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Burning Death of Rawlins Woman Ruled Accidental

Tracie Perkins, Townsquare Media
Tracie Perkins, Townsquare Media

A Rawlins woman who reportedly claimed to have been set on fire days before being taken off life support at a Colorado hospital, apparently died accidentally.

Denise King Martinez, 47, was taken off life support on Nov. 4, 2015 roughly two days after catching fire at the County Six Bar in Rawlins. The case was investigated as a homicide, but Carbon County Coroner Paul Zamora announced another conclusion Thursday at a press conference.

“I am going to rule the cause of death as severe thermal injury and the manner of death is going to be accidental,”  Zamora said. “Please know that we did not take this lightly.”

Investigators said King caught fire after going out to the bar patio and standing near a grill that was operating at the time. A lighter and a bowl with a small amount of gasoline still inside were found in the parking lot, on the other side of a six-foot fence.

Martinez ran back into the bar, with her clothes on fire, where a mop bucket was dumped on her to extinguish the flames. Before being taken to the hospital, she repeatedly said someone had thrown gas on her.

But none of the witnesses ever asked Martinez who had done it, Zamora said Thursday. By the time police arrived at Carbon County Memorial Hospital, where Martinez was taken at 12:45 a.m., she had been intubated and was unconscious.

Her son, in his 911 call, is heard saying “I guess she was playing with the grill.” The grill is believed to have been what ignited the gasoline.

A “puddle” of gasoline was found in front of the grill. Officials said Thursday the puddle indicated gasoline was poured, not thrown. Gasoline splatter was not found anywhere in the patio area; the small pool in front of the grill is the only gas found by investigators.

Martinez was burned over 75 percent of her body, with the worst injuries on her front midsection.

Earlier in the evening, Martinez, who owned the County 6 Bar and Grill, had kicked a man out of the bar after he argued with a bartender. Martinez later told witnesses she had received threatening phone calls, which she believed to be from the man she had booted earlier.

But the investigation revealed that those phone calls were never made, and evidently fabricated by Martinez.

Interim Rawlins Fire Chief John Rutherford said Thursday that Martinez had previously reported two fires in the bathroom of a next door laundromat on Dec. 23, 2014 and Aug. 15, 2015 respectively. Those fires were determined to be the result of arson.

Two more unreported fires at the bar in October 2015 — one inside in the bar area and one outside in the drive-thru — were also determined to have been intentionally set.

An autopsy conducted at a Colorado hospital on the morning of Nov. 5 found no injuries besides the burns on Martinez. But the forensic pathologist conducting the autopsy found a “fairly significant amount of methamphetamine in her system,” Zamora said Thursday.

Zamora said that amount of methamphetamine was significant given Martinez’s multi-day hospital stay and the amount of IV fluids she had received in the days before her death.

“So after the death, if we still get a pretty high methamphetamine level, it’s pretty significant in this case,” Zamora added. There was reportedly suspicion among witnesses that Martinez had started using drugs again before her death.

Martinez was due to report to prison just a few days after she caught fire to begin serving a three- to six-year sentence for obtaining property by false pretenses. It was to be her third prison term.

Her criminal history also includes multiple thefts and assaults in Texas for which she was sentenced to prison time, as well felony check forgery.

In another incident, she was convicted of breaking the wrist of a corrections officer. She served prison time for that offense as well.

“We’re familiar with her, we’re familiar with drug use and things like that,” Carbon County Attorney Cal Rerucha said at Thursday’s press conference.

Investigators found Martinez purchased the bowl found at the scene earlier that evening at 7:05 p.m.

Police and fire investigators tried to recreate Martinez’s report of someone throwing gasoline on her. Using a dummy and an identical bowl, they tried to find out how gasoline could have been thrown onto Ramirez, leaving only a puddle in front of the grill.

“We were not able to recreate just a puddle,” Lt. Daria Hooper said Thursday. “When we threw, there was always splash marks on the body and behind.”

“It was not what we found at the scene,” Hooper said.

“Our conclusions are pretty straightforward,” Rutherford said Thursday. “It absolutely supports conclusively the determination of the coroner.”

Rutherford later added that in investigating the two previous fires at the bar — which were later determined to have been set on purpose — there was no video available from the bar because the video system was not operative.

Rutherford asked Martinez to repair the system, but that never happened.

“We found that somewhat troublesome,” Rutherford added.

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