Hazel Martin – 1996

The case of Hazel Martin is well documented in an article by David Johnson in 2009:

Detective describes efforts to help family of Hazel Martin find closure as years pass with no explanation for her death in 1996

Source: David Johnson of the Tribune

Monday, February 2, 2009

PRINCETON – Sheriffs have come and gone. Numerous suspects have been interviewed. Nearly 13 years have passed. And Earl Aston continues to deal with the frustration.

“Very much so,” he says. “That’s probably the hardest thing in law enforcement, the cases that don’t get solved.”

Aston, a detective with the Latah County Sheriff’s Office, is one of the few law enforcement people to work the Hazel Martin murder case from its benign beginning, through the grisly discovery of her remains and into the uncertain future.

“There are a lot of cases that don’t get solved,” Aston says. “But they aren’t homicides. You’ve got family out there hurting for closure, and you can’t give it to them. It wrenches you.”

Members of Martin’s family, once active and vocal participants in the search for her killer or killers, have gone silent amid the sorrow. The elderly woman’s house, where she lived alone here, has been sold. Her partial remains have been buried, along with hope for an easy explanation.

On the evening of May 18, 1996, nearly 24 hours after Martin, 73, was last seen, her house was cordoned by yellow crime scene tape. A bloodhound combed the yard for scent. Family members, after finding the modest home empty earlier in the day, had left to make room for sheriff’s deputies to probe for clues to explain the disappearance.

“She was a missing person at that point,” recalls Aston, who was out of town when the case started, but returned days later to become part of a massive search effort that lasted just short of one year.

“We spent a ton of time the following year out in the woods looking,” Aston says.

And then, on May 5, 1997, two mushroom hunters found evidence to confirm what everyone feared – Martin was dead.

“A skull, jawbone and denture,” Aston says of the discovery. Pathologists confirmed the remains to be Martin’s. Further search of a remote area along White Pine Drive, about 12 miles from Martin’s home, turned up one of her leg bones.

“There was nothing to indicate the body was dismembered by anything, other than predators and natural decomposition,” Aston says. But there were unconfirmed reports the skull showed evidence of trauma.

“I don’t think that’s ever been released,” Aston says today, declining further comment while explaining that details of Martin’s death must be kept secret to ensure integrity of the case.

“There were several persons of interest developed in this case,” he says. “All of our persons of interest are still around. I wouldn’t want to list any of them as a suspect. All of them have denied it, but not to my satisfaction.”

Martin was known as an active member of this unincorporated community with the Ivy League name. She lived, in fact, just west of Princeton in a cluster of houses known as Hampton. Her house, which has since been sold out of her estate, remains nestled next to State Highway 6. It was along the route that Martin is thought to have returned home, probably on foot, from an evening card party at the Princeton Grange Hall.

A family member, according to reports, went to the home the next morning and found her gone. Several hours later, she was officially reported missing. There were little or no signs of a struggle.

“The house was a pretty clean crime scene,” Aston says. Martin’s purse and glasses had been left behind. “Then they found the sheets and pillow case up by the river.”

The discovery came about five days after Martin disappeared. A pair of slippers thought to be hers were also found in the area. A frenzy of searching, including the use of cadaver dogs and divers in the Palouse River, ensued. But nothing was found.

Joe Overstreet was the sheriff in Latah County at the time. Like Aston, Overstreet was out of town when Martin disappeared. Overstreet’s lieutenant, Vernon Moses, was initially in charge of the investigation.

Two months after the disappearance, Moses released a composite sketch of a possible suspect. Nothing came of the release. Eventually, the FBI was called into the case, as was a criminal profiler and at least one psychic, the latter hired by family members.

Even when Martin’s partial remains were found, new Sheriff Jeff Crouch was cautious about where the year-old evidence might lead. “Finding this kind of answers some questions,” he said, “but it obviously opens it up to other questions.”

The most obvious lingering question (other than who’s responsible) is what happened the night Martin disappeared? “I don’t necessarily think it was,” Aston says when asked if the killing was premeditated. “It could have been a burglary that’s gone bad.”

Perhaps Martin came home and surprised the killer or killers.

“Do I think they went in there to kill her and see what’s in the house? No, I can’t swear that that didn’t happen. But I don’t think it did. Or did she come in there and surprise them, and then they think about it awhile, and this is the thing we’ve got to do … then that would be premeditated.”

Asked about his use of plural perpetrators when describing possible scenarios, Aston says, “I don’t have any proof that there was more than one. But you know, they had to take the body out of there. I personally think it was more than one person. But that’s my personal belief.”

As for motive, that’s a bit easier, Aston says. “I believe it was probably a home invasion for financial gain.”

Even the local newspaper carrier was questioned during early stages of the investigation, Aston says. There were also reports about someone making a jailhouse confession, then recanting. Rumors of a prime suspect dying surfaced during the years after Martin’s remains were found. And there was some grousing about authorities botching the investigation by not taking her disappearance seriously in the beginning.

“They should have treated it different from the very first moment,” a family member said in 2002.

Aston says he’s prone to pore over the case file now and then because the exercise sometimes triggers new clues to follow. “Every time I get that case down to start reviewing, to see if there’s something else I should do, something else seems to happen.”

He hesitates and then discloses that a new avenue may have recently opened. “We’re actively working it now because of information that’s come in.”

He says there’s another person he needs to interview. Not a suspect, necessarily. Nor even a person of interest. But someone who might lead to more evidence. That person, plus the others he’s already interviewed, says Aston, keep him in pursuit mode.

“One of the people who I’d be interested in is in the north Idaho area, and one is not too far away. At least three of them have records, not necessarily records of violence,” Aston says. “There’s a name recently that surfaced, and I can’t swear that he knows he’s a person of interest.”

It’s come to the point, Aston concedes, where maybe a sense of guilt is the only thing that might lead to the guilty.

“You just hope that somebody someday will say the wrong thing to the wrong person,” he says. “Or somebody will get a conscience.”

If you have information about the death of Hazel Martin, contact the Latah County Sheriff’s Office.

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