The Miami Herald, miamiherald.com
By DON PERRYMAN, The Messenger
MADISONVILLE, Ky. -- The last time Woody Morris talked to his wife, Joy, was on Halloween night in October 2002.
The couple operated a vehicle escort business, and she had made the long haul to West Palm Beach, Fla.
"We were both down there with separate loads," Woody Morris said Thursday. "She wanted me to come on back home."
Morris said storage buildings the couple owned had been broken into, and his wife told him to get back to Madisonville and check on them.
He suggested Joy drive north on Interstate 75 and stay overnight at a Best Western motel in Valdosta, Ga.
"We always stopped there," Woody Morris said, "because the gas was about half as much as it is in Florida."
What happened that night in Valdosta is still being pieced together. What Lowndes County Sheriff's Department investigators know is that Joy stopped at exit 2 off the interstate and gassed up her new Ford Mustang and had something to eat.
Investigators believe that after a long day on the road, she had stopped to get some rest.
They believe that's when Maurilio Masadiego Martinez came upon the 47-year-old woman.
They believe that's when her life came to an end.
A motel maid at the Best Western spotted Joy's black Mustang in a wooded area Nov. 1 behind the motel. Authorities were called.
When law enforcement arrived, they found Joy's body sitting in the driver's seat behind the steering wheel. Investigators believe her killer moved the car to where it was found.
Robbery didn't appear to be a motive for her death. She was wearing jewelry, Woody Morris said, and her purse had money, identification and credit cards in it.
An autopsy revealed she had been strangled and sexually assaulted.
There were no suspects. Time began to pass. Slowly. Especially for Woody Morris and his family.
He took a polygraph and had DNA samples taken.
"I wanted them to clear me," he said, "and they did."
But not for everyone.
He began to hear whispers. Word began to spread that he had killed his wife - that he had a $1 million life insurance policy on her.
It wasn't true, he said.
At his wife's visitation, Morris said he was outside the funeral home, when a Madisonville police officer approached him in uniform. The officer said she wanted to go inside, and Morris escorted her into the funeral home to see Joy and then back out.
"Everybody in there thought I was being arrested," Morris said.
About a month ago, Morris said he and his current wife, Brenda, were at a local auto parts store. Morris said he went into the store, and when he came out a woman called him a murderer.
Kathy Morris, Woody's daughter and Joy's stepdaughter, said there were a lot of people who thought that.
"It was rough," she said. "I knew he didn't kill her. I saw him here that Halloween night and saw him leave the next morning. You can tell people, but they don't believe you. They believe what they want to believe."
Lowndes County sheriff's Capt. Wanda Edwards worked the case and was getting nowhere. Lead after lead was followed and each led nowhere.
Investigators had DNA evidence that had been obtained at Joy's autopsy. It was entered into Georgia's Combined DNA Index System which allows DNA evidence to be compared.
"We had DNA evidence," Edwards said, "and several years later there was another sexual assault case in Valdosta."
One of the people questioned in that case was Maurilio Masadiego Martinez, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, who worked seasonal jobs, Edwards said.
During the interview, a DNA sample was obtained and later matched to the DNA taken from the scene where Joy Morris was found.
"Once we made the identification in 2008," Edwards said, "we obtained a warrant for rape."
But finding him was a different story. Martinez is a common name and Edwards said that illegal immigrants usually don't have authentic identification.
"If they're picked up, they often use other names," she said.
Edwards received a number of hits on the name Martinez that proved not to be the suspect.
Finally, Edwards and investigators had some luck. A couple of months ago, a Maurilio Martinez was arrested in Casselberry, Fla., on traffic charges.
"We check his fingerprints," Edwards said. "It was the guy we were looking for."
Martinez fought extradition. Lowndes County investigators obtained a governor's warrant. Once it was signed in Georgia, the Florida governor had to sign off on it.
Martinez spent his 40th birthday in jail Thursday in the Lowndes County lockup. He is charged with murder and is being held without bond. He has a court appointed attorney from the public defender's office.
The Morris family has waited more than seven years for the news they received earlier this week.
"It's a blessing," Kathy said. "An answered prayer. We've been praying for a long time. One thing I wish, if everybody would take a look at the people that they love and appreciate them a little more. They may not be here tomorrow."
Information from: The Messenger, http://www.the-messenger.com
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