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Bronx Woman Mourns Son Who Died at Rikers as Cellmate Says Help was Slow to Come

Martha Martinez’s son, Jose Mejia Martinez, died on Rikers Island after being locked up on a parole violation, June 15, 2021.
Martha Martinez’s son, Jose Mejia Martinez, died on Rikers Island after being locked up on a parole violation, June 15, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

When Martha Martinez, who speaks only Spanish, got a call Thursday night from an English-speaking jail official she thought he was talking about arresting her.

She had no idea he was trying to notify her of her son’s death.

About 10 minutes later, a Spanish-speaking chaplain delivered the news: Jose Mejia Martinez, 35, had been found dead inside his cell in Rikers Island’s George Motchan Detention Center on Thursday at around 4 p.m.

“I started to cry and went crazy,” she recalled. “And he calmed me down.”

Mejia Martinez, in jail on a parole violation for allegedly stealing beer, died around the time of the passage of a new law that could have kept him out of jail. Meanwhile, one of his cellmates told THE CITY a jail officer didn’t immediately get help for the apparently ailing man.

He became the third person jailed on a parole violation after a new low-level charge to die on Rikers in less than two months. The deaths are all under investigation and their causes have not been determined yet.

Martha Martinez said she’s been told little about the circumstances of her son’s death. She said she took some solace in the chaplain’s prayer wishing her calm, peace and tranquility.

“Afterwards, I don’t remember anything,” Martinez, 57, told THE CITY hours before going to a Bronx funeral home to make final arrangements for her son, whom she plans to bury in his hometown of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

‘A Medical Emergency’

On Tuesday, an inmate who was in the same housing unit as Mejia Martinez, described the fallen man’s final day.

Mejia Martinez began to perspire profusely and slump over as he was watching television at a table in a common area, according to his housing mate.

“He was sweating from his nose,” recalled the detainee, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation from officers.

“It was a medical emergency,” he added.

Jose Mejia Martinez, seen celebrating his 34th birthday in February 2021, died on Rikers Island June 10 after being locked up on a parole violation.
Jose Mejia Martinez celebrating his birthday in February.
Courtesy of Martinez Family

But instead of sending him to the medical clinic or calling for a doctor or nurse, the officer on duty asked his cellmate to walk him to his bed, according to the inmate’s account.

“He was actually able to walk,” he said of Mejia Martinez, whom he described as wobbly and in a stupor.

The fellow detainee said he got Mejia Martinez into bed and took off his shoes to make him more comfortable.

About an hour later, the inmate says he and a few friends went back to check on Mejia Martinez — and discovered he was dead.

“We checked his pulse,” he said. “I ran up out of that cell screaming to call a medical emergency.”

Patrick Rocchio, a Correction Department spokesperson, said the death is still under investigation and declined to comment further.

Law Might Have Helped

Mejia Martinez’ death came around the time state lawmakers in Albany voted Thursday to approve the “Less Is More” Act, which would give parolees more leeway in avoiding jail after being busted for low-level offenses or technical violations.

Inmate advocates and criminal justice reform experts are urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign the bill into law right away and speed up its implementation.

Before her trip to the R G Ortiz funeral home, Martha Martinez recalled her son as “very handsome, very beautiful.”

“Everyone told me that he had beautiful eyes,” she recalled. “He was very caring with me.”

As a kid, he did well in school and would read books from start to finish in one shot, she remembered.

“He drew beautifully,” she said, adding hearts and pictures of his family were his specialties.

In Santo Domingo, he worked fixing air conditioners and moved to New York when he was 20, getting a job in a butter and oil factory. He later took a temporary gig at Yankees Stadium and called his mother to brag about it, she remembered.

“He loved listening to salsa, merengue, bachata, and even enjoyed reggaetón,” she said.

A Missed Call

The two hadn’t spoken since May before he got locked up on the shoplifting charge and a low-level drug offense after cops say they found a crack pipe in his pants during the arrest, according to court records. He’d been out on parole on a 2019 assault rap.

On Tuesday, she remembered fondly how her son peppered all his calls with exhortations of “God bless you.”

She believes she missed a jail call from her beloved chichi, her nickname for him, the morning of his death because she was busy in her job taking children to school.

Later, she thought to herself, “Maybe my chichi will call me now!”

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