Alpo was in witness protection in Maine. But her life in Harlem kept calling
It was 2016, and Abraham Rodriguez received a text message that made him light up. It was from his friend Nik Pappaconstantine, who had just purchased a new toy: a sleek, fast dirt bike perfect for cruising the back roads of Lewiston, the small town in Maine where they lived.
Mr. Rodriguez had just turned 50 and had arrived in Lewiston about a year before with nothing. He met Mr. Pappaconstantine, who worked at a local bank, when he came to open his very first bank account, and the two men became close. They bonded over a shared love of cars and adventure sports, and when Mr. Rodriguez saw the text, he rushed to try the new bike.
They hauled the motorcycle into the woods and Mr. Rodriguez jumped on it. He revved the engine, popped a wheelie, and rode it for a quarter mile. Then he turned around, popped another one, and swung it back, gliding across the empty, wooded field like a professional street rider.
Mr. Pappaconstantine was stunned. But Mr Rodriguez laughed it off: “I used to ride a bike back then,” his friend recalled.
At the time, Mr. Pappaconstantine brushed off the remark. It would be years before he learned that Abraham Rodriguez was not the man’s name; his friend with the trick skills was actually Alberto (Alpo) Martinez, one of New York’s most notorious cocaine smugglers of the 1980s.
Five years after crossing this Maine field on a dirt bike, Mr. Martinez’s mad dash ended on Halloween day in Harlem, when he was shot through the window of a lifted pickup truck which he drove into the city from Maine.
The end was as dramatic as the rest of Mr. Martinez’s life. As a young man in Harlem, Mr. Martinez became one of the most successful and successful cocaine smugglers during the height of the drug’s popularity. His downfall, however, was quick: he murdered one of his best friends, expanded his business to Washington, DC, and in 1991 was arrested and charged in a massive drug trafficking case. He would later inform about dozens of associates as a federal witness.
Now, as police investigate his murder, they say they are encountering an unusual problem: Huge numbers of people wanted to see Alpo Martinez dead.
“No shortage of suspects,” a senior law enforcement official said at the time of the killing. “Part of the difficulty may be too many suspects with too many motives.”
In the aftermath of Mr Martinez’s death, friends and neighbors who knew him in Lewiston fell silent, unsure what they thought of the man they knew as a kind and affable friend.
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“He was the nicest neighbor,” said Marissa Ritchey, who was smoking a cigarette in an icy parking lot on Saturday and tossing a ball at her dog. “He was always polite, kind to the dog.”
“You would never have thought anything,” she said. “He was one of the good guys. He helped the old people take out their trash cans.
In Lewiston, the murder of Mr Martinez was a strange and dark blow to a former industrial town of around 36,000 people nestled between Portland and Augusta on the Androscoggin River.
“There was definitely buzz around town,” Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline said of Mr Martinez’s death. A convicted New York murderer, he said, was “not your average neighbor” in town.
“Who would have thought that? said a neighbor, Harold Hanlon, who had a friendly relationship with the man he knew as Abraham. “I was as shocked as the next person when my neighbor said, ‘Hey, Abraham was killed. What?”
Even in death, a cohesive picture of Mr. Martinez’s double life – which has already been the subject of a Hollywood movie – proves elusive. He was both a staunch confidant and one of the most infamous renegades of New York lore. He was a kind friend and a known, ruthless killer; a disinterested neighbor and a man so hated in Harlem that former friends popped champagne in the streets to celebrate his violent end.
“He died almost like a comic book villain,” said Kevin Chiles, a reformed cocaine dealer and former friend of Mr. Martinez from Harlem. “He thwarted fate.”
Living in two worlds
The path that took Mr. Martinez from New York to Lewiston and back – until his death in the neighborhood where he made his name – began more than 30 years ago. Nicknamed “The Mayor of Harlem”, Mr. Martinez rose to fame as a kingpin of the crack era, known for his fancy cars and loud street bikes tearing up entire neighborhoods of the city.
“He was an attention seeker and an adrenaline junkie,” Chiles said. “You have to understand, we were all young adults, teenagers, and we had more money than we knew what to do with.”
But even in an illicit business, Mr. Martinez’s cruelty stood out. In 1990, he orchestrated the murder of close friend and fellow drug dealer, Rich Porter.
The murder marked the beginning of the end of Mr. Martinez’s reign. He was arrested less than a year later after trying to expand his cocaine empire in Washington, D.C. Facing drug trafficking charges, Mr. Martinez – one of Harlem’s toughest players – agreed to become a federal witness and pleaded guilty to contracting seven murders. His testimony would decimate the cocaine infrastructure of the Washington, DC metro area.
“He killed people for less than he ultimately turned out to be and do,” Mr Chiles said.
The betrayal would later be filmed in the movie “Paid in Full”, which followed fictionalized versions of Mr. Martinez, Mr. Porter and another kingpin through Mr. Porter’s murder.
Mr. Martinez’s actual arrangement earned him a mitigated sentence and a place in the federal witness protection program. The program, which officials say has a 100% success rate in keeping witnesses safe when they follow its rules, requires participants to completely give up their former lives, identities and contacts.
Paroled in 2015 under a new name – Abraham Rodriguez – Mr Martinez started again in Lewiston, the kind of place where people mind their own business and don’t tend to be careful, Shawn Gummo said , owner of a local construction company. .
Protected by the program, Mr. Martinez flourished. He got his commercial driver’s license and started working for Walmart and played basketball with local teenagers. With the help of Mr. Pappaconstantine, he settles in an apartment, and is a much appreciated neighbor.
By 2017, Mr. Martinez had started his own construction business, founding his own LLC and working in construction cleanup. He often worked south of Lewiston, said Mr Gummo, who said some of his crew members knew Mr Martinez as he lived under his false identity.
Mr Hanlon, who lived next to the six-unit building on College Street where Mr Martinez stayed, said he never suspected a thing.
“We both owned Dodge trucks, so we used to go to the dealership for repairs, and stuff like that,” Hanlon said. “It was a cordial relationship. He just went in and out, he didn’t hang around here too much. He was a pretty nice boy.
Still, Mr. Martinez’s former life and legacy beckoned. Almost as soon as he was released from prison, Mr. Martinez contacted Mr. Chiles through a mutual friend. He said he wanted to explain himself, and what happened in 1991. Soon he was returning to Harlem on a regular basis.
“There were these sightings, almost like Bigfoot,” Chiles said. “People would say they saw it.”
A search for redemption
Mr. Martinez’s trips to Harlem would almost certainly have been a violation of his witness protection agreement. (US Marshals, who run the witness protection program, have not commented on this story.) Those who knew him in his post-incarceration life said he appeared to have been kicked out of the program around the same time he began to return to the city.
“He apparently somehow messed up the witness protection conditions in 2018,” Mr Pappaconstantine said. “He would go down to New York with someone else. He was always worried that the government was watching.
Around the same time, Mr. Martinez also appeared to capitalize on his notoriety – in a 2019 YouTube clip, Mr. Martinez takes director Troy Reed to the corner where he says he killed Mr. Porter.
“It happened here. In this light,” Mr. Martinez says in the video clip, his head leaning against the car window. “I grabbed my little man’s gun and put one in his head.”
By 2020, Abraham Rodriguez had largely disappeared from Maine. Alpo Martinez was once again a fixture in Harlem.
What ultimately killed Mr. Martinez in the early hours of Halloween remains a mystery. Some say the murder was a late meeting of street justice long sought after for testifying against so many former associates. Others claim that Mr Martinez was killed because of a girl, or simply got into trouble as he always did: he was arrogant and ambitious and angered the wrong people.
A senior law enforcement official said investigators now believe Mr Martinez is likely back in the Harlem drug trade. When police discovered him dead in his truck last year, a trail of heroin packs led from his open window onto the street, the official said – as if he had thrown the drugs out of the car into the panic.
For those like Mr. Pappaconstantine, who only learned Mr. Martinez’s true identity just before his death, his disappearance seems complicated.
“I want to sit here and say that I know he was completely genuine the whole time,” Mr. Pappaconstantine said, struggling to express his feelings about his former friend. “You take someone you know incredibly well and then you read this stuff and it doesn’t connect.”
But for Mr. Chiles, Mr. Martinez was never going to do it again — it was always going to end in Harlem.
“He wanted to tie his hat to redemption,” Mr. Chiles said, adding that Mr. Martinez’s thirst for his former glory may also have played a role. “He’s a narcissist beyond anything I could put my finger on. He needed that attention.
In a scene that now looks ominous, Mr. Martinez’s character in “Paid in Full” spends the final scene agreeing to cooperate with federal agents.
“I don’t report anyone in Harlem,” says Mr. Martinez’s character. “Because when I get home, I’ll still be the king.”
Murray Carpenter contributed reporting from Lewiston, Maine. Kirsten Noyes contributed research.