Sgt. Mike Martel, a Detroit homicide detective, died after he lost control of his motorcycle last Friday and hit a telephone pole. Martel is survived by his wife Coleen, a woman he loved for two decades, and sons Mitchell, 17 and Brett, 15. His funeral is Friday morning in St. Clair Shores.
The death of Sgt. Martel received some media coverage and -- as is usually the case -- some people complained that the death of an off-duty cop deserves no more notice than the death of an ordinary citizen.
That, in my opinion, is complete nonsense. A cop like Martel lived a life beyond the ordinary citizen. He donated his life in service of the ordinary citizen. He put his life and reputation at risk. Martel worked more than a hundred murder cases in his six years on the homicide squad. A cop like Martel is never off-duty.
Here is a story I could not share when Martel was alive because it could have meant the end of his career. I offer it now as evidence of the quality of the man. A version of this will appear in my upcoming book DETROIT: An American Autopsy. You may also play the video in the player on the left. Martel is the large man interrogating a hit man for a drug cartel.
DETROIT -- It’s a bad thing sometimes to give your number to cops because cops like to ruin your sleep. One evening, Detroit homicide detective Sgt. Mike Martel called me while I was curled up on the couch. He said he had a scene I might be interested in. I slid my trousers on and drove to the southwest side.
There was a doctor there who had his Mercedes Benz ruined by his brains splattered all over the leather interior.
"Look at it," the sergeant said, shining his flashlight on the dead man. He was slumped over the wheel almost like he was leaning to change the radio station. From the passenger side you could see his teeth. All of his teeth. Half his face was gone. Glass stuck to his golf shirt. His shoes were in need of a competent polish.
"Did you bring a camera?" he asked.
"Too bad. Good picture.” He pulled off the rubber gloves from his large, nail-bitten hands. He slipped them into his suit pocket. It was hot but he still wore a hat. A porkpie with a feather in it. It looked ridiculous but that’s a Detroit murder thing. The homicide cops wear hats. Still, the hat didn’t fit. And I never knew Martel to wear one. He was clowning me on the set. Murder does that to a man’s mind.
“Shouldn’t try painting the town red in this part of town,” he lectured the corpse, pantomiming pity for dead man who didn’t really deserve any. “It’s usually your own blood that gets used for paint.”
He turned to me. “You hungry?”
We sat a local diner, a rundown joint with walls the color of an old man’s teeth. I watched the detective tear into a chili dog. He weighed 350 pounds and was trying that meat-only diet.
"The whole s--- is corrupt from top to bottom," he said through his mustache and a mouthful of dog. "Cops to judges. The f------ radios in the cars don't even work. Why you think so many guys are leaving the department?”
And then he launched into the craziest story of true-life murder story I’d ever been told.
“You should look into this one, it’s totally f---.”
In January 2008, a teenage street tough named Deandre Woolfolk made plans to avenge a failed hit on his boss, Darnell Cooley, a drug dealer who was laying in a hospital in a coma.
Woolfolk tried to enlist the help of a neighborhood mope named Davon Perry to be the getaway driver.
Perry declined, insisting he had to work that night. But Perry never went to work. Perry didn't even have a job. Instead, Perry went to the intersection of Fenkell and Wyoming, where he had been told the hit would take place, to watch. Before Perry arrived, however, the 34-year-old picked up his 16-year-old brother and three teenage girls, including 15-year-old Martha Barnett.
It was 2 a.m. on a school night. They went shopping for Slurpees and snack cakes.
"It was cheaper than a movie," Martel said, launching into his second dog. That's the same thing Fire Department Lt. Mike Nevin had told me about arson, I thought.
In any event, that evening's entertainment would prove to be terribly expensive. Perry either forgot or did not know that the intended target of the hit drove a black Jeep - just like he did.
And Woolfolk and his hit squad did not stop at the Jeep to inquire. One opened up with an AK-47. Woolfolk, sitting in the front passenger seat, raised a 9mm pistol, pointed and pulled the trigger.
"What's going on?" little Martha screamed.
When the smoke cleared, little Martha Barnett was dead with a gunshot wound to the head.
Woolfolk got away for a couple months until he was swept up in a dope raid on the city's west side. He was arrested among a cache of weapons and narcotics.
Two days after his arrest, Woolfolk was interrogated by detectives. During that taped interrogation, he was read his Miranda rights. And on that tape he admitted he was there when the girl was murdered and that he had indeed tried to shoot but that his gun jammed.
"How can I be responsible for a gun I didn't fire?" he asked.
The driver and the shooter with the AK-47 were convicted of first-degree murder but Woolfolk's lawyer argued his client had repeatedly asked to speak with a lawyer before he confessed but was denied one by detectives.
The judge believed him and threw out his confession.
With little other evidence, the prosecutor was forced to drop the charges.
Fast forward six months. Robert Alexander had gone to Arturo's Jazz Club in suburban Detroit to celebrate his 33rd birthday. He went with a group of guys from the barbershop and their girlfriends. Among them was his best friend, Anthony Alls.
Also there was Woolfolk, along with the kingpin Darnell Cooley, who had gotten over his coma and was feeling better.
The evening began as a good one. Champagne was flowing, the music was sweet. Then someone from Woolfolk's table spoiled the evening by fondling one of the women at Alexander's table. Alexander, a large man weighing more than 250 pounds, went over to straighten it out.
When police arrived, they found Alexander lying amid upset tables, a broken bottle and his own blood. He was face-up, unconscious and gasping for air. Then he died.
There was only one willing witness. His friend Anthony Alls. And Alls put the finger squarely on Woolfolk and Cooley and a third man named Eiland Johnson.
A few weeks later, Alls left work at the barbershop around 7 p.m., as usual. He turned the corner off Woodward onto Melbourne Street and opened the hood of his '88 Bronco. This, too, was usual for Alls. The power-steering pump leaked like a sandbag, and before he would start the motor, he would fill the reservoir with fluid. He was meaning to take it in to the mechanic to get it fixed.
While Alls was stooped over the quarter-panel, someone approached from behind and unloaded six shots into his back. Alls was spun around by the force of the barrage and he took a seventh in the chest. Alls stumbled backward and collapsed on the sidewalk.
Instead of the mechanic, Alls went to the morgue. The killer calmly walked around the corner and disappeared.
"He'd been subpoenaed to appear in court just five hours before he was murdered," Martel said, spearing his chili fries with a plastic fork.
So much for the meat-only diet.
"For whatever reason, they provided no protection for him."
Nobody got a look at Alls' killer.
Two days later, police arrested a man breaking into his ex-girlfriends house. The man, not wanting to do another stretch in prison, said he had information on Alls' murder. The man said he did paid hits himself and had information on a handful of murders.
That's when my chili-dog loving detective pal got the call.
"Do you know Alls was scheduled to go into the police academy?" Martel asked me without really asking.
"No s---?" I said, writing the detail down on a napkin.
"No s---," he said, slurping his Diet Pepsi. "He was basically a cop."
But before Martel could put the informant to work, a junior prosecutor turned the hit man's taped interrogation over to the judge and the defense lawyers of Woolfolk, Cooley and Johnson.
Without a living breathing witness, the prosecutor was trying to show that Alls was killed to keep him quiet. This he hoped would convince the judge to allow All's statement to police as evidence in court.
Sgt. Martel said he pleaded with the prosecutor to stall for a few more weeks while he used the hit man-snitch to gather information on the murders by wiring him up.
He even begged the prosecutor to call in sick to court.
The prosecutor refused.
"I told that a--hole to give me 30 days and we can get all them f-----s," he said, scanning the joint for eavesdroppers. We were the only ones in there except the fry cook and the girl at the register. They were watching TV. I noticed Martel had dribbled chili on his tie.
"The p---- refused. Flat out refused," the detective continued. "Now we're going to get nobody and some very bad men are back on the street."
He picked up the check. When a cop picks up a check you know he's serious.
"You want me to have him call you?"
"The hit man, my informant. He's scared for his life because his name is now out on the street."
"Call me? Yeah, sure? Give him my cell number, I guess."
Suddenly I was in the middle of a gangster picture and I didn't have the script.
In the end, I published the story without Martel's name. It sent shock waves through the courtroom and police headquarters. Everyone knew. Martel was in danger of losing his job. The prosecutor threatened him with contempt of court. A federal agent called me, screaming to know my source, claiming that we had torpedoed an ongoing investigation.
His claim was nonsense. There was no federal case. If Martel had not done what he had done, the killers were going to walk and decent citizens would never have known the difference.
Martel was called to the stand in Southfield District Court. I have not yet been able to get the official transcripts but I remember one of the lawyers asking Martel if he had leaked the tape to me.
"Yes," he said bluntly.
Why, he was asked.
Because three violent men were going to walk, he said with his chin out.
After his testimony, Martel called me: "How did I do?"
"Unbelievable," I said. "You got a set on you."
"I'm not going to lie," he answered.
In the end, District Court Judge Susan Moiseev bound over Cooley, Johnson and Woolfolk for trial in large part because of the attention Martel had brought to the case. As a consequence, the men took a plea deal for three to five years in prison. Not much, but if it hadn't been for the heart of Sgt. Mike Martel, it would have been nothing at all.
And in the end, Martel's heart was donated to a stranger.
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