Nob Hill Court Homicides

Judge orders Martin Martinez to stand trial in Modesto toddler’s death

There’s no dispute that 2-year-old Christopher Ripley suffered fatal head injuries a year ago while at home in the care of his mother’s boyfriend, Martin Martinez. A jury will have to decide if the toddler’s death was accidental or the result of child abuse.

A judge on Thursday ordered Martinez, 31, to stand trial on murder and child abuse charges in Christopher’s death. The defendant also is the sole suspect in the deaths of the boy’s mother and four others found slain at a Modesto home along Nob Hill Court two months ago.

Stephen Foley, Martinez’s defense attorney, argued that it was a sad set of circumstances that led to Christopher’s death, but that the evidence the prosecution presented didn’t rise to the charges filed against his client.

“This was an unfortunate accident that resulted in the death of this poor little 2-year-old child,” Foley told the judge Thursday morning.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees argued that Martinez knew his actions would create great bodily injuries to the 30-pound toddler. She said three medical experts testified that Christopher’s severe brain injuries were not consistent with the various explanations of an accidental fall as Martinez changed his story.

“Mr. Martinez’s explanations are not just inconsistent; they are clearly lies,” Rees said in court.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova told the attorneys that the medical expert testimony did not provide a conclusive determination whether the boy’s injuries were the result of an accident. But there was evidence indicating the boy’s injuries could only have occurred as a result of a fall of 10 feet or higher, while the defendant claimed the fall was a few feet.

The judge also told the attorneys that the defendant’s differing accounts could be used as evidence of consciousness of guilt, and that there was sufficient evidence for the defendant to stand trial. Córdova scheduled Martinez to return to the courtroom Oct. 7 for an arraignment hearing. Martinez, 31, remains in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail.

The judge’s ruling came as the five-day preliminary hearing concluded. On Thursday morning, the attorneys gave their closing arguments.

The prosecutor said the defendant has a willingness to commit violence, which he showed in a May 2014 incident in which Martinez pushed the boy’s mother, Amanda Crews, into a bathroom door when she blocked his exit from her home. He then allegedly pinned his pregnant girlfriend by holding her down by the neck.

Martinez said in an audio recording to Crews’ twin sister that he was upset over his brother’s suicide, and he was defending himself as Crews tried to stop him from leaving the home. The defense attorney said that doesn’t show a willingness to commit violence. He argued that Martinez was merely trying to seek refuge, and Crews later told police that she felt responsible for the incident.

Crews never reported the incident, even though her sister urged her to call police. Judge Córdova said it’s not unusual for domestic violence victims to minimize their injuries.

The prosecutor also argued that Christopher suffered a black eye, facial bruises and a cut, swollen lip in the seven months that his mother was dating Martinez. A day care employee testified that Christopher would cry and cling to her when the boy was told Martinez was on his way to pick him up. “He would say, ‘No Marty. No Marty,’ ” Rees told the judge.

Crews explained to investigators that her son’s previous injuries were accidental, including the black eye Christopher suffered after falling in a bathtub at his father’s home. Timothy Ripley, the boy’s father, testified Thursday that his son was never injured at his home and that Christopher’s injuries started appearing only after Crews started dating Martinez.

The defense attorney argued that there was no evidence Martinez was near the child when he suffered these injuries. Foley said the prosecution was trying to imply Martinez was responsible because he was in the same home when the injuries occurred. “They’re reaching, your honor,” he argued.

Crews and Ripley’s divorce was finalized the same month their son died. But Crews filed documents a month later that claimed Ripley was telling their 6-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Ripley, that her mother’s boyfriend had killed her little brother. Martinez’s attorney tried to question the lead investigator about those alleged statements, but the prosecutor objected, calling the line of questioning irrelevant to this case. The judge agreed and ordered the defense attorney to move on to a different subject.

Christopher suffered his severe head injuries Sept. 30, 2014, while he was alone with Martinez. The boy’s mother had left the home to pick up her daughter and had asked Martinez to change the boy’s soiled diaper.

Foley argued that Martinez told police that the toddler, who was being potty-trained, used the bathroom. When he walked out, Martinez congratulated the boy with a “high-five” hand-slap before the two started some horseplay, according to the defendant. Martinez, a couple of days later, told police he would never horseplay with his children ever again. His attorney argued that this showed his client never knew his actions would result in such injuries.

Christopher died at a Madera hospital Oct. 2, 2014, after two days on life-support equipment. A child abuse expert and pediatrician at the hospital testified that the boy’s brain had suffered severe swelling. Bleeding was also found just outside the brain.

Two forensic pathologists testified that Christopher also suffered a small fracture on the back of his head, indicating a fall to the ground. But they said the boy’s brain injuries were caused by the brain moving back and forth and side to side inside his skull, not by the fracture.

Martinez initially told a paramedic that Christopher had fallen back while the two were roughhousing. Amanda Crews said her boyfriend was wrestling with the toddler when Martinez picked up the child, and that Christopher arched his back and fell to the ground.

During an Oct. 1 interview, Martinez told Modesto police Detective Phil Owen that he was on his knees playing with Christopher, flipping the boy back over Martinez’s shoulders when the child fell.

At the end of that interview, Martinez demonstrated flipping Christopher over his shoulders. Only this time, the defendant demonstrated that Christopher fell when Martinez stood up. His demonstration for the detective was recorded on video and shown in court.

Several months later, Amanda Crews, 38, was found dead at her home on Nob Hill Court in east Modesto. Also found dead July 18 at the two-story house were her daughters, 6-month-old Rachael and 6-year-old Elizabeth; Martin Martinez’s mother, Anna Brown Romero, 57; and a 5-year-old girl believed to be Martinez’s niece.

While authorities have said Martinez is the suspect in their deaths, they have not said when they will file charges against him. Martinez has been formally charged only with murder and child abuse in Christopher’s death.

Rosalio Ahumada: 209-578-2394, @ModBeeCourts

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