UPDATE July 27, 2016:
Justo Santos, the man who got away with murdering a Washington Heights father in 1986, was convicted of immigration fraud in Miami on July 27, 2016.
March 4, 2016:
Joselyn Martinez is a singer and actress, a shining star who has it all, including a dark secret.
"I was nine years old when my father was killed," said Joselyn.
And she's spent a quarter of a century hunting down the man who pulled the trigger.
"It didn't matter to me what I had to go through, what I had to look like, as long as I made it happen," said Joselyn.
Joselyn Martinez was a daddy's girl, the apple of her father's eye.
Jose Martinez, a Dominican immigrant, worked hard to give his family the American Dream. But it wasn't easy, especially in 1986 in New York's Washington Heights community.
"It was a very tough neighborhood. At that time there were a lot of drugs up there," said former NYPD Detective Joseph Rivera. "The Dominican community and the black community were fighting over the crack wars going on. We were handling close to 100 homicides per year."
A beacon of light in the drug-ravaged neighborhood was the Rincon Dominican Restaurant that Jose opened with his wife Idalia on legendary Dyckman Street.
"The restaurant was our second home," said Joselyn. "It's where we would gather, have events, have family gatherings, so it was definitely always a good thing for me."
Those happy memories were all but destroyed when Jose was gunned down right in front of the restaurant, shot in cold blood.
It was dinnertime on November 22, 1986, just four days shy of Thanksgiving, when three young punks walked through the door and started harassing a waitress.
"They were using foul language and the owner, Jose Martinez, confronted them, and actually asked them to leave because there was other families in there, it was inappropriate language, and he didn't want them in the restaurant," said former NYPD Detective Mike Sheehan. "So basically he threw them out."
Jose and a cook shoved the young troublemakers out the door, but the argument heats up when they hit the street.
"They're outside, one thing leads to another, there's another kid there who says 'Just shoot him,'" said Sheehan. "Sure enough he takes the gun out and opens fire."
Two shots ring out; one strikes Jose in the chest, puncturing his heart. He dies in the arms of his wife, Idalia.
"These three punks had no rational idea about going in there, sit down, having dinner, they went in there for trouble and they ended up killing a guy, a family man, a father," said Sheehan. "What a waste."
Homicide detectives Mike Sheehan and Joseph Rivera begin their investigation at the Martinez house.
It was that night, at the tender age of nine, that a fire ignited inside Joselyn.
"I was just absorbing all of that," said Joselyn. "I wouldn't speak much, I wasn't busy talking, I was busy listening, and trying to get every conversation I could hear about the murderer and how I can make something happen."
Detectives begin canvassing the neighborhood hunting for justice, and fighting for Joselyn.
"We just kept getting bits and pieces from the grocery store, from the other stores on the block, from one to two people that were in the restaurant, from the cook in the restaurant," said Rivera. "They knew of him, they had seen him, he only lived around the corner."
And then a clue anonymously appears at the restaurant.
"Someone dropped a yearbook over to the restaurant and just left it in the restaurant, with Justo Santos's photo circled in pen," said Rivera.
The killer was identified as 16-year-old Justo Santos.
"We had the posters made through the TIPS program, and we put the photo of Justo Santos as 'Wanted for the murder of Mr. Martinez' and we spread it all around," said Rivera.
"I would look at it and try to really see the face well, and see if I will ever bump into this person," said Joselyn.
"She was determined to get the man who killed her father," said Sheehan.
Finally, a tip leads detectives to Justo's mother's house.
"Justo was quick and his family hid him from us and within I believe a two-week period he left for the Dominican Republic," said Rivera.
Rivera convinces Justo's mother to arrange a phone call to the teen in the Dominican Republic, hoping to convince him to return to New York.
"I called him and I was able to extract the full confession that he did kill Jose Martinez on that day by shooting him, shot twice, one of the bullets hit him and went through his heart and his lung," said Rivera. "He took the gun, threw it on the trash and ran with his two friends."
"He confesses, 'fesses up, 'Yeah I shot him, but it was self-defense,' as it always is with these killers," said Sheehan.
It was a full confession, but there was no way to bring Justo Santos to justice.
"There was no extradition whatsoever," said Rivera. "We could not go down in there and demand anyone that was down there."
The case goes stone cold for two years.
Then Detective Rivera gets an anonymous tip: Justo Santos's mother dies, and he's returning to New York to take her body back to the Dominican Republic. This could be their one shot to grab him on American soil.
But Justo gives the cops the slip by falsifying his travel documents, and police say he bribed a Dominican airline to take his name off the passenger list.
Luckily, this time the Dominican national police force is willing to work with the NYPD.
"They did have a law in the Dominican Republican whereby if a Dominican committed a crime against another Dominican in another country, that they would be able to prosecute them there," said Rivera. "That's what we were hoping would happen."
It seems Joselyn will finally get justice. Dominican police grab Justo at the airport. He's in disguise and carrying a loaded weapon.
"Everyone was happy, 'OK, he's gonna go to jail, he's gonna get sentenced,'" said Sheehan.
But not for killing Jose Martinez.
"He gets arrested for the handgun there, the charges for the murder aren't processed whatsoever," said Rivera. "He in turn pays a civil penalty and is out of jail within about a year and a half."
Again Justo Santos is a free man. Joselyn, now a teenager, is devastated, but more determined than ever.
"I did become driven, because for me it was personal," said Joselyn. "It wasn't anger, too, I was just saying, 'I'm going to get him.'"
It takes 20 years, but she finally hunts down the man that killed her father. And you won't believe where she finds him.
Just three years after allegedly murdering Jose Martinez, Santos leaves the Dominican Republic, flies into Puerto Rico to avoid immigration, and sneaks back into the U.S. He then applies for U.S. citizenship and lies on his application.
"There's a questionnaire, 'Have you ever got arrested or if you were ever being pursued in an investigation or anything having to do with criminals,'" said Rivera. "He says 'Absolutely not, I have a very clean record. I'm next to all the Godly saints, I'm right behind them.'"
If caught, it's a federal offense, but again Santos slips through the cracks and is granted citizenship in 2009. And he's working right under the cops' noses, in of all places the Miami-Dade Metropolitan Police Department.
"He has a Florida driver license, he's got a gun permit, he's got a voter registration card, he's got a Social Security number," said Sheehan. "He's not hiding, he's out in plain sight."
A quarter of a century after pulling the trigger, a NYPD detective flies to Miami and finally arrests Justo Santos.
"Our detective goes down there, sits him down, talks to him, 'Yeah I'm the guy, I confessed then, and I'm gonna confess now, I'm gonna tell you what happened,' and he tries to make logical excuse. 'This was self-defense, I just didn't randomly fire a gun at someone,'" said Sheehan. "Of course he never says what the hell are you doing with a gun at that age."
Santos waives extradition and returns to New York. They've finally got him. He's held at Rikers Island and indicted for the murder of Jose Martinez.
Now Joselyn is about to look her father's killer in the eye for the first time, and so are the cops who chased him for all these years.
Then a blow no one saw coming: Judge Robert Stolz floors everyone in the courtroom. The judge dismisses the case. He rules too much time has passed, and 26 years after the shooting, the case is so cold justice can't be served
"Judge Stolz decides that he would release the murderer based on his right to the speedy trail," said Joselyn.
"The truth of the matter is that he fled. He hid. He admitted to the murder, of killing Jose Martinez. The judge totally forgot about that," said Rivera.
Despite fleeing and living a lie on the lam, Santos is once again a free man.
"It still eats at me that this guy, this bum Santos is walking around free, smiling," Sheehan said. "He hugged his lawyer, kind of laughed at the whole judicial system here in New York. 'Yeah I did a year in Rikers Island waiting to come to trial, and then here I am now free to go. I killed a guy and I'm going back to Miami.'"
But Joselyn's story doesn't end there.
"It sure is unresolved, because I believe the federal government can arrest someone for lying in their citizen application," said Joselyn.
And they do. Cops arrest Justo Santos on federal charges.
"He's supposed to go to court in April of 2016," said Joselyn.