Justice for Loretta Jo Gates? Murder Case Remains Mystery
By Mike Hudson
It was Saturday night, August 25, 2012. Around 10 o’clock, Loretta Jo Gates, a 30-year-old mother of three whose fragile recovery from crack cocaine addiction had occupied her for the better part of a year, left her mother’s Wrobel Towers apartment.
She didn’t even take her purse with her. She was just going across the street to a store at the corner of Niagara and Main, officially called the Bridgeway Mart but known to everyone in the neighborhood as Poppy’s, after the owner.
According to police and neighborhood sources, Poppy’s was the center for all sorts of activity, not all of which was on the up and up.
“She wasn’t really going anywhere,” said Melinda Minder, Loretta’s friend and the grandmother her oldest daughter, Kyla. “She had gone out during the day and come back home to her mother’s. She had got her period. She really didn’t get dressed up fancy, she didn’t take her purse with her, didn’t take her meds with her. She only took her cell phone with her. I think she was going to meet somebody, to talk to somebody.”
An hour went by and Loretta’s mother, Tammy Gates, started getting worried. The streets of Niagara Falls had never been a good place for her daughter. Besides, Wrobel Towers is a secure building and Tammy would have to buzz her back in.
Loretta had just moved in just a few days earlier, after she’d been unable to pay her rent at Carolyn’s House, the Sixth Street residential facility for homeless, battered and abused women. Tammy shot her a text: “Where are you?”
Loretta replied she’d be back in 15 minutes. That was the last time her mother heard from her.
The year before her disappearance had been a difficult one for Loretta Jo. She’d left an abusive relationship with Scott Martin, the father of her two youngest children, and checked herself into the First Step Center, a detox facility on Allen Avenue.
She knew that if she was ever going to get straight, she’d have to get out of Niagara Falls, where there was not only the toxic relationship with Martin to deal with, but her crack dealers, fellow addicts and the streets where she sold her body to buy drugs and food for the kids.
After detox, she traveled to Irving, N.Y., where she enrolled in an intensive and long-term residential rehab program with a good track record of success. Trying to put her life back on track, Loretta was doing all the right things.
“She was really a very likeable person even though she took many bad roads in her life,” Melinda Minder told the Niagara Falls Reporter. “You know that part of recovery is relapse, but even so she was still a very pleasant, easy going person. She wouldn’t even raise her voice.”
Art Gates, Loretta’s father, said he heard nothing but good things about his daughter throughout the rehabilitation process.
“She was doing pretty good and that’s what shocks you the most,” he said.
Following her stay in Irving, Loretta returned to Niagara County, checking into Madonna House, another long-term residential facility located in Lockport and specializing in the treatment of women with children. She longed to see her own kids and Madonna House offered beds where they could sleep on overnight visits.
But even Lockport seemed far away after a while, and the treatment had about run its course. Loretta decided to return to Niagara Falls and take up residence at Carolyn’s House, the Sixth Street housing facility for homeless, battered and abused women and their children.
It was a fateful decision.
She shared custody of her two youngest kids, Mariah and Peter, with Scott Martin, and their poisoned relationship now revolved around that. Loretta also began renewing old street acquaintances: addicts, prostitutes, and drug dealers. And the gains she had made during her year of sobriety began to fall apart quickly.
The move to her mother’s apartment in Wrobel Towers, a half block up from Poppy’s Bridgeway Mart, was the final step back into the dark and dangerous world she’d fled a year earlier.
She didn’t even last a week.
The body parts began turning up four days later.
On Wednesday, August 29, a tourist on board the Maid of the Mist spotted a headless torso near the base of the Falls and police pulled the body out just past the Rainbow Bridge.
The case originally fell under Canadian jurisdiction, and Niagara Police Insp. Jim McCaffrey told reporters the woman had been murdered, but declined to reveal the cause of death. McCaffrey said authorities have asked police in New York and Ontario to review missing-person files and have asked for the public’s help in identifying the remains.
“On Tuesday they went down to Niagara Falls and filed a missing person’s report,” Loretta’s father, Art Gates, told the Reporter. “On Wednesday the state troopers wanted us to go down with her hairbrush and toothbrush and do a DNA on her and see if the body they found was Loretta because there were a lot of similarities. Official word came down that Friday, the day they found the arm and leg,” he said.
A fisherman spotted the body parts downriver near Devil’s Hole late Thursday, but it was already too dark to begin a search. The Niagara Parks Police called in a crew from the Whirlpool Jet Boats tourist concession and the grim recovery was made the next day.
On Sunday morning, there was another gruesome discovery. This time the scene was Duck Island, a wooded islet set in the middle of Hyde Park Lake.
A couple taking their usual morning walk along a remote pathway noticed a plastic bag at the water’s edge. Pulling it up, they recoiled in horror when they saw it contained a human head and hand.
Loretta Jo Gates, daughter, mother, addict and whore, was now also the victim in one of the most grisly slayings ever to occur in Niagara Falls, a place with a reputation for murder out of proportion to its population.
She’d been beaten and stabbed 30 to 40 times prior to being butchered, police said. Because the body parts had been in the water, it was impossible to determine whether she’d been sexually assaulted.
Crimes involving dismemberment are rare and highly complex and may include an explosive concoction of emotion and rage, according to Dr. Erica Hutton, a criminal psychologist specializing in profiling.
The most common kind of homicidal mutilation is referred to by forensic specialists as “defensive” because the motive is to assist in hiding or moving the body, getting rid of evidence or making identification of the victim more difficult.
The killer is usually psychopathic and has the ability to blend in with normal society. This type of personality can appear normal and calm, and even be eager to help investigators, Hutton said.
Last week, Niagara Falls City Police Superintendent Bryan DalPorto announced that his department recently asked the FBI for help in solving the Gates case. The agents will analyze the forensic evidence collected last year and work up a profile of a possible suspect.
“This may give us a focus area to investigate,” DalPorto said. “This is an extraordinary case and one where we are expending every possible resource to solve.”
To date, city police have questioned only one possible suspect in Loretta’s barbaric murder and dismemberment: the father of her two youngest children, Scott Martin.
To look at him, Scott Martin’s not anyone’s idea of a homicidal maniac. He’s a little guy, skinny, maybe 5’ 5” tall and around 140 pounds, with red hair that belies his Italian and Native American heritage.
He’s the father of Loretta’s younger daughter, Mariah, and her son, Peter. He works only sporadically and collects public assistance. On the day he spoke with the Reporter, his primary concern was what he characterized as the ill-treatment he received at the hands of the Niagara Falls city police in the wake of Loretta’s senseless and brutal slaying.
“I don’t want to relive it. I didn’t do it. I loved the woman; she gave me two beautiful children. But there was a lot of suspicion and I am disappointed in how they treated me,” he said. “They treated me horribly and I am very disappointed in the Niagara Falls Police Department.”
News reports that followed his eight-hour questioning by detectives in the case were erroneous, he said, adding that if the police consider him a suspect, they’ve got the wrong guy.
“I was not in custody, I went in willingly,” Martin said. “They came to my house with no search warrants, no papers, and I let them search whatever they wanted to. I gave them my vehicle willingly. They trashed my vehicle, sprayed all sorts of whatever they use looking for blood, DNA, or whatever, and left my car a mess.”
It is a commonplace of police procedure that, when a woman is murdered, suspicion first falls on the man she was having a relationship within the absence of any other viable suspects. And when a history of domestic violence is involved, it becomes a no-brainer.
And, numerous friends and family members of Loretta’s provided detectives with their own blow-by-blow accounts of Scott’s violence toward her, savage violence fueled by crack cocaine addiction and the couple’s street level lifestyle.
“The most brutal person to Loretta, who used to beat the s**t out of her, gave her black eyes, strangle marks on her neck and just rolled over her, was the father of the two children,” Minder told the Reporter. “I don’t know how you can love somebody you beat the hell out of all the time. When you break almost all the teeth in her mouth, bust her face near her eye — that thin bone where her eye was almost coming out — holes in the walls in the house where he body-slammed her into it… I don’t think I call that love.”
Art Gates confirmed Minder’s characterization of the relationship. As a couple, Scott and Loretta was a match made in hell, he said.
“They never got married and they had a very violent history,” he said. “He was obsessed with her. He wanted her back.”
According to Minder, the violence, sexual tension and poverty surrounding the young couple was fueled by their mutual dependence on crack cocaine.
“The history I know of, what I know Scott and Loretta had together, was not happy. It was very violent and they were both into crack, and so he had her or let her go whoring to get his crack,” she said. “And I don’t know if he beat her up because she stuck him with the kids or because she didn’t bring him back enough crack.”
Another thing Minder and Gates agreed on was Martin’s proficiency with the weapon used by the killer to murder and dismember Loretta.
“I know Scott is very good with a knife,” Gates said. “I’ve watched him butcher a deer with a filet knife for hunting because he didn’t bring his bone saw that day. I saw this five years ago or more when he came to my ex-wife’s house. My ex-wife was there; my daughter also walked in…so more than just myself saw this.”
Martin gets defensive when the subject is brought up.
“Last I looked, that is not a crime. I am Native American and that is in my heritage,” Martin said. “Chefs are good with a knife; a lot of people are good with a knife. These cops better start looking elsewhere and stop wasting taxpayer money trying to pin this horrible crime on me just so they can be the freaking heroes and make an arrest. Them cops don’t care about my children.”
Melissa Minder sits shaking her head. Scott Martin’s treatment by the city police bothers her only insomuch as they haven’t arrested him yet.“I know he is extremely violent and how can you love somebody you beat the shit out of them that many times; make her have eye surgery, surgery to reconstruct her jaw bone, knock out all her teeth where she had to get partials…? Then he broke her partials so she wouldn’t look pretty when she went out,” she said.
Meanwhile, in his own interview, Martin himself seems to let go of his anger toward the Niagara Falls police and starts focusing on his murdered girlfriend’s reputation, what their children will read about the case years from now when they’re old enough to read, and public relations in general.“I just don’t want my children’s mother, I don’t want no bad reports. I mean if she was doing what the cops said that she was doing, I don’t want that stuff leaked out. I don’t want my children to be able to read that one day. If their mother was actually a streetwalker, I mean that’s downgrading. I don’t want that reported. I haven’t seen it in the paper, but I hope it stays out of the paper,” he said. Martin said he and Loretta were getting along fine prior to her murder. There were no issues regarding custody or property, and although they had once loved each other, the romance had been replaced by an abiding friendship.
“Where is the motive?” he asked. “There is no custody battle, I’m not trying to move away, and she’s not trying to move away. I didn’t even take her to court for child support when she didn’t pay any child support. So obviously I wasn’t that mad at her.”
But according to Minder, Martin was just using the children as pawns in a sick game of psychosexual blackmail.
“The whole time she was in rehab, he tried to pull her chain like a puppet, dangling the kids over her head unless she would give him some, give him some more crotch,” Minder said. “When she moved back to the Falls, Loretta used to cry to me ‘What should I do? He won’t let me see the kids unless I give him some pussy.’ I told her to take him to court. I said, ‘You’re the mother of those children. You may be in a facility, but you still have rights.’”
Martin dismisses Minder and other members of Loretta’s family, who he says are against him now because he has custody of her children.
“I know a lot of it is probably from her family members. I already know it’s coming from her family,” he said. “They don’t like me because I have the kids.”
He remains adamant about his innocence, and says his and Loretta’s children are now his top priority.
“It’s not everyday in your life that the cops think you’re a murderer. And I’m very upset that someone would even point a finger in my direction. They are so unhappy with their own lives they have to try to ruin somebody else’s,” he said. “The court of public opinion does not bother me. What do I care what somebody says about me? I don’t need anybody out there. I am worried about my children.”
With the one-year anniversary of Loretta Jo Gates’ senseless murder fast approaching, her friends and family are left with far more questions than answers.
While Niagara Falls Police Superintendent Bryan DalPorto describes the Gates homicide investigation as active and ongoing, and has recently sought assistance from the FBI in reviewing the forensic evidence and coming up with a criminal profile of the killer, the fact remains that the case has gone cool if not cold. A homicidal maniac still walks free among us.
For the police, the prime suspect is, and always was, Loretta’s baby daddy, Scott Martin. He was questioned in the wake of the murder, his residence searched and his car subjected to every sort of blood and DNA testing known to law enforcement. Investigators came up with nothing that would allow them to make an arrest, nothing that would stand up in a court of law.
“It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove,” one detective said.
And what can be proven? Very little, it turns out. A year has passed and all that we really know is that, on the night of Aug. 25, 2012, a depraved psychopath with a knife stabbed a pretty, young mother of three 30 to 40 times, cut her to pieces with the skill and precision of a surgeon or butcher, then threw the pieces into the water of the Niagara River and Hyde Park Lake.
And the questions remain. Only two people had the answers, and one of them is dead.
Why did Loretta go out that balmy summer night, beneath the crescent moon, and back down to the cruel streets of Niagara Falls, the same streets she’d fled for the cold comfort of rehab more than a year earlier?
The Bridgeway Mart, known to the street denizens who patronize it as Poppy’s, sits at the corner of Niagara and Main and acts as a magnet for the crack addicts, dope dealers, prostitutes and smalltime thieves who call the shabby neighborhood, home. You can see them there most any night of the week, along the side of the building, drinking the cheap malt liquor they bought with money they got selling their food stamps.
The parking lot is a veritable bazaar where, in addition to food stamps, one can buy sex, dope, guns or a recently burglarized wide screen television set. You can watch the whores throw up when the dose takes effect or a drunk gang banger urinating against the wall. It’s not a place where you’d go to pick up a loaf of bread and a quart of milk.
Not after dark, anyway.
There are thousands of places like Poppy’s in urban ghettos all across America, and Poppy’s is no better or no worse than the usual run.And it was Poppy’s that drew Loretta Jo Gates, just out of the shower and dressed in fresh summer clothes, out of her mother’s apartment on the night that she was slaughtered.
According to Art Gates, an employee at the store must also be considered a suspect in his daughter’s murder.
“He’s kind of a launderer. He buys stuff and sells it cheap so people can get their drugs. I heard he has a violent temper with women, his ex-wife left him because of that, and I heard he has a dungeon set up in the basement of the store,” Gates said. “Two people came to me at two different times mentioning him, one didn’t know who he was and we found out it was the guy at the store.”
After the body parts were positively identified as Loretta’s, police interviewed the employee, who said he saw her getting into a small white car at around 11 o’clock on the night she went missing.
“He said he saw it and it was on the surveillance video, but the detective said there was nothing of Loretta on the video,” Gates said. “I don’t know if he was just saying it or the police are just not letting us know.”
Melinda Minder said she was also aware of Poppy’s reputation, and named Scott Martin as a patron of the establishment.
“I know people go and sell shit: food stamps, hot items whatever. People go and buy shit too. I don’t know if it’s legal or not,” she said. “As far as them together selling their food stamps and then stealing cans of soup to feed the kids, I was told Scott was selling his food stamps over at Poppy’s, the corner store, probably to get drugs.”
After Loretta’s murder, Gates said, a strange incident involving the employee occurred. It bothers him still, and he’s thought about it a lot.
“Now, I had heard he is very violent against women and has a very bad temper, that he could cut your head off and not think twice about it,” he said. “And someone had gone in there to hang a flyer for Loretta and he told her to get the f**k out of there, that they did not want that picture in there at all.”
Aside from the apparent lack of forensic evidence, the biggest problem in the police case against Scott Martin is that he has a seemingly airtight alibi for the night of Loretta’s disappearance.
“I was helping some friends at the Jazz Festival in Lewiston that night and after I worked until two in the morning, then I went and picked up my son and went home,” he said. “I didn’t have my daughter that night.”
Police sources say witnesses backed up Martin’s alibi. Is it possible that he slipped away, drove up to Niagara Falls from Lewiston, murdered Loretta, washed up and changed his clothes and then drove back to Lewiston without anyone at the festival noticing?
It doesn’t seem likely.
“I don’t know how many times I have to say it,” Martin said. “They are not going to find anything because I wasn’t involved. They can run every test they know to man and it’s not going to help.
“I had nothing to do with this,” he added. “But there is some proof out there somewhere. There’s gotta be a crime scene out there somewhere and they need to get off their asses and find it.”
Even Melinda Minder has considered the possibility that someone other than Martin might have been responsible for Loretta’s murder.
“I have thought about it,” she said. “Some of her life was private and far as like people on drugs she knew, I didn’t know them, I didn’t want to and I wouldn’t want them near me. I am afraid of people like that. But I just don’t know. I wasn’t with her on a daily basis. She would see her child sometimes once a week, sometimes every three weeks. Sometimes she would talk moments with me or if she needed rides somewhere I would give her rides.”
But in the end, her mind always returns to the savage violence she says Scott inflicted on Loretta during the course of their relationship.
“I thought could it be a crack dealer or something, a drug addict dealer? But I don’t think with the drastic extent that was done that they would do something like that. I think it was personal,” she added.
Will the murder and dismemberment of Loretta Jo Gates take its place alongside the brutal 1964 slaying of soft-spoken family man Sam Alaimo or the sadistic 1969 slaughter of flamboyant local attorney Jimmy LiBrize in the annals of unsolved Niagara Falls mysteries?
Perhaps it’s too soon to say, but ask any cop worth his salt and he’ll tell you that the farther away you get in time from the actual criminal act, the odds of catching those responsible become smaller and smaller.
It was a standing-room-only crowd at Zajac Funeral Home as family, friends and morbid curiosity seekers gathered to remember Loretta a month after her headless torso was pulled from the turgid waters of the Niagara River.
Her three children, Kyla, Mariah and Peter, were there, along with her father, Art, and her mother, Tammy. Melinda Minder shot dirty looks across the room at Scott Martin, who everyone agreed looked nervous and acted guilty.
The dope fiends, whores and small time hustlers who normally congregated at Poppy’s kept to themselves, paranoid and edgy, talking in hushed tones.There were cops taking notes and social services workers who attended many funerals and members of various 12-step programs knowing that, but for the grace of God, it could have been their family sitting in the front row.
They were all there to remember Loretta, the petite young blonde with problems and troubles bigger than the Falls themselves, who tried to turn her life around, but found instead, the horror and brutality that characterizes much of life around that sad intersection of Main Street and Niagara Avenue.
|Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr.||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||
JUN 18, 2013