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Sisters Sherrie Lee Martin, 8, and Victoria Lynne Martin, 4, were killed in an early morning fire on Saturday, March 6, 1965, when someone set fire to the family’s Dubuque, Iowa two-story frame house.
The girls’ mother, Janet, escaped from the burning home about 3:30 a.m. but said she was unable to save her daughters. The girls were asleep on the home’s second floor when the fire broke out.
The house did not have a telephone, and a Muscatine Journal article dated Saturday, March 6, 1965 said Mrs. Martin ran to a neighbor’s home to call firemen.
The girls’ black cat managed to safely escape the blaze.
Janet’s husband, Donald C. Martin, a former National Guardsman and Marine Corps corporal employed by the United States Postal Service, also had a second job and worked the second shift. After the fire, both he and his wife were admitted to the hospital for shock.
Firemen said the blaze apparently started in the kitchen, and initial reports stated the fire may have been caused by faulty electric wiring.
After the couple buried the girls, witnesses came forward and said they’d seen a gas can sitting on the home’s stoop earlier the day of the fire.
Donald learned Janet had been having an affair with a man who bagged groceries at a local supermarket. She’d allegedly placed the gas can on the stoop so her boyfriend could easily set the fire.
Martin requested his daughters’ bodies be exhumed to prove his estranged wife had provided the accelerant that led to their deaths. Further investigation determined the fire had indeed been deliberately set and ruled it arson. Both girls’ deaths were then ruled homicides.
A grieving military veteran and father was about to embark on his longest traveled journey.
Six years before his two young daughters perished in the Dubuque fire, Donald Martin had experienced the painful loss of yet another child.
On Dec. 8, 1958, his 3-month-old daughter, Deborah Ann, suddenly died, and officials attributed the unexplained death to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), also known as “crib death.” At the time, Martin had no reason to suspect his wife may have been involved in the child’s untimely death.
After his second and third young daughter died in a fiery blaze and he learned of his wife’s possible involvement in their deaths, he began piecing together the razor-sharp shards in a shattered and nightmarish puzzle.
Janet had left town with her boyfriend shortly after the fire.
Sherrie and Victoria were not supposed to be in the home that night; Janet allegedly had meant for the fire to claim only her husband’s life.
With new autopsy reports confirming his worst suspicions, he immediately filed for divorce, citing undue cruelty, inhumane treatment and abandonment. He clung to the only remaining lifeline he had to the girls — the furry black cat his daughters had deeply loved.
Donald Martin continually published public notices of the divorce petition in the Telegraph Herald, while his attorney tracked Janet’s movements from state to state in attempts to serve her with the divorce papers.
Meanwhile, Mr. Martin purchased the cemetery plot next to the girls he called his “angels.”
An out-of-state attorney finally responded in Janet Martin’s behalf, though Janet refused to return to Iowa for the proceedings. She did not object to her husband’s filing for ownership of property that included all household belongings.
She wanted only one thing.
The distraught father clung fiercely to the animal, which the court eventually awarded to him.
After months of legal correspondence and published notifications, the court finally granted Donald Martin his divorce from Janet.
Back when serving with the Marines in California, Donald Martin caught both respiratory and kidney infections. Diagnosed with chronic nephritis, he’d had the option of staying on desk duty with no active report or returning home to his family. He knew Janet was struggling with the girls, so chose to return home where he could better help his family.
A broken man after Sherrie and Vicky’s deaths, Donald never expected to marry again or have any more children. He eventually met a young woman named Carol Boulting, however, and the two fell in love. They married on April 10, 1976, and went on to have two daughters, Lisa and Jody.
Martin focused a great deal on their safety, both inside and outside the home.
“One of his first priorities was building a fire escape with Redwood decking. When the wood aged, he immediately had the fire escape replaced with new decking,” his daughter Lisa told Iowa Cold Cases.
“We were never allowed to use candles, indoor heaters, not even allowed to have a fire in the back yard as teenagers growing up with our friends,” Lisa said.
Each year, on the anniversary of his lost daughters’ deaths and birthdays, Martin would withdraw into a shell and remain silent throughout the week. He regularly attended to and took care of the girls’ family gravestone.
Donald Martin spent 40 years working for the postal service. He died on his 70th birthday, Feb. 24, 2009, after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was buried next to his daughters at Mount Olivet Cemetery with military rites accorded by the Dubuque Marine Corps League.
For Donald’s wake and funeral, his wife and daughters constructed large poster boards filled with pictures of him and his younger, lost girls.
Following his death, his wife Carol and the couple’s two daughters tended to both his gravesite and that of his first three girls.
When Carol passed away May 22, 2012, Lisa and Jody lovingly took over attending the burial plots where their parents and half-sisters lay.
Lisa said she and Jody are looking into erecting an honorary memory bench or planting a tree in honor of all three girls. The two remaining sisters hang onto hope of seeing justice served in a case never solved in their father’s or mother’s lifetimes.
When the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) established a Cold Case Unit in 2009, Sherrie and Victoria’s murders were two of approximately 150 unsolved Iowa cases the new Cold Case Unit hoped to solve using latest advancements in DNA forensic technology.
Although federal grant funding for the DCI Cold Case Unit was exhausted in December 2011, the DCI continues to assign agents to investigate cold cases as new leads develop or as technological advances allow for additional forensic testing of original evidence.
The DCI remains committed to the resolution of Iowa’s cold cases and will continue to work diligently with local law enforcement partners to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice for the victims and their families.
Sherrie Lee Martin was born November 11, 1956 and died March 6, 1965.
Victoria Lynne Martin was born November 29, 1960 and died March 6, 1965.
The girls’ remains were laid to rest at Key West in Dubuque County’s Mount Olivet Cemetery. Their father and stepmother lie next to them.
Lisa and Jody remain committed to seeing justice served in their sisters’ unsolved murders.
If you have any information about Sherrie and Victoria Martin’s unsolved murders, please contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010 or contact the Dubuque Police Department at (563) 589-4410.