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Bizarre final days, suicide of former Iditarod musher leave friends stunned

  • Author: Megan Edge
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 18, 2014

GIRDWOOD -- Mushing guide and former Iditarod competitor Dario Martinez was found hanging from a tree in downtown Anchorage on Thursday, a day after Alaska State Troopers and Anchorage Animal Care and Control removed 12 malnourished dogs and one dead one from his tour business here.

The circumstances surrounding the popular 50-year-old's public suicide and accusations he abused the dogs he always professed to love have sparked a flood of emotion from friends and colleagues, who can't understand how the end came this way for someone who worked with top mushers for more than a decade.

When troopers seized dogs from the Martinez-owned Chugach Express Dog Sledding kennel in Girdwood last week, they reported the dogs were starving, apparently left for some time without food or water.

One of Martinez's close friends, Andy Morrison, said it had become "fairly clear" that the one-time musher hadn't been taking care of the animals.

"Everything just seemed like it was left, and it was very unusual," said Morrison. "Everyone kind of thought the dogs were being taken care of, but it was also like no one was supposed to take care of the dogs. If he needed help there would have been 100 people he could have asked."

Why Martinez, who had a reputation for being kind to animals, abandoned the dogs is unclear, but he seems to have spent the weeks before his death primarily in Anchorage, about 45 from miles down the Seward Highway from his kennel in the ski-resort community near the head of Turnagain Arm.

‘Big projects’

On Monday night, Martinez's kennel past the east end of Girdwood Airport was silent, dark and eerie. There was no sound of dogs or people, just the sound of unusual November raindrops hitting the roofs of empty dog shelters.

Morrison said Martinez in recent months spent a significant amount of time in Anchorage. He claimed to be working on "big projects" with which he had become "obsessed,'' although he didn't elaborate, Morrison said.

Acquaintances at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub in the Spenard neighborhood said Martinez was a regular at the movies there and spent time chatting with others at the bar. They said he never seemed short of money. He was reported to be a good tipper.

Why someone who always seemed loving and passionate around his dogs would abandon them to starvation and dehydration while he hung out at a bar baffled many. Nicolas Petit, a four-time Iditarod finisher from Girdwood, knew Martinez well. He said the musher cited his attachment to his dogs as one reason for not racing competitively on a regular basis.

"He didn't go race because he wanted to be with all of his dogs all of the time, and when you're racing you're not with every dog at your kennel," Petit said. "He would rather me run his dogs because he wanted to be at the kennel raising the puppies. He was really very proud of his kennels."

Petit credited Martinez for helping him get his career started.

‘Why Dario?’

Joan Daniels of Bird, a small community along the Seward Highway halfway between Anchorage and Girdwood, was married to Martinez for 12 years until they divorced in 2003. He took her name and was still known to many as Dario Daniels, the name under which he ran the Iditarod in 1999.

The union was a way for Martinez, a German national, to stay in the U.S. Daniels herself is a noted Bird character, acting in a nationally touring production of the musical "Hair" in the '70s and later becoming a well-known Alaska cook.

Last week, Daniels learned the news of her ex-husband's death when Alaska State Troopers came knocking on her door.

"I was in shock. I couldn't believe that he had taken his own life," she said. "How could someone so alive be dead?"

Tuesday, she was still trying to piece together what could have happened to cause a man she called "genuine," "hardworking" and "charismatic" to so publicly end his own life.

"Why, Dario? Why would you do this?" Daniels said repeatedly during an interview.

Still, she managed to chuckle when she recalled the story of how the two met. He was hitchhiking south toward the Kenai Peninsula, "exploring the world," she said.

Friends of Daniels picked him up and brought him to her house for a "big Easter celebration," she said, and he "just never left."

"He was just this crazy guy, with lots of long, black hair, and he was curious about everything," Daniels said. When Martinez discovered dog mushing it was apparent he'd never be going back to Germany, she added.

As Daniels remembers it, the two became a team "almost instantly." In the mid-1990s, Daniels cooked for Joe Redington Sr., the "Father of the Iditarod." He was at the time leading sled dog tours along the Iditarod Trail. Martinez, then Dario Daniels, worked as one of Redington's dog handlers on those tours.

In 1999, Martinez ran his first Iditarod. He finished 40th. Daniels can still remember watching his sled glide beneath the arch in Nome.

Ties to the mushing community

Over the years, Martinez and Daniels stayed friends with the Redington family, said Barbara Redington, wife of Raymie Redington, one of Joe's sons.

When Joe died in the summer of 1999, she said, "Joan and Dario were actually there when Joe passed. That is how good of friends they were.''

He regularly did odd jobs at the Redington home, like installing a railing in the house to make life comfortable for Joe in his final days.

"If there was anything that Joe wanted done, Dario could and would do it," she said.

Like Daniels, Petit, Morrison and some others, she has theories on why Martinez ended his own life, but none of them make sense. Daniels shares that feeling.

"He had to have been overwhelmed by something," said Daniels, ''and it was so public, the way he did it, I think he was making a statement, and now my heart is broken. But what I learned about broken hearts is they still work and they still beat."

Anchorage police for days delayed confirming that it was Martinez who hung himself. They said they were having trouble getting in touch with his next of kin, but with his death all over social media -- dozens of friends were posting tributes on Martinez's Facebook page by Monday night -- police finally confirmed that it was the former owner of Chugach Express who perished in the wake of the investigation into dog abuse.

Martinez's direct relatives are believed to live outside the U.S. If anyone has information regarding relatives of Martinez who have not been contacted by police, they're asked to call detective Sgt. Slav Markiewicz of APD's Homicide Unit at 907-786-8582.

Alaska Dispatch News reporter Craig Medred contributed to this story. Contact Megan Edge at megan(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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