Mystery of vanished KSU student spans 35 years

By Dave O'Brien | staff writer Published:

Kent State University student Judy Martins was last seen leaving a friend's Dunbar Hall dorm room on the Kent campus early on the morning of Wednesday, May 24, 1978.

It was the end of spring quarter at the university, but witnesses said Martins, 22, was dressed in a Halloween costume on that particular night. A gaudy red wig covered her dark hair, and her hazel eyes were hidden behind large sunglasses. Clad in gaucho-style jeans, a brown and yellow blouse, beige trench coat and brown boots, she carried a large, white imitation leather shoulder bag.

At about 2:30 a.m., she headed back to her room in Engleman Hall, a walk of about 300 yards from Dunbar Hall that should have taken three to four minutes. She apparently never made it.

Martins has not been seen since that morning. And much of the evidence and files collected by police immediately after her disappearance has been disposed of because police can't prove a crime occurred.

A resident of the Cleveland suburb of Avon Lake, Martins was a general studies major and resident student adviser. She was 5 feet 4 inches tall and 120 pounds at the time of her disappearance, and wore glasses, which police found in her dorm room after she disappeared.

Martins was reported missing by another resident student adviser on May 26, according to media reports at the time. Her student ID card and many of her possessions were found in her dorm room, and her family said it was unlike Martins to not call and check in.

A supervisor on the case in 1978, current KSU Police Chief John Peach calls Martins' disappearance "a real mystery."

KSU and Kent police mounted a massive search for Martins, using borrowed National Guard helicopters fitted with infrared scanners to search for a grave site or body.

Ron Heineking, who was the Kent police chief in 1978, said officers walked downtown Kent in the evenings following Martins' disappearance, looking for her.

"They all had her picture, knew what she looked like," he said.

Searchers walked the banks of the Cuyahoga River and checked the area of Standing Rock, Heineking said, to no avail.

An ex-boyfriend of Martins was ruled out as a suspect after passing a polygraph, Peach said. Investigators later consulted a psychic who told them to search Towner's Woods in Franklin Township for Martins' body. That search yielded nothing, according to Record-Courier reports.

"We were never able to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there was criminal wrongdoing," Peach said. "No one believed" Martins would have simply left Kent to start a new life without telling anyone, he added.

The most promising development in the Martins case, which took place about two years after her disappearance, itself is wrapped in mystery.

Peach said he recalled getting a phone call from the Cuyahoga County jail approximately two years after Martins disappeared, saying that a woman named "Judy Martinez," who looked strikingly similar to Martins gave the missing woman's birth date as her own while being booked on a prostitution charge.

The woman in question was "obviously" drug-dependent, Peach said. If it was Martins, "she looked like she had aged 100 years," he said.

Martins' mother was adamant the woman was her daughter, he said. However, Martins' father "took one look at the woman and said 'That's not my daughter,'" Peach recalled.

Further adding to the mystery, Peach said "Judy Martinez" looked at the couple and told them "'Judy Martins is better off dead.'"

It was the days before standard DNA testing by law enforcement, and Martins' fingerprints were not on file because she had never been arrested, he said. Record-Courier stories from the time later reported that the woman was not Martins because dental X-rays did not match.

"We were certain the parents could ID" their own daughter, Peach said. "It seemed more like a civil case than a criminal case, but it was too coincidental for those things to have been just a strange happenstance."

Heineking said disappearances were not as publicized in 1978 as they are now. While the recent recovery of three alleged kidnapping victims in Cleveland made national news, he said police were lucky "if (Martins' disappearance) hit statewide papers."

"Back then, there was not the missing persons websites on the computer, the FBI wasn't involved in all that kind of stuff," Heineking said.

Over the years, Peach said, there have been additional inquiries into Martins' disappearance. KSU police have shared information with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and national missing persons agencies, but much of the file on Martins had been disposed of, in part due to records retention policies.

"We really haven't kept all those things," Peach said. "It was never classified a crime, and that was before the guidelines for missing persons were established, well before we were able to keep electronic versions of records."

Investigators remain without a main suspect in Martins' disappearance. Peach said if a new lead were to come in, it would be fully investigated.

"It's just a bizarre case," he said. "To this day, it's too bizarre for me even to think of what happened … We don't know it's a crime, but it's too unusual to think that a crime wasn't involved."

Follow Dave O'Brien on Twitter at @RCCrimeWatch

Contact this reporter at 330-298-1128 or dobrien@recordpub.com

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  • "Investigators later consulted a Psychic" who told them to search Towner's Woods in Franklin Township for Martins' body...That search yielded nothing, according to Record-Courier reports...Enough said...

  • Martins' mother was adamant the woman was her daughter, he said. However, Martins' father "took one look at the woman and said 'That's not my daughter,'" Peach recalled. Further adding to the mystery, Peach said "Judy Martinez" looked at the couple and told them "'Judy Martins is better off dead.'" Missing person's cases have been mishandled (and for the most part continue to be) for decades. In fairness to law enforcement the circumstances to why someone goes missing are facts that are often let out (substance abuse habits, what the person may/may not be involved in). What often seems/sounds like a person 'voluntarily' goes missing is not always the case (Michelle Knight). This Martins case seems like one of those. Also Mr. O'Brien, there is another unsolved missing person's case of a male student from around this time (maybe more so early 80's) that I am aware of. (I was never aware of the Martins case). How many missing persons cases are there in Portage County right now dating back to the 70's?

  • You don't know its a crime??? Um duh I would say so! What kind of follow through have you done? Many cases like this have been solved using DNA you have any? Sad KSU cared more about their rep than finding this student! I think the way this case was handled was poor at best! I do believe the FBI would become involved if they felt they were needed seems more to me like KSU police and Kent police really dropped the ball! Common sense should have said this student didn't just vanish into thin air! What about this Posey fellow? Wow this would be something that a book could be wrote or a course taught on how NOT to handle a missing person case! Sad both parents had to die without knowing what happened to their daughter! Also they felt they were not treated well by KSU or Kent Police!