This story begins with a damsel in distress, but it turns out that she was no fairytale princess.
It ends with the slaying of her knight-in-shining-armor and those responsible for his death — including the damsel and her highwayman lover—awaiting their fates in a modern-day dungeon.
In between lies an all-too-familiar brew of drug addiction, romantic yearning, and sexual manipulation. Although there are still unanswered questions about what went down on the night of February 7, the crime described in assorted police reports and court documents is chilling in its callousness.
Still, it’s unclear whether the fatal shooting of 33-year-old Victor “Danny” Letner was a premeditated affair or whether Letner tried to fight back against the people who were robbing him and was killed in the struggle.
Also of note is Kendra Denise Ivey, the 24-year-old woman who entered Letner’s life and proceeded to string him along, playing the emotional strings of a somewhat naive man who wanted to save her from herself. In the end, she allegedly introduced Letner to the man she considered her real “boyfriend,” a petty crook from Knoxville who took Letner’s life for the pitiful sum of $40.
That man, Charlie Richard Martinez (known to his friends as “Rico”) was born in 1998 to Diana Jeanty, who is now 46 years old. Not much is known about Martinez or can be deduced from his criminal record and the handful of photographs that were made public by police during his brief stint as a wanted fugitive. But one thing that seems obvious is that several women, including his own mom, were willing to put their lives on the line to protect him and may now pay for their loyalty with their freedom.
“A wonderful boy”
Letner was born in 1988 to Leonard and Patsy Letner of Parkridge, Illinois, not long before the family moved hundreds of miles south to the rural Roane County community of Rockwood.
Known by all who knew him as “Danny,” he was described by his father as an exceptionally kind, thoughtful child.
“He was just a wonderful boy,” recalled Leonard Letner. “He always was. He really loved his church, and he was still going to the same Pentecostal church (when he died).
“He sang real good but he really talked a lot. He should have been a preacher.”
One of five children (he had three brothers and a sister), Danny Letner seemed to thrive on small town life. Many people leave permanently for bigger cities with more economic opportunity as soon as they’re old enough, but he opted to stay in the same place as his parents and childhood friends.
Described by those who knew him as both friendly and reserved, good-humored and shy, one gets the impression that Letner was one of those rare adults who retained something of the innocence of childhood. He was interested in collectible toys and games, and some of his social media posts alluded to a fascination with medieval weapons and Renaissance fairs. He searched for a potential mate online through dating sites, had more than 450 friends on Facebook, and considered the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to be inspiring.
In a world where concepts like good and evil are treacherous territories for the wisest and most experienced to navigate, he clearly knew what he wanted to be — a hero.
Despite some qualities which might be characterized as naive and his devotion to Christianity, Letner seemed fully capable of ignoring society’s rules at times.
For instance, the most prominent photograph on his Facebook page showed him committing a federal crime, according to a local wildlife expert.
The picture shows Letner holding aloft a Red-tailed Hawk and wearing equipment that no trained, experienced falconer would use, said Natalie Mong, founder and executive director of the Smoky Mountain Raptor Center.
“The glove he is using isn’t safe,” Mong said.
Mong volunteered the information about Letner’s improper handling of the bird when she was asked by Hard Knox Wire to identify the bird in the photograph.
The species of hawk shown in the picture is the most common and largest hawk in the United States, Mong said. They are often raised by “bird apprentices and wannabe falconers” who use them as starter pets despite the fact that handling them without the proper licensing is a crime.
“I am sorry he was brutally murdered but, if he did not have a permit for this hawk, he was committing a felony,” she said.
But handling protected raptors was nowhere near as risky as simply keeping company with Kendra Ivey, a troubled young woman from Knoxville who stole his heart long before allegedly stealing his life.
“He’d do anything”
No one interviewed for this story said exactly when or even how Letner came into contact with Ivey, an attractive brunette who sometimes dyed her highlights red and was nearly a decade younger than he was.
Based on his family’s account, Letner was drawn to her at least in part because she seemed to desperately need help. While Letner’s parents also wanted to do the right thing by the troubled young woman, it was clear to them that he lacked the experience and personal boundaries needed to successfully help her deal with her problems.
Addiction was destroying Ivey’s life, according to Leonard Letner, and his son has vowed to save her if possible.
“He would go up to Knoxville and take care of her,” he said. “He brought her back here and took care of her two or three times, helped her to dry out. She’d call at 12 o’clock at night, really messed up, and he’d say he had to go help her.”
Substance abuse and addiction may well have lain at the root of Ivey’s problems, but her criminal record pointed to someone who’d never been arrested on drug charges but had been regularly caught scamming and stealing from other people since she turned 18.
According to records provided by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, Ivey caught her first charges in 2015 when she was arrested for misdemeanor theft and forgery, a felony. More charges of forgery followed in 2016 and 2017, and she was also accused of violating her probation.
Late in the night of Feb. 7, Ivey apparently did something that she’d done plenty of times before, said Leonard Letner.
“She called him in the middle of the night and he said he had to go help her,” he said.
The man who wanted so badly to be a young woman’s hero climbed into his red 1989 Chevrolet Blazer and headed to Knoxville.
It was only a day after his 33rd birthday, and it was the last night that anyone was to see him alive.
A life’s price: $40
Letner was reported missing a couple of days later.
His friends and family almost immediately suspected foul play when they didn’t hear from him. The Rockwood Police Department contacted authorities in Knox County for assistance, and before long social media was flooded with entreaties for help finding Letner.
“We’ve been friends for about 25 years,” one man wrote in a post that was shared widely on Facebook and Reddit. “He would bend over backwards over and over again to help out his friends. Please, if you hear or see anything get ahold of one of us.
“We are all so worried about him. He is the glue between our huge network of friends.”
It didn’t take long for police to figure out who they needed to talk to.
Knox County Detective Stephen A. Ballard was assigned to work with Rockwood police who were trying to figure out Letner’s whereabouts.
His body was found by Sheriff’s deputies 10 days after he was reported missing off Kodak Road in a hilly area characterized by fields, barns and farmhouses in East Knox County, authorities said. He had apparently been shot to death.
Investigators had already determined that Ivey, who had a Maryville address, was definitely someone they needed to talk to, as Letner had reportedly been going to visit her the last night he was seen.
It’s not clear whether Ivey was interviewed before or after Letner’s corpse was found.
According to an arrest warrant filed by Detective Ballard, Ivey confessed to having played a part in Letner’s death. While Letner’s family had believed them to be in an obvious, if unstable, relationship, Ivey basically described herself as a prostitute and Letner as a customer.
Her “boyfriend,” she said, was Charlie Richard Martinez, better known on the streets of Knoxville as “Rico.”
“Ivey stated that the victim came to Knoxville to have sex with her, and after not giving her the amount of money agreed upon, she had the victim drive her to (a location on) Kodak Road where her boyfriend was waiting to rob the victim for his money,” Ballard wrote.
When they reached the arranged location, she claimed, Martinez shot and killed Letner.
Ivey said that she then fled with Martinez and they later split the money they’d lifted from Letner’s body — a paltry $40 in cash.
Her bond was set at $1 million when she was later booked into the county jail to face a charge of felony murder.
Accomplices named, “Rico” caught
Authorities now moved swiftly to locate “Rico” Martinez.
Conveniently enough, Martinez was already a wanted man thanks to an outstanding arrest warrant accusing him of violating his probation for theft.
This gave authorities the legal authority to scour the area for Martinez and, if he was caught, to keep him locked up for the probation violation without accusing him formally of murder unless detectives were sure they had a solid case.
For one thing, they needed to corroborate Ivey’s story. Her criminal history was a veritable minefield if she were to testify against Martinez in court. Although she’d never been accused of a violent crime, the offenses of forgery and theft involved dishonesty and could therefore be used to impeach her credibility.
Also, if Martinez thought the police only wanted to question him, then he might be both less likely to flee the area in panic and more likely to give them a statement if he was captured.
The next move in the case was to come Feb. 18, when Martinez’s mother, Diana Jeanty, was taken into custody for questioning after a traffic stop on Strawberry Plains Pike.
Jeanty allegedly confessed to taking the Chevy Blazer that Martinez had stolen from Letner and ditching it in a parking lot in Virginia. She also allegedly told Detective Ballard that, when her son turned up seeking help, he’d had a gunshot wound in one of his legs that she’d dressed, court records show.
Crucially, she didn’t contact police even after she learned that her son was wanted for killing Letner, according to the arrest warrant filed by Ballard.
Those actions were enough to arrest her on charges of tampering with evidence and being an accessory after the fact, Ballard concluded. She was booked into the county’s detention facility on Maloneyville Road and remains jailed in lieu of $20,000 bond.
Meanwhile, as his girlfriend and his mother languished in jail cells, Martinez was staying at the Rifle Range Road home of a young woman named Amanda Blanchard. It’s not known how they knew each other, but Blanchard allegedly knew that police were searching for her guest and had chosen to protect him.
On February 24, prosecutors from the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office formally involved themselves in the case by presenting the information gathered by Detective Ballard to a Knox County grand jury and secured a number of true bills.
The grand jurors formally charged with Martinez with first degree murder; felony murder; especially aggravated robbery; employing a firearm during a dangerous felony; tampering with evidence, and unlawfully possessing a weapon.
D.A.’s Office spokesman Sean McDermott said he couldn’t address the case against Martinez but was willing to explain in general terms why grand juries are sometimes asked to take action against a defendant before their arrest.
“We typically do this in more complex cases that require a lengthier investigation than a routine case,” he said. “Most often, those cases involve homicides, drug trafficking organizations, and complex white-collar cases. When the Grand Jury finds probable cause to send the case to Criminal Court in this instance, they return a true bill on a presentment. The presentment is the charging instrument in Criminal Court. Instead of going through all three tiers (of the court system) it started at tier two.”
Two days after the charges were lodged against Martinez, the manhunt for him came to an end.
The Sheriff’s Office’s SWAT Team and Major Crimes Unit had somehow found out where he was staying, and at 8:32 p.m. Feb. 26 they captured him hiding in a closet in Blanchard’s house.
According to Ballard, who also filed charges against Blanchard, the woman admitted that she’d allowed the fugitive to stay with her “for several days and that she knew that he was wanted by the police.”
Blanchard was released from custody pending trial after she posted a $2,500 bond on March 1, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
What comes next
Murder cases — especially those involving multiple defendants — are among the most complex and expensive affairs to come before the Knox County criminal courts.
Juries must sometimes decide if all the suspects are equally guilty, which may be impossible to do if the proof isn’t airtight. Defendants can try to blame each other, and prosecutors who offer a plea deal to one defendant in exchange for their testimony against another can see their tactic backfire.
In the Letner case, the fact that Martinez suffered a gunshot wound that he refused to have treated at a hospital raises the possibility that there was a struggle when he confronted Letner. It’s also possible that Letner himself was armed, and police haven’t said if any weapons have been recovered in connection with the case.
In fact, the only direct evidence in the record as of last week that Martinez was even present when Letner died was the statement that Ivey gave to Detective Ballard. Even without Ivey’s pre-existing credibility problems, it’s clear she had plenty of motive to point the finger at someone else, and Martinez’s attorney may not find it hard to cast doubt on her version of events.
The bottom line is there’s a big difference between a cold-blooded shooting in the course of a robbery and a fight between two grown men who just happened to both be sleeping with the same woman who, incidentally, is the only witness to what happened and is also a defendant herself.
It’s unknown if Martinez has spoken with detectives or agreed to give any kind of statement. His attorney, Aubrey Davis, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.
It’s far too soon to know whether the death penalty will be sought against Martinez or Ivey.
A spokesman for the DA’s office declined to comment on the case last week, but Tennessee law won’t let an accused killer face execution unless the crime involves certain “aggravating factors” spelled out by statute. For instance, if the victim was tortured or was a young child, then a defendant could face execution if convicted by a jury.
The only aggravating factor that could clearly apply in this case, at least based on the information publicly available thus far, was that Letner was allegedly killed for money. Plenty of details remain out of the public’s eye, however, and the final determination as to whether any aggravating factors apply will be made by prosecutors.
Even if the death penalty is taken off the table, if Martinez or Ivey is found guilty of first degree or felony murder the earliest they could even apply for parole would be 51 years from the date of their conviction.
Jeanty and Blanchard, however, face comparatively light punishments if they ever stand convicted of the crimes they are charged with. Being an accessory after the fact is a Class E felony that normally carries a prison term of 1 to 6 years, while tampering with evidence is a class C felony with a 3- to 15-year sentence.
Ivey, Jeanty, and Blanchard still face preliminary hearings at the General Sessions court level this month. It wasn’t clear Friday when Martinez, whose case has been pushed directly to the Criminal Court level by the Grand Jury’s actions, will make his first public court appearance.
It could easily take years for all four defendants’ cases to make their way through the court system. Murder cases generally aren’t hurried along, as even minor mistakes can trigger years of appeals. And the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered an already slow process into one that’s very nearly glacial, as all jury trials have been canceled until some semblance of normalcy returns.
In the end, of course, no amount of punishment will ever bring Danny Letner back to life or fully heal those who loved him. They will always remember him as the kind little boy who dreamed of being a hero but was ultimately cut down while trying to save his lover from herself.
“He’d do anything for anybody, and this time it just didn’t work out,” wept his mother, Patsy Letner. “He was just a good boy.”
J.J. Stambaugh may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published March 8, 2021