No one at Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) knew that when Ralph Anthony Martinez applied for a bus driver opening he was a suspected serial rapist. That apparently included law enforcement officials until advancements in DNA broke the case open.
Investigators from the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office arrested Martinez in July after they said DNA collected from his school bus steering wheel, gear shift and switches matched the DNA evidence collected from sexual assaults that occurred in 1988, 1989 and 1991. Meanwhile, Martinez, 61, had not only been able to obtain his CDL but also passed the necessary criminal background checks when APS hired him on Dec. 12, 2018. APS confirmed to School Transportation News that it only conducts an initial background check and no ongoing checks.
APS is like most school districts in the U.S., on a continuous search for school bus drivers. The district transports 2,719 students to 10 school campuses: five preschools, six elementary schools, three middle schools, and one high school.
About 90 percent of Albuquerque students are classified as minorities, and nearly 71 percent of those live in economically disadvantaged households. As a result, most students rely on some form of public transportation to get them to school. The advantage that school districts have is that commercial driver’s license (CDL) holders with a passenger endorsement are held to a higher standard of training and safety. Typical CDLs take six to eight weeks to complete. Like across the U.S., New Mexico school districts require driver applicants to pass an initial criminal background screening and motor vehicle check. This includes passing an FBI database, not being registered as a sexual offender, and passing drug and alcohol testing.
Martinez took all the necessary steps. There were no red flags raised during his application process, aside from a driving while intoxicated charge years earlier, according to the district attorney’s office. So, APS hired him full-time. He then worked closely with children for five years, until he was apprehended on July 27. Earlier this year, forensic genetic genealogy DNA linked him to multiple rape cases that went cold.
The Case Against Martinez
The first rape case occurred in October 1988, when Martinez allegedly broke into the residence of a 19-year-old female and assaulted her at knifepoint.
The second sexual assault resembled the first. Martinez allegedly broke in and raped a 35-year-old at night in her home. The victim managed to escape to a neighbor’s home. Investigators said Martinez fled but left his underwear and shirt in her bedroom.
A third rape occurred on Aug. 7, 1991. The female victim was 18 years old.
A fourth rape occurred in 1989 following similar patterns as the rest. Investigators said they think Martinez committed that crime as well, alleging he broke into the home of a 59-year-old female. That victim is now deceased and no charges in that case were filed.
Each time, investigators said the victims were asleep in their northeast Albuquerque homes when Martinez attacked. However, authorities could not link DNA left behind at the scene to a known suspect.
Martinez’s trial is scheduled to begin next June. At that time, the district attorney’s office will reveal how its Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Team zeroed in on him, and how long he was a suspect before being arrested. He is charged with six counts of criminal sexual penetration in the first degree, resulting in great bodily harm or mental anguish.
If convicted, he faces a sentence of 108 years in prison.
Loopholes in Criminal Background Checks
DMV records can be tricky since some states don’t share driver’s license records with others. Some school district transportation departments send DMV notifications regarding criminal or driving record issues through certain states like in neighboring Utah, where the State Office of Education does not depend on the DMV to run its background checks, unlike most states. Utah CDL backgrounds are run by each school district through the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) and the FBI. Meanwhile, some states run motor vehicle records checks once or twice a year.
According to 49 CFR 391.25 (c) (2), commercial carriers must review the motor vehicle report with drivers every 12 months to ensure eligibility. The process includes the collection of the driver’s current motor vehicle records (MVR) from the state licensing agency, to determine if the driver still meets the minimum requirements for safe driving and to confirm there are no ongoing and disqualifying updates, pursuant to 49 CFR 391.15.
In other words, becoming a school bus driver is seldom a quick process, which exacerbates the ongoing driver shortage. Between obtaining a commercial driver’s license to getting a background check to be cleared for any criminal activity, the process can be rigid and lengthy yet incomplete.
A 2019 Connecticut audit, for example, found that the state’s DMV criminal history checks were deficient. The audit recommended that the DMV improve its computer systems to comply with the FBI’s RAP Back Service, a criminal background check for employees who work in positions of public trust, such as with children in schools. The RAP Back subscription provides notifications of arrests made after initial background checks are conducted, even when the person is being investigated for a crime but has yet to be charged.
Connecticut took the auditor’s advice.
“The Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection is moving forward with the modernization and replacement of the state’s criminal history repository systems,” the DMV said in a statement. “RAP Back capabilities for both the state and at the national level will be available with the implementation of the modernized systems. Legislation modification will be required for all statutory authorities, requiring a state and national criminal history check to enable those agencies to take advantage of the new RAP back capabilities. Appropriate regulatory control will be required to ensure that all agencies comply with state and federal dissemination rules and regulations. Periodic audits of the uses and access to the criminal history record information will be required with specific regulations and policies outlined in every agreement between requesting agencies and the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.”
However, STN learned that the Connecticut DMV and the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection (DESPP) that conduct background checks need to make several further improvements to better ensure the safety of school children. Some of the recommendations include strengthening the background check process and providing a broad recommendation for certain management controls
Connecticut Auditor Recommendations to Department of Motor Vehicles
• DMV post-endorsement criminal history checks are incomplete as the DMV does not know whether carriers check for disqualified drivers. Therefore, police departments do not complete required felony arrest notifications.
• DESPP criminal history information systems are inadequate and increase the risk of flawed checks. DESPP has processed background checks in a timely manner, but its turnaround times have increased.
• Critical fingerprint card assets need to be better protected, just as DESPP and DMV need to improve management practices pertaining to background checks.
• DMV should ensure that post-endorsement background checks include periodic updates from national criminal and child abuse databases.
• DMV should create a system that allows the department to reliably know which carriers have checked the disqualified drivers list and develop a method to check carriers to ensure excluded drivers have been denied licensure.
• The Department of Motor Vehicles should prompt police departments that do not currently report through Connecticut Information Sharing System (CISS) of their statutory requirement to report certain arrests to DMV.
• DMV should cease performing any redundant background checks. They should consult DESPP to ensure that DMV receives a complete criminal record.
• DESPP should expedite the implementation of new fingerprint and criminal history computer systems and ensure that full disaster recovery plans and system testing protocols are in place.
• DESPP and DMV should examine methods to better protect applicant fingerprint cards for school transportation employees, and DMV should use its LiveScan to expedite application processing.
• DESPP should review recent time increases needed to process DMV criminal background checks, monitor statutorily required deadlines, and make any necessary changes.
Meanwhile, the Western Identification Network (WIN) is a shared network and Automatic Biometric Identification Systems processing service bureau that offers searchability of civil fingerprints of criminals to improve employment determinations as it relates to public safety concerns. Launi Harden, a long-time Utah director of transportation and now an industry consultant, pointed out that WIN database is flawed because it currently only shares information between eight western states.
Best Practices to Safeguard Children
Harden said she’s conducted previous employment checks and thorough phone interviews with driver applicants. However, she claimed that getting information from previous employers often proved difficult.
She suggested that school administrators should identify employees suspected of grooming children and train staff every school year on how to spot related activities. School officials should also listen better to complaints from parents, she added. Grooming needs to be taken seriously by everyone. Open and honest conversations with employees about times that make them nervous should be a preventative discussion.
Safety measures such as the ones Harden recommends below can improve the safety of children around potential predators:
- Don’t drop a student off anywhere other than their assigned stop, even if the weather is bad.
- Don’t stop or park bus for a prolonged period of time when only the driver is on board with the students.
- When cleaning the bus, drivers shouldn’t ask certain students to stay after the route to assist.
- No driver should take students to their house or give them rides in their personal vehicle.
- Drivers should not sign yearbooks and give personal phone numbers.
- Bus routes should be changed to drop students off in groups to avoid a single student being alone with the driver at any time.
- Drivers should load students standing outside the bus and greet students at the door with their hands visible.
- Children should never sit on a driver’s lap to honk the horn. Boundaries between drivers and students should never broach a student’s personal space.
Harden also advised that student transporters regularly refer to sexual offender databases to ensure the safest placement of school bus stops. This includes understanding the degrees of felonies that involve children. She added that sexual predators can often lay dormant for years, such as with the accused Martinez. It is generally someone people know, like family or neighbors. Predators can often watch their prey for years before launching their attack. Like Martinez, not everyone is a registered sex offender or has a record, especially if they haven’t been caught, she concluded.
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Related: New Mexico School Bus Driver Notifies Police of Domestic Violence Situation
Related: Pa. AG’s Office: School Transport Co. Owner Hired Drivers With Criminal Records
Meanwhile, a grand jury indicted Martinez on Sept. 8. A detention hearing last month released him under pre-trial supervision, which includes a curfew and wearing a GPS monitor.
The district attorney’s office clarified what the school district said: Prior to his DNA being linked to four cold-case rapes, Martinez had no major criminal charges and a completely clear background.