Brothers charged in connection with 1998 death of sister (Jan. 2010)
BAGLEY -- After more than a decade without an arrest in the suspicious death of 31-year-old Leisa Martin, Clearwater County, Minn., authorities have charged her younger brothers with asphyxiating her during a fight and dumping her body in dense woods.
The initial investigation into her disappearance and the discovery of her body days later offered no resolution, and the case remained open as investigators from various agencies pursued leads as they arose over the years.
But a big break came Sunday when Todd Martin, 34, one of her brothers, was arrested for drunken driving and assaulting a deputy. With a blood-alcohol level of .17, he made a confession to officers at the Clearwater County Law Enforcement Center. He told them he and his brother, Troy Martin, 37, were arguing with their sister in the early morning hours of Oct. 28, 1998, at their rural Bagley, Minn., home and restrained her, causing her to pass out, authorities said.
Thinking she had passed out from drinking alcohol, the brothers left her on the ground; less than half an hour later, they discovered she was dead, a criminal complaint says. They drove her body to a remote spot and left her in the woods, the complaint states.
The Martin men are each charged with aiding and abetting manslaughter in the second degree, aiding and abetting interference with a dead body and aiding an offender, according to the county attorney's office. If convicted on all three charges, they each face a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison.
County Attorney Jeanine Brand said the brothers are charged with manslaughter and not murder because evidence suggests they did not intend to kill their sister but were culpably negligent in her death.
Bail was set Wednesday at $250,000 for each brother. They are set to appear in court again Feb. 8 in Bagley, Minn.
Todd Martin, who also faces charges of drunken driving and use of deadly force on an officer, has a court-appointed attorney, who did not return messages Wednesday. Troy Martin was deemed ineligible for a public defender because of his income level, Brand said. Messages left at the county jail for the brothers went unreturned.
Shortly after Leisa Martin's disappearance, Todd Martin told authorities he last saw his sister walking north on Minnesota Highway 92 about 3 a.m. Oct. 28, 1998. Later that day, around 9 p.m., he reported her missing.
He told investigators his sister threw a beer bottle at him during an argument at their home the night she disappeared. Troy Martin told authorities he was asleep during the altercation. Witnesses reported seeing Todd Martin and his sister drinking and arguing at a Clearbrook, Minn., bar earlier that evening.
On Oct. 31, 1998, hunters found Leisa Martin's body near Roy Lake in Mahnomen County, which abuts Clearwater County. The body was slightly concealed by leaves, Brand said. A coroner ruled the death a homicide caused by "asphyxia due to assault," according to the complaint.
Brand said Troy and Todd Martin had never been ruled out as suspects. "These two brothers were the last to see her alive, so evidence pointed that direction," she said.
At 2:20 a.m. Sunday, Troy Martin's wife called the Clearwater County Sheriff's Department reporting that Todd Martin was pounding on the door of her home, revving his engine and drinking booze, the complaint states. Todd Martin drove away before officers arrived, but he was found not far away and arrested for drunken driving, Brand said.
As Todd Martin was being taken to the county's law enforcement center, authorities allege, he used his hands to strangle the deputy who was transporting him. This caused the deputy "to stop breathing for a short period of time," the complaint says.
"The deputy happened to be driving the boat-and-water-safety truck that night because the roads were so bad, so it didn't have a cage," Brand said, explaining how the deputy became vulnerable.
Brand said the deputy managed to call for backup, and Todd Martin was eventually taken into the law enforcement center. She said the deputy was OK after the attack.
Todd Martin told the Herald in December 1998 that he'd had a difficult time holding down a job since his sister's death because he was dwelling on what happened to her. At that point, the Martin family believed authorities saw him as a suspect. He insisted he was not involved.
That same month, investigators searched the family's home looking for evidence, including personal effects of Leisa Martin and residue that would yield biological fluids. The family said agents confiscated a pair of tennis shoes Todd Martin was wearing the night his sister disappeared, and took purses and gloves belonging to her.
Leisa Martin, a petite brunette, was born and raised in Bagley. She graduated from Bagley High School in 1985 and from North Dakota State University in Fargo in 1989 with a bachelor's degree in home economics and art. Single with no children, she lived with her mother and two brothers, working for Herberger's Department Store in Bemidji at the time of her death.
The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both Forum Communications Co. newspapers.