Thursday, August 02, 2007

Transient victims are often nameless as well as homeless:

Venus Martinez has a name in death because she had been arrested when she was alive. Other homeless die unrecalled and unrecorded.

The 29-year-old woman had no identification when her body was found late Sunday near Interstate 4 in Orlando. But police had her fingerprints from past charges, including a July 11 arrest for prostitution and possession of drug paraphernalia.

When the homeless die in abandoned buildings, from violent crime or in accidents, a police record could be the only way to determine who they are.

"Without a name, without ID, they're a marginally subhuman population," said James Wright, a sociology professor at the University of Central Florida.

Drivers licenses, Social Security cards and military identification are among the first things to be stolen or lost when a person hits the streets. Without it, the homeless can't get full-time jobs, stable housing -- or even a name on a death report.

"Every Monday I get calls from code enforcement or law enforcement, looking for help in identifying someone they found over the weekend," said Nancy Martinez, a senior outreach worker in Orlando with the Health Care Center for the Homeless.

Martinez, who is not related to Venus Martinez, comes into contact with many homeless people on the street and in camps. She said more homeless seem to be dying from being run over by cars, a major fear of transients.

'The driver never stopped'

"A few months ago, one of my clients was hit by a car, and I couldn't even identify him at first because of the tire marks on his face," she said. "The driver never stopped. The car just kept going."

Police records make identifying victims easier, as does help from other homeless people who knew them, said Orlando police Sgt. Roger Brennan, the department's homicide-unit supervisor.

But closing cases can be difficult because witnesses, who usually are other transients, move from one place to another without telling police or anyone else.

"Transient witnesses who leave no phone number or name are extremely difficult to locate so they can testify in court. That usually delays cases," Brennan said.

One of the best resources for identifying the homeless is the local media.

"We get most of our tips after people read about it in the paper or watch something on television," Brennan said.

Questions of identity come up regularly. Orange County spent $115,000 to give pauper's burials to 301 people during the 2005-06 budget year. And 231 unclaimed bodies have been buried in two county cemeteries so far this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

"We have some John Does and some Jane Does out there," said Pete Clarke, deputy director of the county's department of health and family services. "If we have a name, we put a little plaque in the ground."

August Felix has a plaque at his grave. The 54-year-old man died in May 2006 after five teens beat him to death for sport. He was identified because he had a record for trespassing.

"We're pretty much lost while we're alive," said John, a transient who goes by only his first name and fears dying alone and nameless. "Only other homeless people know me, and they would not tell police who I was if anything bad happened to me."

Even if a homeless acquaintance can provide information, as at least one did for Venus Martinez, transients often know each other by only first names or nicknames.

Dennis Wayne Pickett, 47, was killed by a hit-and-run driver in January and carried no identification. Friends who also are homeless helped police identify him and his dog Gloria, who also died in the accident.

But Ernest, another homeless man who uses only his first name, figures that no one would care if he were killed. He has no identification and no family.

"I mean, it ends here if I die," Ernest said. "I don't think anyone could even ID me."

Police seek killer

Now that investigators have identified Venus Martinez, the remaining job is to determine who killed her.

Originally from New York, Martinez had arrests locally dating from 2002. An October 2004 arrest for marijuana possession shows she had a home in Orlando. Two months later, she was listed as homeless when she was picked up on a warrant for theft.

To Nancy Martinez at the Health Care Center for the Homeless, the young woman was someone afraid of leaving the streets.

Their paths crossed just a few months ago, when Nancy Martinez was talking to homeless gathered at Compassion Corner in downtown Orlando about getting health care and other help.

Venus Martinez's boyfriend, whose name was not available Tuesday, wanted to be helped. Through the center, he got into a detox program and was given a ticket to return to his family out of state.

He wanted Venus to come with him, but she wasn't ready.

"He occasionally will call and check in and is doing wonderfully," Nancy Martinez said. "But every time, he asks if I've seen Venus and if we could help her."

"The biggest thing is, because you're homeless, no one cares," she added. "Her boyfriend cared. He wanted her to come home to him. He was in love with her."

By April Hunt who can be reached at or 407-420-6269, and Walter Pacheco who can be reached at 407-420-6262 or

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