated him that much — I think that's the part that hurts us all. They didn't have to do that.

"Man, I wish they wouldn't have. I wish we could have had a funeral that had the option of the open casket so we could say our goodbye. There was no last goodbye."

The hardest part, Martinez said, is knowing whoever harmed her brother is still alive and walking around living their life, while her brother is gone.

As for her mother, who Martinez said her brother was close to, there's no comfort.

"There's no way of filling the hole in her heart," she said.

A $25,000 reward is being offered in the case of Roman-Martinez.

Anyone with information is asked to call Army CID Special Agents at 910-396-8777 or the Military Police Desk at 910-396-1179. They can also anonymously submit information online.

"If my brother was in your spot, he would have made sure you got justice," Matinez said. "He would make sure your family knew what happened.

"My brother would have defended you. He would have died along with you. He wouldn't have wanted you to get hurt. He was not a coward."

©2021 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

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