Phill Casaus: Solving a murder mystery without the Hollywood razzmatazz

May 6—On the CSI shows and in the movies, it goes like this, right?

Dogged police officer eats, sleeps and drinks a murder mystery that won't be solved. It teases and torments in the mornings, it challenges and chafes at night.

Bryan Martinez doesn't describe his final case as a homicide investigator in such breathless terms. The drama, he leaves for the screenwriters.

"It's more like finding the breadcrumbs," Martinez says of a long process that led to a conviction in what was perhaps Santa Fe's most perplexing and tragic killings in many years.

A jury last week convicted Joseph Jones of first-degree murder in the shooting death of well-liked local businessman Robert Romero, whose life was ended in a burglary-gone-wrong outside his home in July 2018. For a time, it looked as if no one would be held accountable in the Romero case: Though police had swarmed the Las Casitas neighborhood in the hours after the incident and even discovered clues — a flashlight, a pair of eyeglasses — in the victim's yard, the case had gone tombstone-cold.

Martinez, then a sergeant in the Santa Fe Police Department's violent crimes unit, was troubled by the void. A police officer almost since he became an adult, he knew some investigations go dormant and stay there. It happens. But though the Romero killing didn't haunt his every step through 2018, '19 and part of '20, its echo would sound a tuning fork in his head on a regular basis.

"It was just something I would look at every week," says Martinez, now a captain. "Like ... 'Man, I wish we had something more on this. It would bug me. Because I knew we were missing something. I just couldn't put my finger on it."

The case might well have stayed in an investigative purgatory if not for one lucky — but completely unrelated — break.

In early 2020, Martinez says he attended a training in Rio Rancho titled "Homicide Investigations, Tactics and Procedures." The class included information on the topic of genetic genealogy and how that kind of complex information could help cops identify potential suspects through next-level thinking about DNA.

Martinez says the roadblock in the road to Joseph Jones had always been the DNA on the glasses and flashlight at the scene: Lab results hadn't turned up the kind of "hits" on a national database that would easily identify a suspect. But with his curiosity whetted by the genetic genealogy training, Martinez and Santa Fe police turned to Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs, which used the DNA samples to create a profile akin to people who might be looking for a long-lost relative.

The process, never used before in Santa Fe and perhaps only once in the state, narrowed potential suspects to three people: Jones, his brother and a cousin.

By May 2020, police said they had their man. It was Jones.

A clincher, Martinez says, came when police obtained a picture of Jones through probation and parole from a 2016 charge for receiving stolen property. In the photo, he says the suspect was wearing the glasses police found at the scene.

It's at this point you expect to hear a Hallelujah chorus or get some cool Hollywood special effects. Martinez, a friendly sort who likes to talk to people but leaves the media stuff to others, shakes his head.

"It's kind of hard to explain the feeling," he says, struggling for words when asked what it's like when a case comes together.

Less difficult for Martinez is to talk about the process: getting approvals, following procedure, making sure the evidence is as tight as possible. All of it matters, and though it's not sexy, it all adds up. And it still may be important: It's possible, if not likely, Jones' attorney will file an appeal of his conviction.

Regardless of what happens, the Jones case likely was Martinez's last homicide investigation. He was promoted to captain at SFPD and now heads its patrol section. It is decidedly a desk job: counseling fellow officers, shuffling paperwork like a Vegas blackjack dealer, administrating all day.

A far different gig than the one he had for the hunk of his career, largely spent at SFPD or in the Española Police Department.

"This is the management portion," he says, eyes dancing around a small office. "It's a little bit weird for me. I tell my boss all the time, DC (Deputy Chief Matthew) Champlin, 'The cop stuff I can do all day long; I have no problems doing that.' The administrative stuff for me ... I have to work at it."

Martinez, a father of three, all grown, is 50. Retirement from police work is right around the corner, maybe sometime next year.

After that? "Hunting and fishing, man," he says with a wide smile.

Sometimes, it ends that way. No dramatic music. No parting of the heavens. Just a guy who would wince about not knowing the truth. A guy who collected the right breadcrumbs at the right time. A man who did his job.

Maybe you could call it CSI Santa Fe? It has a ring.

Phill Casaus is editor of The New Mexican.