Did a mother, only 38-years-old and whose three daughters were her life, decide one night to just simply walk away from them forever? Or did her husband kill her after she decided she had had enough of his endless cheating, was going to kick him out of the family home, and was planning on taking the girls?
This case, the Hector Martinez and the Maria Elena Guzman-Cordova case, is one that I can never forget. I attended the hearings and trial back in 2019, but I did not write about it at the time. However, in 2022, I decided to write a book about trials we can’t forget, and this case immediately came to mind. This is a tragic, tragic case. A beautiful mother is gone, and no one is being held responsible for her death. What happened in the middle of this trial to bring it to a shocking end? Here is a portion of the story. To read the full account of this unbelievable case, please read my book, Murder Trials We Can’t Forget And Other True Cases, available on Amazon. And to read about another case where a wife has gone missing after seeking a divorce, which is currently in the news and has similarities to the Hector Martinez case, please read: https://aleidalaw.com/maya-millete-sought-a-divorce-her-husband-murdered-her-in-response-says-d-a/
Friday Night October 13, 2017
On the night of October 13, 2017, Maria Elena Guzman-Cordova disappeared seemingly into thin air. What had happened to this devoted mother of three? Maria’s husband, Hector Martinez, revealed they had once again argued about his infidelity on that final night, and Maria left their apartment as she often did when she needed time to cool down. But this time, she never returned. Where was Maria Elena?
The family and community searched desperately for her. But they could not find her. Month, after month, after month they searched for her. The haunting questions remained: Where was Maria Elena? What had happened to her? And the most haunting of all: Would she ever be found?
The answer came nearly a year later on September 18, 2018, when a man walking his dog in a remote and rugged area of Palomar Mountain found her remains inside two black trash bags. Her body was so skeletonized that the cause of death could not be determined.
Did Maria Elena leave her home in anger, deciding to never return? Or did she meet foul play along the way as the defense propounded, and her killer just happened to hide her body in a place the family routinely visited in times past? Or was Hector Martinez the only one who could have killed her and then “threw her away like garbage” in a place familiar to him as the prosecution argued?
Decide for yourself in this most tragic of cases.
The Marriage of Hector Martinez and Maria Elena Guzman
Hector Martinez and Maria Elena Guzman were married for twenty years. Hector was originally from Mexico and crossed over into the United States for a better life. He obtained legal citizenship and worked as a roofer with the A1 Budget Roofing Company for 15 years, eventually rising to the position of foreman. Maria Elena Guzman also obtained legal citizenship and worked cleaning houses four days a week. The couple had three daughters, Katie, Hermosa, and Haylo. (The names of the children have been changed). At the time of Maria’s disappearance, the girls were eighteen, fourteen, and eight.
The family of five lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Vista, California, a city in north San Diego County. Hector and Maria slept in the bedroom with eight-year-old Haylo sleeping on a mattress on the floor. The two older sisters, Katie and Hermosa, shared the living room. Despite the love the family had, Hector Martinez could not resist the temptation of other women, and he was consistently unfaithful throughout the long marriage, breaking Maria’s heart each time. Although they fought over this issue, the marriage continued. That is until the time came when Maria decided she would take no more. She wanted her husband out. But Hector did not want to leave. Did he find another way? According to the prosecution he did, and it was cold, hard murder.
Hector Is Charged with Murder
On October 25, 2018, a little over a month after Maria’s body was found, Hector was arrested and charged with her murder. On December 5, 2019, Hector Martinez’s murder trial began in the courtroom of San Diego Superior Court Judge Michael Washington. The Christmas holidays were getting into swing, but it could not have been a joyous time for Hector and Maria’s three daughters. The position they were placed in was one no child should ever have to face.
The Prosecution’s Opening Statement: Hector Martinez Murdered His Wife
San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Marnie Layon began her opening statement telling the jury the story she knew so well. On the night of October 13, 2017, Maria Guzman disappeared. But she didn’t just disappear, she was murdered and “there’s only one person responsible,” said Layon.
She then delved into the problems in the marriage. Hector and Maria were married for 20 years and there was infidelity throughout. Maria was depressed because of her husband’s cheating, and she was diagnosed with depression, and she was taking medication. Hector told his boss, Albert Apodaca, they had problems in the marriage because of his infidelity and Maria was suicidal. Apodaca said she was leaving him, and Hector was concerned she was leaving and taking the girls, Katie, Hermosa, and Haylo. “The girls were her life.”
On the night Maria disappeared, they drove Hermosa to a church retreat and then returned home. Katie came home and her mom seemed fine. Maria was wearing black leggings which she always wore to bed. Hector said they had an argument and Maria left the apartment. When there was a disagreement, Maria would go down to the courtyard for 10 minutes and cool down. But this time she did not return.
Maria left everything behind: her purse, car keys, and cell phone. She tended to get cold easily, so she always wore a sweater or jacket whenever she went out walking. They were all left behind.
The next morning, October 14, 2017, at 6:44 a.m. Hector called his mother in Vista and asked if he could drop off Haylo. He did not tell her Maria was missing. His mother said it was unusual for him to drop off Haylo. Hector’s whereabouts during this time were unknown. It was one hour and 43 minutes from his mother’s house to Palomar Mountain, including hiking time. That same Saturday morning, his neighbor, Alba Contreras, saw Hector in the laundry room pulling out sheets and she made a comment. Yet Hector did not say anything about Maria being missing.
At 2:00 in the afternoon Katie called, and Hector told Katie her mother had walked away. He had not checked with neighbors or called family. Hector picked up Hermosa from the church retreat and she noticed her mother was not there.
Hector finally called Maria Gonzalez and she came over. She asked him, “Did you call her relatives?” Hector answered, “No.” She then asked, “Are you going to?” and Hector said, “No.” So Maria Gonzalez took it upon herself and called the family. Hermosa called 911 and a sheriff deputy came over.
Within 48 hours of Maria going missing, Hector wanted to add Hermosa to their bank account. First thing on Monday morning, he did just that. Hermosa was only 14 years old, but Hector added her to the family account. In the safety deposit box Maria and Hector had $50,000. There was no activity on this account the entire time Maria was missing. Why would a woman who left not use this?
On Monday, October 16, 2017, detectives came over and brought cadaver dogs. They did not alert to anything.
On Thursday, October 19, 2017, the detectives found black construction bags in Hector’s truck. They also found a receipt dated October 11, 2017, for a 20-count roll of black construction bags.
In November 2017, Alba saw Hector throw stuff away into the dumpster. When she looked, she believed it was the same sheets she saw from the laundry room.
After the disappearance, Hector was not interested in the search for his missing wife. Instead, he pursued other women. He met a woman at church, Lilliana, who he tried to date. She asked about Maria. “Did you have something to do with it?” Hector would not deny it but would just change the subject. Hector pursued Lilliana so extensively she finally blocked his number.
On September 18, 2018, Eric Firdell, who had been working on Palomar Mountain, went for a walk with his dog. He came across a black trash bag and picked it up. Two leg bones fell out. The next day, he reported it to the sheriff, who went to the site. The remains were in two bags. One bag was a heavy-duty construction bag that was knotted. The Martinez family would go to Palomar Mountain during holidays to see the snow, so it was a place Hector Martinez knew well.
The medical examiner determined the cause of death was a violent death and the manner was homicide. On the leg bones, they found two dark Ralph Lauren shoes and within the socks, toenails were collected. They used the DNA from the toenails to determine it was Maria Guzman.
“She did not just walk away from three daughters that she adored. She did not just walk away from her life. It was taken from her!” exclaimed attorney Layon. She then told the jury there was only one reasonable conclusion: Hector Martinez murdered his wife.
The Defense’s Opening Statement: Hector Martinez Did Not Kill His Wife
San Diego County Public Defender Elysia Wilschke also knew the case well and she held nothing back. “He did not do this!” she proclaimed, before saying Hector and Maria’s daughter was present when Maria walked out of the apartment. “There is absolutely no evidence Mr. Martinez murdered his wife because he didn’t do it,” she then repeated.
Hector had worked for A1 Roofing for 16 years. He was only five foot, three inches tall and weighed 120 pounds. He was not strong. He could not lift a body.
Hector had a long history of infidelity in the 20-year marriage, which Maria always knew about. When she got upset, she would leave to calm down, and would be gone one hour. She told the jury, “Katie will say in 2017, Maria got in the habit of leaving the apartment, and just leaving everything behind.”
Maria and Hector would walk together in the evenings. On the night of October 13, 2017, witnesses saw them walking and laughing. Later, once in bed, Haylo was on the mattress on the floor, and Maria couldn’t sleep because she started thinking about the Facebook messages Hector had sent to other women. He said he didn’t want to talk about it. No argument was heard. Maria got up and left the apartment. When she didn’t come back, Hector went out to look for her.
The next day he called Maria Gonzalez and Katie. When he picked up Hermosa from the church, she said he seemed sad. Hermosa called 911 because she was the only one fluent in English.
The detectives brought in cadaver dogs, and they did not alert anywhere. Hector fully cooperated with law enforcement. He gave nine separate interviews, which were recorded and every time they were consistent.
It was not a search for the truth by law enforcement. After two days, they focused on Hector and disregarded all evidence Hector was innocent. Several witnesses said they saw Maria, and one witness said she was 100% certain. Yet they did not follow up.
In September 2018, one year later, Eric Firdell found the body. “This is the third body this guy has found,” stated Wilschke. Detectives searched all license plate surveillances to see if they could find Hector’s car going towards Palomar Mountain. They did not find his car.
The two bags Maria was found in did not match any of the bags Hector had in his possession. One bag was a gusseted black bag, which Hector had never owned or used. The outer bag was a regular black bag, which did not match any of the bags Hector had.
“The district attorney’s case is just a story. Hector did not do this,” said attorney Wilschke confidently as she concluded her opening statement.
A Shocking Ending to the Trial
The prosecution put forth their best case, but midway through the trial, the defense was ready with a powerful request of their own, one that would bring the trial to a screeching halt and set Hector Martinez free forever.
To read about the full history of this case and what happened in this riveting and unbelievable trial, please go to Aleida K. Wahn’s book, Murder Trials We Can’t Forget And Other True Cases. Aleida was there inside the courtroom for every minute and now shares the extraordinary details of what really happened in these gripping and unforgettable trials. Order your copy today at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0B2YLWD1X
About Aleida K. Wahn, Esq.
I am an attorney, award-winning true crime writer, and legal analyst of criminal cases. I cover criminal trials and write stories and books about compelling, gripping, and unforgettable cases that impact our world. I take you into the courtroom in high-profile murder trials, rape cases, crimes of passion, cases involving mental illness, deviant behavior, and more. I have a deep passion for true crime, criminal law, and all aspects of the criminal justice system. I have appeared as an expert on true crime shows, including “48 Hours,” “Snapped,” and “The Dead Files,” and provided legal analysis on high-profile criminal trials on Court TV, the Law & Crime Trial Network, Fox 5 News, ABC 10 News, and KUSI News. I also create and host shows with the Del Mar Television Producers Group, addressing criminal justice and social issues in recent criminal trials.
I provided my insight and legal analysis on Court TV and the Law & Crime Trial Network of the high-profile trial of former NFL star Kellen Winslow Jr. It was a trial that captured the nation as the heralded ex-football star with fame, fortune, and a famous name stood accused of multiple rapes and other sex crimes involving five women. As the trial delved into shocking facts, complicated legal issues, and unexpected twists and turns, I was there for every minute. After the trial, I wrote a book on the case, going behind the headlines to share the extraordinary details of what happened inside the courtroom. Judging Winslow Jr.: From NFL Star to Serial Rapist? Inside the Shocking Rape Trial of Kellen Boswell Winslow II is now available on Amazon.
I am passionate about telling true crime stories, as these penetrating stories have the power to move us all, while highlighting societal issues which need to be addressed. I have personally seen the human devastation which is present in each trial and believe there is a lesson to be learned in every single case. It is through awareness and examining critical issues society can effect change and even make new laws. To learn more, please visit: https://www.aleidalaw.com.
Read about the gripping and unforgettable trials that I have covered in my latest books: