They really weren"t that worried, and why should they have been? At 5 feet 7 inches tall and just 120 pounds, Martina Paulin was a smallish woman, but she could be tough -- tough enough, they figured, to weather a few hours behind bars. Strong-willed and outspoken, Martina was one of the guys, a 35-year-old tomboy who could hold her own at poker nights and football parties where she was the only woman in the room. She"d struck out on her own not long after high school, leaving her Massachusetts hometown behind and creating a new life for herself in St. Louis. She was a go-getter who had realized a longtime dream by opening her own bar in Soulard, called the Shanti. She"d survived radiation and chemotherapy and a long fight with breast cancer. A week earlier, a doctor had declared Martina"s cancer to be in remission. Her favorite song was "Kryptonite," and to her friends, that was fitting -- she seemed indestructible. Martina also had a way with people. Even strangers genuinely liked Martina: They gravitated to her, they did her favors, they gave her cut-rate deals, be it for landscaping or artwork or a bed-and-breakfast in New Orleans. She was friendly and charismatic and a little outrageous. This was a woman who"d boldly wear see-through genie pants to work, show up for a lunch at Arcelia"s in pajamas and slippers or drive through a car wash topless in her Jeep Wrangler, chuckling the whole way. Martina didn"t care what people thought. She was comfortable with herself, and she made other people feel comfortable, too.
She inspired a deep loyalty in her friends, so when one of them got a phone call from a police officer around 11 p.m. Oct. 3, relaying the information that Martina had been in a minor car accident and was being arrested for driving under the influence, her friends mobilized to help.
Leisha Boardley, who worked as a cook/bartender at the Shanti, took the call. She told the officer, who was also a friend, to let Martina know she was on her way to post bail. Tell her not to worry, she said. Tell her we love her. Leisha tracked down Martina"s boyfriend, Mike Giasomo, at the Shanti, and they went about trying to gather $450 in cash. One of Mike"s friends came along, and another guy who helps Leisha with breakfast at the Shanti heard of Martina"s predicament. He kicked in some money and volunteered his car, which was large enough to drive all five of them home. It took a bit of time. By the time the group arrived downtown, it was 2 a.m. Leisha paid the bail money, and the woman behind the glass window said Martina would be out shortly.
But "shortly" stretched into more than an hour of waiting outside the swinging door, and still there was no sign of Martina. Every 10 or 15 minutes, Leisha would head back inside the building, past the officer stationed at the front desk, through the metal detector and into the waiting room, where she would inquire -- again -- at the glass window. How long is shortly? she asked. Will Martina be out soon? What"s taking so long? After about an hour, the officer at the desk informed her that someone was sick and needed to go to the hospital. After that was handled, she was told, Martina ought to be right out.
Martina never did come out, and the more time that passed, the more alarmed her friends became. At about 3:45 a.m., a sergeant summoned Leisha inside. She brought Mike with her. The sergeant began to pepper Mike with questions, asking his Social Security number, his address, his relationship to Martina. Mike stopped him. "I was like, "Wait a second," he recalls. "I"ll answer whatever questions you have as long, as you answer my question first: Where is Martina?"
He wasn"t prepared for the answer.
Martina, the sergeant replied, is dead.
For years, Martina Paulin was a fixture in Soulard, whether she was tending bar at Gladstone's or Molly's or, more recently, at the Shanti, the place she and Teresa Parker opened in December 1999 at the corner of Ninth Street and Allen Avenue. In this tight-knit community, where everybody seems to know everyone else's business and practically everybody knew Martina, news of her sudden and unexplained death spread quickly. Jack Smith, a longtime Soulard artist and friend of Martina's, got word just hours after she died, when Leisha and her boyfriend showed up at 5:30 a.m., banging on his front door. Margie Drury, who had worked with Martina at Molly's, found out as she pulled into work late that morning. Rick Kuehn, who tended bar Mondays at the Shanti, heard about Martina from someone he passed on the street. "News travels fast in this neighborhood, good news or bad," Kuehn says.
In Florissant, Dave Walsh was numb when he got the phone call about his ex-girlfriend's death. "She'd been through so much in her life," he says. "I would have never thought something like that could have happened to her." In Santa Fe, N.M., her brother William Paulin reeled when his wife broke the news: "She told me Martina had passed away. I said, "What? She's only 35!' It was such a shock."
For Martina's friends and family, shock and grief soon turned to confusion and anger. No one really knew what had happened to Martina during the hours spent in the holdover cell at police headquarters, and neither the police nor the city would shed any light. Unanswered questions fueled their darkest suspicions.
Leisha and Mike, who were the first to learn of Martina's death, already knew Martina had been involved in a minor car accident, had been arrested for driving under the influence and had refused a Breathalyzer test. What they didn't know was how she died. Leisha says a police sergeant at headquarters said he'd been told Martina accidentally fell out of her bunk. When she asked whether he agreed with that conclusion, she says, the sergeant told her no. He said the position of Martina's body was "not conducive" to her having fallen out of a bunk and breaking her neck.Leisha says, knowing Martina, that she didn't think her friend would be in the bunk anyway: "She knew I was coming. She would have been pacing around, pacing the floor, just waiting for somebody to come get her. There is no way she would have been in her bunk."
The story didn't get any clearer when George Paulin and one of his sons arrived from their Massachusetts home to retrieve Martina's body. Paulin says a homicide sergeant told him that Martina had fallen out of a 6-foot-high bunk and broken her neck. Paulin didn't believe him. Then another sergeant told him Martina died while being booked. He didn't believe him, either. "I heard two different stories, and I thought, "Something is definitely wrong.'"He asked to view the videotape of Martina's booking, but he was told he couldn't because the case was still under investigation. He inquired about who was in her jail cell with her at the time of her death and was told that two other women had been there. Later, a cop told him there had been only one other person. "Something doesn't jibe," he says. "It really don't."
The police department's public-information office initially released reports to the media stating that Martina was placed in a holdover cell around 12:47 a.m., when she was last seen alive by a single cellmate whose name has not been released. Martina, who was on a top bunk, fell asleep while talking to a cellmate on the bottom bunk. At 2:42 a.m., after her friends had been waiting outside for nearly an hour for Martina to be released, a processing clerk looked in the cell and saw Martina lying on the concrete floor, lifeless and bleeding from the head.
Preliminary autopsy results, police said, suggested she died of a broken neck, the result of a fall from her bunk. "It sounds kind of strange," police spokesman Richard Wilkes said before the medical examiner released his official findings. "But, depending on how you fall, weird things can happen."
Though police, almost from the beginning, ruled out any foul play, the confusing accounts provided by individual officers and the delay in releasing information led Martina's friends and family to suspect otherwise.
Martina Paulin made her way to St. Louis about a decade ago, after leaving behind the small town in western Massachusetts where she was raised in a working-class family, the eldest of five children. She had graduated from Belchertown High School and longed for the big city. At some point, she changed her name to Martina. Her brother William asked her why. "Because it's different," she told him. "It's a different kind of name than just plain Tina."
And Martina was anything but plain. She was always lively and outgoing and looking for adventure. She wasn't always a bartender, but there was something about being paid to be at the center of things, to chat it up with friends and strangers, to be around people, that drew her to the job and kept drawing her back.
Dave Walsh, her longtime boyfriend until they broke up last year, met Martina nine years ago when she was temping as a computer operator at Dimac Direct in Earth City. She worked part-time at various bars in Soulard, and, for about three years, worked full-time for Aquarius Ltd., a manufacturer of accessories such as belts, hats and scarves. She ended up going back to bartending full-time. "She was very sociable; she enjoyed meeting people," Walsh says. "She enjoyed bartending, and I was, like, "If you enjoy that, do what you enjoy.'"
Martina was definitely a Type A personality, her friends say, with as much going on at one time as possible. She threw football parties and barbecues, embarked on one backyard landscaping project after another and cooked up batches of pasta for two people or 20, putting her beloved pasta-maker to so much work that it finally gurgled out its last noodle and went kaput.
Martina could play a mean game of Mario and owned virtually every game system available, including Nintendo 64, Sega and Sony PlayStation. She loved backgammon and dominos. She adored her three dogs -- two golden retrievers and a black Lab -- and she cried for days when Jamocha, one of her goldens, died earlier this year. She was a sun worshiper who kept her own tanning booth upstairs at her home on Pennsylvania Avenue, and virtually every year she made trips to Florida, from Panama City to Bradenton Beach. She loved the beach, the water, the dolphins, the tiki-bar atmosphere she hoped to recreate someday at her bar in Soulard. In the summertime, she could usually be found in or near her backyard pool, slathered in oil and sipping a glass of wine, listening to Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca."
She loved clothes, and though she generally avoided the shopping malls, Walsh says Martina was the "queen of mail-order. The UPS man was a daily occurrence. She had about 1,000 pairs of shoes, and the weirder, the better -- the taller, the stranger. She could pull off just about anything."
So true, says Mark Griffin, who lived downstairs at Martina's home on Pennsylvania. "She could be a character anytime she wanted to, whether she was a poker player, a housewife or a bar owner." Martina was comfortable being one of the guys, so she didn't think twice about regularly hosting poker and football parties. "It was all guys and her," Griffin says. "She was one of the guys. She was a man in a woman's body -- that was one of the jokes we'd always say to each other. She'd be, like, "I'm one of the guys -- don't talk to me about women.'"
The football parties ended after about a season. "One thing she didn't like was routine," Griffin adds. "Her routine was "OK, I'm tired of this -- let's go do this."
Leisha met Martina five or six years ago, when Martina was bartending at Gladstone's, and they'd been friends ever since. "She was fun, and she was always gonna have fun, you know, just balls to the wall. You couldn't get angry at her; she'd just look at you with a goofy smile," Leisha says. "She could never be angry at anybody. She just didn't have it in her. She was just like a lost little girl sometimes. And she would call me up anytime, day or night -- it could be 3 o'clock in the morning -- and she'd be, like, "Leisha, what are you doing? I'm all by myself and I don't want to be by myself. Can you come over?' And I'd be, like, "All right.' You couldn't tell her no. I could never say no to her. Nobody hardly could."
For years, Martina had talked about opening up her own bar, and last year she got her chance. Teresa Parker, a former manager at Molly's, was lining up investors to open a bar/restaurant. She had hired Martina as a bartender at Molly's twice, before and after Martina worked for Aquarius. She says Martina heard that she was looking into opening her own place and approached her about becoming her 50-50 partner.
The women learned that Gary Hibdon, owner of the Allen Avenue bar in Soulard, would consider leasing the bar to someone else while retaining ownership of the building. They agreed, each lining up silent investors. And after searching through dozens of Florida phone books, looking for a name that would reflect a fish/Florida theme, they settled on the Shanti. The bar opened Dec. 1 at 7 a.m., serving breakfast and lunch from a hearty, artery-clogging meat-and-potatoes menu. The Shanti continued to be very much a neighborhood bar -- supported by its regulars -- while attracting others, like nurses getting off their overnight shifts at 7 a.m. The bar couldn't have drums or outside music with amps under the terms of its liquor license, so it stuck with a bluegrass band every Saturday, along with duos and trios. The formula, Parker says, was working.
"We've been doing really good," Parker says. Martina "was a hell of a bartender, totally professional. Everybody loved her. She was a perfect draw, a perfect bartender. On Friday nights, people could come in, and I'm out here (in the courtyard), and she's inside. It was a really good thing."
Martina wasn't one who liked to share a bar, though. "At Mardi Gras, you have two bartenders behind the bar, but not her," Parker says. "She was very territorial but very good. She could draw the guys in and keep them in. She bought lots of people drinks and made them feel at home. Her trademark shot was holding the bottle up in the air and just letting [the liquor] fall into her mouth. You have to be a show. She would put on a show."
Mike Giasomo, who earned the nickname "Frogcatcher" while living on a Georgia commune, had known Martina for a few years -- "We'd been friends; she's friends with all the guys" -- but both were involved in other relationships. About eight or nine months ago, things became romantic between them. She opened up to him about her battle with breast cancer, which had gone on for years: the times she feared she might lose her breast, the treatments, the uncertainty of it all. But she remained upbeat. "She was just always smiling. Even if she had radiation or chemotherapy, she'd still go to work and put on a smile and be nice," Mike says. One week before she died, he says, she was told the cancer was in remission. "She was so happy about it, and I was, too."
Since opening the Shanti, Martina had been working a lot, though generally bartending only a single shift on Friday nights. She ordered the food, did prep work and bank runs, checked inventory and regularly cooked up the special of the day: tacos and burritos, lasagna, shrimp poorboys, cheeseburgers, whatever. "She kind of had somewhat of a Massachusetts accent, and she was always laughing," Mike says. "She'd be in the kitchen cooking by herself, and she'd be laughing. I'd be like, "What are you doing in there?' And she's got flour all over the ceiling, and she's cooking big pots of stew and just having a good time. She loved to cook.
"If she was working at night, say, she'd be wearing some crazy outfit, weird boots or a cheetah outfit or something, just something crazy to get everyone going. Otherwise, she'd wear jeans and a T-shirt or flannels or something. She was always smiling, though, a high-energy person for sure. She had a natural way with people."
Oct. 3 was a cloudy Tuesday with temperatures in the 80s. The St. Louis Cardinals were slated to face off against the Atlanta Braves in the first game of the National League Division Series, and Al Gore and George W. Bush were gearing up for their first presidential debate.
Martina showed up at the Shanti around 10 a.m. and ate a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, eggs and bacon while chatting with her friend Leisha, who was working the early shift. They planned to meet up a little while later at the Hi-Way bar, where several friends were gathering for lunch. The group of five women had several drinks while they were there -- Martina's favorite shot, peppermint schnapps -- plus four Bud Lights. Martina ate a bowl of chili.
That afternoon, Martina was planning to meet with Teresa Parker and a mediator. The two women wanted an appraisal of the Shanti because they were discussing the possibility of Martina's buying out Parker's share. Parker says she was willing because she was interested in trying to buy a larger bar with more room for live bands. But the meeting was canceled by the mediator and an accountant. Martina, Leisha says, was depressed about it. She called and asked Leisha to come to her house.
The two hung out for hours. Both had birthdays coming up in November, just 10 days apart, and they were planning a big birthday bash. Leisha had already bought Martina's presents: a 3 Doors Down CD with the song "Kryptonite"; a calendar from 1964, the year they were born; a dragon under glass for the Chinese year of the dragon; and a Scorpio Beanie Baby.
Because Martina was discouraged that the meeting hadn't happened, she took a "blue bath" -- reflective of her mood -- filling her Jacuzzi tub with a potion that turned the water and the bubbles a shade of aqua. While Martina soaked in the Jacuzzi, Leisha sat on the floor, chatting with her friend. She stayed for two hours, and neither drank any alcohol. "We were talking, talking, talking, and when I left, she felt better," says Leisha. She left Martina around 6:30 p.m.
At Tom & Nadine's bar in Soulard, Mike waited for Martina. He had spoken to Martina around 6 p.m., and they were supposed to meet at Tom & Nadine's around 6:30. He was early, and Martina was late. She didn't get there until around 10 till 7. He had already ordered a sandwich. When Martina showed up, she ordered some onion rings and ate half of Mike's Reuben. The two played a game of pool, and each did two shots -- peppermint schnapps -- and drank a Bud Light. When they left Tom & Nadine's at 7:40 p.m., they decided to head to the Shanti. Martina didn't normally like to go to the bar when she wasn't working, but there was a poetry reading on the outside patio, and they decided to stop by.
They were there for less than an hour, and they did another shot and drank another beer. While they were there, Giasomo ran into a woman who had had some Mardis Gras beads manufactured that Mike says he had designed. He was upset because he believed he had been ripped off, but he says the woman was trying to make good on their deal. Martina interrupted the discussion, telling him he ought to get the woman's promises in a contract. He told her to stay out of it. Martina announced that she wanted to leave -- now.
"I'm, like, "Wait a minute, I want to finish this conversation," Mike recalls. "And she's, like, "I want to go. I want to go right now.' I said, "If you can't wait two minutes, I'll catch a cab home.' And she's, like, "Fine.' She was mad because I told her to stay out of my business. And she was just trying to protect me." He says she didn't seem drunk and that he could tell when she was: "She seemed totally her normal self. Maybe, when she was leaving, she had a teeny buzz or something. It wasn't like she was showing it in any way, and I can pick up on it pretty good. If she has a buzz, I won't let her drive."
Martina left the Shanti alone, driving off in her 1993 Jeep Wrangler.
Heather Davis, who ran karaoke at the Shanti on Monday nights, was driving one of her son's friends home around 8:30 or 9 p.m. when she spotted Martina in her Jeep outside the Lee's Famous Recipe chicken restaurant in the 2600 block of Gravois. A fire truck and an ambulance were there, and a police officer was parked behind her.
"She was just sitting inside the Jeep, and the cop was standing there talking to her. It didn't look like an accident occurred," Davis says. "It looked like maybe she hit the curb. The windshield was out on the Jeep, but there were no other cars around. My thoughts were, "I'll run this kid home and come back and make sure everything's all right. It's not even a mile to where I drop him off, but when I got back, everyone was gone."
Precisely what happened in the final six hours of Martina Paulin's life is unclear. The homicide unit was called in to investigate -- standard procedure when a prisoner dies in custody -- but St. Louis police have yet to release the report, saying the investigation is ongoing.
Nearly a month after Martina's death, the St. Louis medical examiner released his official findings. And what he had to say surprised everyone. After conducting an autopsy, Dr. Michael Graham concluded that Martina had sustained a small fracture on the edge of a vertebra in her neck, but what caused her death, he says, was an injury to a vertebral artery that runs alongside the vertebrae. He believes the artery was somehow damaged in the car accident and ruptured hours later, causing fatal bleeding into Martina's head.
"Basically, the artery was probably stressed and torn," he says. "It wasn't completely torn when she received it, because she wouldn't have made it to jail otherwise. It ruptured later on."
Vertebral-artery injuries in general are quite rare, the medical examiner says, because the artery runs inside the bone and is well protected. Graham says he has seen similar injuries before, usually involving chiropractic manipulation or car accidents. In motor-vehicle crashes, however, the injury usually causes death immediately, he says. A delayed rupture, such as one that would occur five or six hours after an accident, Graham says, is "very unusual."
Graham says he doesn't believe a fall from a bunk killed Martina. "If you have a neck broken in a fall, it's a different kind of fracture," he says. "It's a different location, and often there is spinal cord damage." Plus, he adds, there is no definitive evidence that Martina actually fell out of a bunk: "She's found on the floor, and a lot of people presume she fell, but I don't know if she was crawling out of it, whether she fell out of it, whether she had a seizure and rolled out of it, whether she was getting out of it of her own accord and fell. All we know is, she was found on the ground."
Martina had refused to take a Breathalyzer test, but toxicology reports found that she had had a blood-alcohol level of .315 at the time of her death, meaning that six hours earlier, her level, Graham estimates, probably could have been in the "high 3's." For some adults, that level would mean unconsciousness, but the medical examiner says he has seen others with a higher tolerance. "I've seen someone drive a car at .5," Graham says.
Martina's friends have a hard time believing she was that intoxicated, because she seemed OK when she left the Shanti. They say she could party hard on occasion but wasn't a heavy drinker and did not have a problem. When Martina was drunk, Mike says, it was obvious: "She'd slur her words and stumble. It was pretty easy to tell if she had a few too many."
If she was that drunk, given that she had been involved in an accident, no matter how minor, shouldn't she have been examined by a doctor? Had she been transported to an emergency department, might Martina have lived? The medical examiner isn't saying for sure. "It would be fortuitous," Graham says. He says Martina may have had only minor symptoms, such as a sore neck, or -- if the artery had begun leaking -- a headache.
Graham says there is no way to know what injuries might have been detected in an emergency department. "The fracture they might pick up on an x-ray, if she was complaining of neck pain, or if they would have done routine x-rays because she was in a motor-vehicle crash," he says. "They may have picked up the little bit of the fracture, but without doing special studies, they wouldn't have picked up the artery problem."
Eddie Roth, a lawyer and president of the St. Louis police board, says he believes police officers and workers in the city's holdover facility are attentive to medical issues, and the department spends about a half-million dollars each year on medical checkups and treatment at local hospitals to determine whether people who are arrested are "fit for confinement."
"I am not in a position to judge what the officer who arrested her or the personnel who processed her through saw at the time," he says. But Roth also says: "When people we arrest make complaints that call into question whether they are fit for confinement, we pay special attention to that.... It is something that is closely watched as part of our general practice.
"Obviously what happened in that cell is a terrible tragedy," Roth adds. "I just don't know how you can always anticipate every possible risk that can confront people who, as are most of the people we apprehend, are not always very stable in their lifestyle or otherwise."
For many who knew Martina, the explanations don't satisfy them. Because of the conflicting accounts from police, their difficulty believing she could have had a blood-alcohol level so high and the seeming implausibility of such a freak injury to Martina's neck, her family and friends have grave suspicions that that they have yet to learn the whole story. And if the medical examiner's findings are correct, there is a nagging sense that more could have been done to save Martina.
Mike Giasomo, who is troubled that the last time he was with Martina they quarreled, has tried to find answers by retracing her steps and speaking to people who witnessed her car accident and arrest: "I had to make sure it wasn't from the accident or wasn't from police brutality up to that point. It was such a minor accident. She was talking and normal and standing up. There wasn't even a scratch on the paint of the car, but it looks like the tire bent up underneath it. She had bumped a bumper or something."
George Paulin has trouble believing such a minor accident could have resulted in his daughter's death. "They told me it was caused in the car accident, and I didn't believe it. I went to the police department, and I went to look at the Jeep, and it didn't even look like it was damaged. It didn't have a scratch on it. The only thing wrong was one tire was off. There was no damage -- no headlights broken, no nothing," he says. "Something from day one didn't make any sense. When I had the body taken up here, the funeral director told me she had bruises on her arms.
"I stop at her grave almost every day," he adds. "I stopped today, even. They put grass seed down. It's still hard to believe it happened. I just can't believe it. There is something wrong. It never should have happened, whatever did. Up here in Massachusetts, we don't have problems like that where people die like that. If a person gets hurt and they don't want medical, they take them anyway because they're not in their right mind. Some jails have cameras right in the cell. Who was the officer checking on her? Why did they put her in a top bunk? Why wasn't she in a hospital?"
William Paulin says he may be able to accept the finding that his sister died as a result of internal injuries caused by the car crash. "But I can't accept why they didn't get an ambulance or even an EMT just to check her out. If her blood-alcohol level was that high and she refused the Breathalyzer, why didn't they say, "We need to bring you to a hospital to get you checked out'? If her blood-alcohol level was that high, I don't think she was in any way to make any decisions."
Martina's family isn't content to just ask the questions. They have retained Clayton lawyer Walter Floyd to learn what happened in the hours after Martina left her friends and ended up in a holdover cell at St. Louis police headquarters. Floyd says he is preparing a wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of Martina's parents. He's still researching the case but is convinced that if police had taken Martina to a hospital, "there is a good chance they could have saved her life."
Back at the Shanti, there's a photograph of Martina and Jack Smith, driving half-naked through a car wash. Friends for more than five years, Smith says, they were drawn to each other's nuttiness. "She was like me -- adventuresome," he says. But there was something else. When Smith was recovering from heart-bypass surgery, Martina showed up to take him out for the afternoon, to lunch and the City Museum. "She had a soft spot in her heart for people, especially if she knew you and liked you. She protected her friendships, and she was solid," Smith says. "Some people act like your friend, but they're not. She truly was."
Smith still struggles to understand Martina's death. "It took a while to sink in," he says. "Whatever happened down there, I don't know," he says, shaking his head. "But she didn't deserve that."
Margie Drury, who worked with Martina at Molly's, says she remembers Martina talking about her fight with breast cancer and the way Martina once had a heart-to-heart talk with a customer at the bar who was struggling with the effects of chemo. Martina offered a sympathetic ear and her own advice on thermal wraps for her hair and saltwater towels. Martina had once told Margie that she "wasn't afraid to die."
As the reality of Martina's death sank in, that conversation came to haunt Drury. So did the thought of Martina's final moments of life, there in the jail cell.
"Can you imagine lying there, knowing your life is over, and looking at cell bars and not knowing a friend and everyone is acting like an animal and no one even cared and the floor is cold? We were all sickened by that thought," Drury says, "because we were all helpless in this situation. None of us could do anything about it."