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Canvas of Fear

Stalked and eventually murdered, Valarie Martinez painted what she could not express to anyone else.


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The very moment the sun rises on another Saturday morning in Salt Lake City, whole rituals and scenarios are played out. Newspapers are read, televisions turned on, teeth are brushed, lists of chores are drawn up. Or, exhausted from the workweek, people just sleep in.

One and a half miles from Wasatch Boulevard up Big Cottonwood Canyon, the sun would have shone on the hoods of two cars parked below the Ledgemere picnic area. The scene had all the appearances of a car-chase aftermath. A maroon Chevy Cavalier sat pressed into the side of a mountain. Blocking off its driver’s side was a white Ford Escort, crunched hard into the Cavalier’s side.

The rising sun would have filled the canyon with a slowly brightening blue, a dim orange, then a blazing lemon hue of stark rays.

If the sun had risen on the Ledgemere picnic area March 31, 2001, it would have shown skid marks down the road. It would have revealed bits of a broken hubcap in the same area, plus a casing from a 9mm handgun. Inside the two cars, a crime scene strong enough to darken nightmares would have been visible. A cell phone dialed to 911 but never punched into the call center would be found on the floor of the Chevy Cavalier.

The sun never rose on that scene. It was found in darkness when a deputy sheriff drove past it at 1:30 a.m. For family members of those who sat slumped in the two cars, it remains in darkness. It still casts a scar over the mornings, afternoons and evenings of Dolly Martinez and her family. So much so that, with the passing of each Saturday, Dolly can hardly stand it.

Since Saturday, March 31, 2001, her 24-year-old daughter Valarie Dee Martinez has been dead. The same holds true for Valarie’s 30-year-old boyfriend, Todd C. Hedgepeth. The same is also true of Valarie’s 25-year-old ex-boyfriend, Christopher A. Costello.

Dolly bought a new house last November. She couldn’t go on living in the apartment where Valarie used to visit her. “Even though she’s gone, I have a bedroom for her where I can go,” Dolly said. “It’s my place to go to sit down and visit my little girl.”

It’s also the place where she keeps Valarie’s many paintings, sketches and roughs on canvas. Today, as a makeshift exhibit, they’re spanned across Dolly’s living room.

Some are pleasant, serene works of loosely-woven impressionism: a group of blue faces floats down a vertical canvas, tree branches hang languidly in a backdrop of intense, otherworldly sunsets. There’s another painting—a Madonna in tears.

Her daughter never finished most of them. Dolly framed them anyway. Many of them evoke a finished quality, if only because you know their creator is dead. A “fatal” quality seems too harsh or easy a description, but carries an edge of truth. Among the strongest of Valarie’s works is the bold form of an inverted exclamation mark. A red circle surrounded by black hovers over a matching base of equal length. The base strives upward, even as its origin fades into the darkness below. This was Valarie’s visual conception of human intelligence: a calm, vibrant force that outshines any darkness.

Adding to and enhancing her intelligence was a lot of what Valarie did, says her mother. Valarie had her goofy side, to be sure. With a good song on the car stereo, she banged her hands on the dashboard. She blew bubble gum while running bases at softball games. But she was also bookish, studious—a bit of a geek. While her sisters, with their makeup and clothes, reveled more in the feminine side of being a woman, Valarie read science books on Einstein. In hopeful preparation for medical school, she rifled through flash cards on human anatomy. She watched the Nova series on public television, played chess and threw her mind into games and puzzles. The family album shows a photo of her fast asleep on the couch, Rubik’s Cube in hand.

She scowled slightly at anyone who compared her to Hollywood star Jennifer Lopez. Valarie had little admiration for the jet-set. More than that, she scowled because she didn’t want comparisons. She wanted to be her own person.

Drawing had come easy when she started in fifth grade. She bought pastels and acrylics. She needed no one’s encouragement or instruction. It was her own thing. Her only constraint was finances. Canvases—whether she got one for Christmas, a birthday or on her own—were used in a matter of days. She sat for hours painting, stopping for no one until a piece was finished. If it ended to her liking, she kept it. If not, it was broken, kung-fu style, over a knee.

“Other than that, she was real quiet about her painting. Almost modest, really,” Dolly said. “She didn’t do it to show off. Her painting, to me, was almost like her way of taking care of herself.”

Or, as Valarie’s older sister Tina describes, it was like “her diary, her journey.”

Somewhere in the late 1990s, her paintings took on an expected edge. Her journey grew darker as her relationship with a Chris Costello hit the rocks, Dolly remembers. Then it brightened when she entered the cusp of a new relationship with Todd Hedgepeth, a man she met at work. Tall, bald and always smiling, Hedgepeth had a charming, ringing laugh that made others smile, or even laugh themselves. A single father, he worked two jobs to provide for his son, Tyler.

Valarie was walking on air, even as Costello dragged in her wake. He parked his car outside her apartment, sitting in silent wait. Some days he followed her almost everywhere, even to her sister’s house in Price when Valarie went down for visits. Sometimes, if she wanted to visit her mother, Valarie told Dolly where to meet—a shopping mall, a restaurant—so Costello wouldn’t trace her to her mother’s house. Valarie felt him watching, looking, hovering over her every move.

Some of her last paintings make those feelings graphically clear. If a picture speaks a thousand words, two in particular scream. One is a canvas cut into nine squares, each bordering the other between an inch of distance. Each is the disjointed part of a whole, an abstract picture of a woman resting on a couch near the window while something stares menacingly from an outside corner. Another is far more harrowing. Cast in a claustrophobic gray and other dark hues, it reflects the almost catlike, piercing gaze of a human face directed onto a distraught mélange of white and red below. It’s as if the gaze above is enough to cut and hack at the corpse of what used to be a dove. Dolly likes to think of the mélange as an angel attacked.

Dolly knew her daughter was having trouble with Costello. But even as bad as it sometimes got, she never dreamed it would come to this, that one day she’d have police detectives knocking at her door.

“Her paintings told it all,” Dolly said, holding back tears with every word. “I think she was talking through her paintings because she couldn’t really tell anyone else what was going on or how she really felt. And I didn’t pick up on it like I should have. In her own little quiet way, she was trying to reach out to someone.”

alarie Dee Martinez was born in Salt Lake City, but moved to Price at an early age. Her parents, Richard and Dolly, divorced when she was 12. She dealt with another upheaval much earlier in life. She contracted an especially virulent case of leptospirosis, a debilitating and, in rare cases, fatal bacterial disease. At the age of three, her kidneys and liver suddenly shut down. On top of that, doctors diagnosed a tumor in her fallopian tube. Months were spent in the hospital. She pulled through, but emerged a withdrawn little girl.

“Looking back on that, I sometimes feel like she cheated death,” Dolly said. “Almost as if later in life, death had come back to claim what it missed the first time around.”

She was more petite than her sisters. Even into her early 20s, she didn’t top 4 feet 11. Her shoe size was a tiny 4 1/2. No one could tell her she couldn’t do something because she was too small or because she was a woman. She learned to mountain climb.

Valarie made lists, and by the time she reached young adulthood, she had three goals in mind. At the top was becoming a pediatrician. She aimed to be the sort of doctor that had pulled her through her own childhood illness. Like so many young people on a budget, she enrolled at Salt Lake Community College to get her general education classes out of the way at a cheaper price, then planned to transfer to the University of Utah and, eventually, medical school. After that, she figured her other goals would fall easily into place: becoming an airplane pilot and opening an art gallery.

As often as she had the spare money, Valarie stocked up on art supplies: canvases, acrylics, brushes, paints, chalks and pastels. It was her meditation. “I remember passing her room once while she was painting,” said younger brother Richie. “I tried to pick up a conversation with her, but it was like she couldn’t even hear me.”

Of her three siblings, she was closest to Richie. One day Valarie told him when time allowed, they’d take salsa lessons. “She didn’t care about herself so much of the time, but if you hurt someone close to her, she would be pissed off. She could be very defensive about the people she loved,” Richie said.

erhaps it was Costello’s alleged threats of harming her family that made Valarie more pliable to his demands. The two met at a July 4 outing at Murray Park when she was 15 years old. Costello was one year older, a large, heavyset person compared to Valarie’s small frame.

Dolly remembers not liking him from the get-go, an easy judgement now, given hindsight. But even then, she thought Costello was pushy, demanding and rarely in a good mood. In family settings, Valarie was never the center of attention, given her quiet ways. And Valarie rarely saw herself as attractive, especially where boys were concerned. In her own complex way, Valarie might have been at first flattered by Costello’s manner. Even if his interest in her turned overbearing and demanding, at least he made her the center of his attention. At least, that’s how Dolly sees it.

As the years passed and Valarie matured, she grew apart from her boyfriend. For members of the Martinez family, it was easy to see why. If Costello showed up while Valarie was on the phone, she immediately ended the call. If anyone visited the apartment where he and Valarie lived for a brief month-and-a-half, only he could answer the door. In fact, said Tina, no one in the Martinez family was even allowed a visit when the two lived together.

“She couldn’t get up to go to the bathroom without telling him where she was going,” Tina remembers. “One time, as kind of a polite reassurance, I told him I didn’t think Valarie would leave him. He said to me, ‘Oh, I know she won’t. Because if she did, I’d take care of that.’”

Somewhere in 1998, Dolly remembers, her daughter tried ending the relationship with Costello for good. Valarie was successful, in part. She got her own apartment. But with Costello’s constant demands, the relationship was on and off and back on again. Finally, in the summer of 2000, she broke up with him for good.

Life went on. Valarie worked, as did her mother, at a check-manufacturing company in Industrial Park. So did Todd Hedgepeth, a man Dolly held in higher esteem every time she interacted with him. Courteous, hardworking and charming, he seemed to fit every aspect of what people would call a gentleman. “He was the very definition of the word ‘man,’” Dolly remembers. “He was a gentle giant, tall and lanky. Valarie was tiny. He treated her like a piece of glass—like a lady.”

Dolly imagined ways she might get Valarie and Hedgepeth together. In the end, she didn’t have to. Valarie was already noticing Hedgepeth somewhere from the corner of her eye. Both climbed. Both carried cameras almost everywhere they went. After meeting each other casually during a bungee jump with other colleagues from work, followed by a more serious date at a Saltair concert, everything fell into place.

After a while, the only one left to be introduced was Hedgepeth’s young son, Tyler. Valarie was nervous. Hedgepeth told her to relax. He would fix dinner for the three of them. They’d have a good time.

At the table, Tyler glanced at Valarie. Valerie took glances at Tyler, smiling a little. For a while, everyone ate in silence. Finally, Valarie turned to Tyler once more, opening her mouth to show a train wreck of chewed food. Taken aback, Tyler looked to his dad for a response, then giggled. Hedgepeth let loose his trademark chuckle, and everyone laughed all the way into dessert. The ice was broken.

he humor surrounding Costello was harder to find. Early on in their relationship, Dolly said she twice called the police on him. Once, she said, when Costello took her daughter on a surprise trip to Las Vegas. Again, when she caught him in her house hiding under a bed in the room Valarie shared with one of her sisters.

The young man was becoming increasingly unstable. Valarie returned home to find him in her living room, threatening suicide with a bottle of blood-pressure pills. The second time Costello broke into her house, Valarie threw her key chain at his forehead, scratching his face. But when she called police, Costello told the investigating officer he’d been invited over, and that Valarie had turned violent. As Dolly remembers the incident as told by her daughter, the officer warned Valarie she was lucky Costello didn’t file domestic violence charges. Since the two had lived together prior, that was what it amounted to, not stalking or trespassing. The officer did give Valarie a pamphlet on filing a restraining order against Costello, however. Disenchanted with the police and incensed that she was being seen as the one at fault, Valarie put the brochure aside.

Dolly believes her daughter feared involving the police more because it might have fed or triggered Costello’s rage. “There isn’t anything anyone can do,” Dolly remembers her daughter saying. “He’s going to kill me.”

The one beacon on the horizon was Costello’s imminent departure for the U.S. Navy, scheduled for October 2000. Valarie had told him that summer that their relationship was over for good, Dolly said, and that he should move on with his life. But after several “no” answers in months past, Valarie told him “no” once more. Costello fell into a depression, but left for the Navy all the same.

Valarie was thrilled to see Costello gone. But her freedom was short-lived. Within a month, Costello was back in Salt Lake City, discharged from the Navy because of health problems. He sat in his car outside her apartment. He followed her wherever she drove.

But ruin her life he would not. Valarie wouldn’t let him, even if the fear Costello generated stuck to the back of her mind. Besides, her relationship with Hedgepeth was much too strong at this point. In February 2001, the two took a trip to Moab. Photographs show them smiling amid vast, red-rock landscapes, arms around each other. She once blushed when, in front of her mother, Hedgepeth called her “Honey.” For his part, Hedgepeth never talked about Valarie at work, and Valarie did the same. When you hold someone that close to your heart, you don’t want to talk about it with anyone else.

The tone of her painting changed as well. Gone were the visions of dread and unease. Valarie painted figures of a man and woman, somewhat hard to detect in sprawling orange and red colors, locked in an eternal, suspended embrace.

Still, from November 2000 to the day she died, Richie remembers his sister as someone burning a candle at both ends, and burning fast.

“She was always tired, but still kept herself as busy as she could. You’d look at her face and know she was exhausted. She would wake up in a startled state,” he said. “Every time I asked her what I could do, she said everything was OK. I didn’t even know about half the stuff that was going on until the end.”

Valarie had to do something. So she resolved to move. The apartment company she rented from arranged to have her move to a new unit in a different complex. She did some initial packing, then waited for the end of March.

For March 30, when the northern lights were set to shine across the night sky, Valarie and Hedgepeth agreed to a plan. They would pack a little during the day, see the lights at night, then reunite in the morning to complete Valarie’s move. They would drive up Big Cottonwood Canyon to see the lights. Before the evening’s rendezvous, Valarie spent one last night with her mom. The two talked about things they’d never broached before. They talked about life after death.

“I just said I’d make life as happy as I could for her,” Dolly remembers. But she didn’t tell Valarie how much she loved her. You rarely think of what you did not say at the time, until your child ends up dead. Only then do thoughts of all you should have said come crashing down with all the weight of unwept tears.

Dolly went with Richie to see the northern lights at the lookout point of the Great Salt Lake. By then, Valarie and Hedgepeth were already headed out in her Chevy Cavalier to Big Cottonwood Canyon. It’s anyone’s guess as to when Costello started following them. But according to a Salt Lake County Sheriff’s report, members of Costello’s family heard his car start up and leave between 10:30 and 11 p.m. He’d told no one where he was going.

It was some 3.9 miles up the canyon from the crime scene that signs of a confrontation between the two cars was found. After combining interviews and crime scene evidence, Salt Lake County Sheriff’s investigator Cortney P. Nelson patched together a speculative sequence of events, issued April 17, 2001. Nelson deduced that Costello rammed his car into Valarie’s at least twice, pitching it off the road, until finally forcing her car into the side of a mountain near the Ledgemere Picnic Area.

“Valarie and Todd were unable to exit with the mountain on the passenger’s side and Costello’s car on the driver’s side. It is possible Costello shot at least once at their vehicle before he was able to force it off the road,” according to the report. “Once the vehicles stopped, Costello exited his car and proceeded around the back of his vehicle and Valarie’s to her passenger side.”

Aiming his 9mm into Valarie’s car, Costello probably shot Hedgepeth first, firing one bullet into the back of his head, another through his right wrist, and another into his back. He saved four rounds for Valarie, blasting away at the back of her head and upper back. An autopsy later found two more bullet wounds in her upper left bicep.

Costello returned to sit in his car, where he finished himself off with one shot to the head, his left hand falling to rest, fingers wrapped around the silver handgun. That’s all anyone can surmise with any certainty. The details—who almost phoned 911, the screams, the ways in which Valarie and Hedgepeth tried escaping from the car—can only fill imaginations. Dolly, for one, isn’t content with that. The loyalty and love she felt, and still feels, toward her daughter’s memory, demanded that she see all 10 Polaroid crime-scene photos firsthand.

“I had to see them. I had to see if anything was being hidden,” she said. “The way they were positioned together in the car, trying to get out of the bucket seats, and the way her little head was rested inside Todd’s chest—that’s what I remember. I really think he shot Todd first, and Todd was trying to cup her head inside his chest after having his mind blown out.

“When I looked at her [Valarie’s] little face in the crime scene pictures, she looked so mad, so genuinely pissed off. But she was asleep.”

After Valerie’s cremation, Hedgepeth’s parents agreed to place a locket full of her ashes into their son’s hand before his burial. After closing her eyes before sleep, Dolly still sees the crime-scene photos in her head. It’s been more than one year since police detectives knocked at her front door, asked how many daughters she had, then told her Valarie was gone forever. The void a parent feels over losing a child is so great, sometimes Dolly feels that Costello shot her along with her daughter. There is no abrupt parting, only a long good-bye. Compounding the Hedgepeth family’s loss is the fact that Tyler lost his father during the most formative years of his life.

The one solace Dolly holds fast is the knowledge that her daughter was truly loved during the last months of her life. “I will be forever grateful to Todd and his memory because he loved Valarie the way she always deserved to be loved,” she said.

The 40 or so paintings and sketches her daughter left behind were another matter. Valarie never once had a public exhibit of her work, but the tone and subject matter of her paintings made a posthumous tribute all the more relevant. Several phone calls later, Dolly met local artist Derek Dyer, who selected a handful of galleries for a possible show. A planned exhibit at the Bridges Project fell through at the last minute. But in April, her works landed at the Display Gallery on Pierpont Avenue.

“What I liked about her [Valarie’s] work was that she probably never spent more than one day in art school, but it looked a lot more moving than stuff you’d see at a typical gallery,” Dyer said. “I just found her work particularly interesting because it wasn’t a product of academia, it was work that related to her life at a very visceral level. I’d say probably 40 percent of the people attending left in tears. It was really heart-wrenching stuff.”

In the continuum of her life, and as someone who always protested people telling her what she could or could not do, Valarie’s exhibit made sense at both the spiritual and practical levels.

“Maybe if she’d had a more pristine life without problems, her work wouldn’t have been so dramatic. So it’s hard to say if her work would have gotten an exhibit at all if she’d lived a different life,” Dyer said. “But that’s the case with any artist. They’re all impacted by their environment.”

As academics like to point out, art is the cathartic release of the human soul in its purest, most honest form. In that realm, Valarie’s work is an unqualified success, and a testimony to every woman who’s ever had to shake off a man who won’t take no for an answer.

Given all the pain his actions brought into the world, turning the light on Chris Costello rings somewhat hollow. But if Valarie’s story seems so much more, Costello’s is still the other half. His younger brother, Kim Costello, said his parents are nowhere near the point of being able to talk about the loss of their son. That doesn’t keep him silent, however. Some of his words are soaked in the bitterness of having lost a brother.

“I regret the whole situation because my family suffered, and her family has suffered,” the younger Costello said.

Kim admits his brother was suffering from depression, and was supposed to attend group therapy but didn’t. But he still believes that his brother, Chris, was driven to the heinous act that no balanced person could justify.

“I think my brother’s thought was that if someone’s going to destroy your life to the point that you don’t want to live anymore, you might as well take their life as well.”

Dolly acknowledges she sometimes burns with a rage so deep for Chris Costello that she can hardly contain it. Then there are times she tries to understand why events turned out the way they did. There are times when, to some extent, she even seems to blame herself.

“I’ve no doubt that he [Chris Costello] loved my daughter in some way. But it was mostly in a way of control and ownership,” she said.

It wasn’t as if she saw her daughter’s foreboding paintings only after the fact, either. She saw them firsthand, sometimes soon after Valarie completed them. “I told her at the time that it scared me. But now, after it’s all taken place, I know why she painted that way,” Dolly said. “It makes me sad, because I didn’t pay attention to the signs. I should have paid attention and asked what was going on.”

Sometimes she’s most proud of the fact that Valarie always lived life despite obstacles. Despite her childhood illness. Despite anyone who tried to tell her what she could do. Despite the debilitating presence of someone who stalked her.

“She knew he was after her, but she still wanted to be happy. She didn’t let it get in the way. A lot of people would have just gone into hiding if they experienced what she did. But she still lived her life.”