Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Trial Asks: Who Killed Rachael Martina?

Edward Romeo, 30, in Circuit Judge Michael Hunter's courtroom in Bartow. Romeo is standing trial on charges of killing Rachael Martina and burying her in his back yard. The State Attorney's Office is seeking the death penalty.

By Eric Pera
The Ledger

LAKELAND Before she disappeared at age 16, Rachael Martina was troubled and adrift in Florida's foster-care system, bouncing from group homes to shelters and finally to boot camp.

At least on one occasion, Rachael, under the supervision of state child welfare workers, was allowed to leave the highly structured environment of the Polk County Sheriff's boot camp program to visit her father, John Martina.

At the conclusion of one such visit at Lakeland's downtown Munn Park on March 12, 1999, Rachael bolted from the offices of the Department of Children & Families, situated at the north end of the park.

She stayed on the run for several months, dropping in and out of the lives of her relatives and friends, just long enough to ask for money. At some point she befriended brothers Edward and Robert Romeo, and it wasn't long before she was dead.

But no one knew her fate for sure until Robert Romeo, too, died, at the hands of his older brother, Edward, who was back in court Monday for his second capital murder trial related to Rachael's death. The first ended in a mistrial after Circuit Judge J. Michael Hunter came down with malaria in late January.

If convicted, Romeo, 30, faces the death penalty for allegedly killing Rachael with a piece of rope at the home he shared with brothers Robert and Doug.

It wasn't until Robert Romeo was shot and killed in 2004 that witnesses came forward with details that led to first-degree murder charges against Edward Romeo, the eldest of the three Lakeland brothers.

Convicted of Robert's murder, Edward Romeo is serving 25 years in state prison, a fact that his defense lawyer, Bob Norgard, did not attempt to hide from jurors during his opening statement at Monday's trial.

But Norgard presented a different version of who killed Rachael.

"I expect the evidence will show that Edward Romeo did not kill Rachael," he said. "He was simply a witness," and under police questioning "he told them that Robert did it."

Over the course of the trial, which is expected to take at least several weeks, lawyers for both sides will present witnesses who somehow might clear up the matter of just who did kill Rachael. During earlier testimony at Edward Romeo's first trial, his brother, Doug, was questioned about what he knew.

But Doug Romeo reversed what he'd told a grand jury in 2004, that Edward had talked about killing Rachael. Instead, Doug Romeo said he didn't remember having given any of his previous testimony.

In Hunter's courtroom on Monday, Assistant State Attorney Paul Wallace told jurors that besides Edward Romeo, the only living witness to events that unfolded the night of Rachael's death is Ashley Wilson, who was 13 at the time.

Wilson is expected to testify in court today about how she reportedly saw Rachael's body in the Romeo home and watched both Edward and Robert put her in a large bag. She then overheard the brothers put the body in the trunk of their car and drive it around back, where investigators eventually uncovered her partial remains.

According to Wallace, a key part of Wilson's testimony will focus on her recounting how she had been playing video games with Robert Romeo when Edward Romeo came into the room with Rachael's necklace, having mentioned minutes earlier that he was going to strangle the girl.

At first "she (Wilson) didn't attribute anything significant to it," Wallace told jurors. "She thought he was just talking."

[ Eric Pera can be reached at or 863-802-7528. ]

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