A group of Fort Bragg paratroopers told a 911 dispatcher on the evening of May 23 that they spent all day searching for Spc. Enrique Roman-Martinez, as well as local authorities, after Martinez disappeared during their camping trip in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
But hours before placing the 911 call, the group did run into U.S. Park Rangers. Why the campers didn’t report the disappearance then has been “one of the burning questions,” Martinez’s older sister, Griselda Martinez, told Army Times.
The 21-year-old vanished without his cell phone, wallet, t-shirt and the glasses he desperately needed, Griselda said. He wouldn’t be seen again until his partial remains washed ashore a week later and his case was ruled a homicide.
The seven or so other soldiers camping with Martinez last saw him at midnight, just before they fell asleep, an unidentified caller told the 911 dispatcher at 7:30 p.m. on May 23, according to a recording provided to Army Times by county officials.
“When we woke up, he was not here and we’ve been looking for him all day,” the caller said. “We were trying to find a Park Ranger or their offices, or anything, and so we went all the way to the ferry and found that we needed to dial 911.”
However, early in the afternoon, Park Rangers encountered the group and asked them to move their vehicles, said Cape Lookout National Seashore spokesman B.G. Horvat. The group was parked too close to sand dunes, an important park resource, and asking them to move was a routine request.
“The Rangers moved on after hearing the group would comply ... [and] did not make mention to the Rangers at this point that anyone was missing from their group,” Horvat said in an email. “You would have to ask members of the group why they didn’t report a missing person then.”
The unidentified 911 caller also said their group was “afraid [Martinez] might’ve hurt himself.” And though he was undiagnosed, they claimed he had “suicidal tendencies,” an allegation Griselda disputed.
“If you believe your friend has suicidal tendencies, why would you let them walk off in the middle of the night with no belongings?” said Griselda. “Why wouldn’t you, first thing in the morning, wake up and freak out ... On top of that, why would you wait all day, until 7:30 p.m. to report him missing?”
The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division is treating Martinez’s death as a homicide, CID spokesman Chris Grey confirmed. But Grey could not comment on the inconsistencies in the other campers’ narrative of events, citing the ongoing investigation.
Griselda and the rest of her family have not spoken with those soldiers, and they don’t know their names. Army officials attributed the inconsistency to carelessness, Griselda recalled.
“I still don’t know who these people are,” she said. “I don’t know their names or their faces, nothing like that.”
The immediate search effort was plagued by rain, wind and rough seas. Very few clues were found by those scouring the island.
But in early June, Army CID began calling Martinez’s case a homicide investigation after his partial remains washed up on Shackleford Banks Island, an area nearby where the tides have washed ashore human remains in years past.
Griselda was told by the medical examiner’s office that the homicide determination was at least partially made based on what remains washed up and the condition they were in, which couldn’t have been done by a boat or shark.
The friends Martinez was camping with didn’t know why he left, or if they did, that information hasn’t been shared with Griselda and the rest of his family, who reside in Chino, California.
The family flew out to North Carolina in the days following Martinez’s disappearance. The small size and sparse vegetation of the island where her brother went missing surprised Griselda.
“We thought there would be a bunch of trees, some places people could get lost, but there really wasn’t,” she recalled.
Griselda and her mother, Maria, wanted to speak to the seven soldiers who had camped with her brother when they flew out to North Carolina, but the Army did not permit it.
“They were the last ones to see my brother. Where was he, what did he say?” Griselda said. “But they would not let us talk to them.”
As with most of its investigations, Army CID has held its cards close, concerned that sharing too many details, even with family, could tip off suspects or persons of interest. What they have done publicly, however, is offer a large reward, currently sitting at $25,000, for credible information leading to the arrest of those responsible for Martinez’s death.
The young soldier served as a human resource specialist in the 82nd Airborne Division. The unit’s commander, Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, said Martinez was lost “to a senseless act of violence” in a statement Thursday.
“We are doing everything we can to support his family and find justice for Enrique. I’ve personally spoken with his family to assure them that we will not stop in our pursuit to bring those responsible to justice,” Donahue added. “I encourage anyone with information related to this case, regardless of how small, to contact the Fort Bragg CID Office.”
Martinez was months away from leaving the Army at the time of his death, Griselda said, adding that her younger brother was planning to move back to California and live with her.
Martinez, who was in the fourth year of his enlistment, was scheduled to be medically discharged due to chronic compartment syndrome in his legs, which limited his ability to run long-distance.
Instead of receiving corrective surgery that may or may not fully fix the problem, he was interested in getting out and using his military benefits to study pharmacology and psychology.
“Just that Wednesday, actually, before he went on the trip, we were talking about how we were going to set up his room,” Griselda recalled. “I told him the importance of buying his own bed, how he would take that everywhere. We talked about him buying his first car, what kind of car he wanted and how he wanted to visit Japan.”
Now, the family is focused on finding out what happened to their paratrooper on May 23.
Someone who was on the island that weekend has to know something, they reason. Some detail, no matter how small it appears, could help investigators.
“Just have it in your hearts to help,” Griselda said. “I want to know if my brother suffered or not.”
Kyle Rempfer was an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.