Some people carry a secret forever. Some carry it as long as it suits them. I carried Tony Martinez’s secret for twenty-five years before he decided to unburden me. I met Tony in the most unlikely of places. The shallow woods of Sawyer County, Wisconsin in the 1970’s were a well traveled destination. But the deep woods were obscure and not easily traversed. It was place reserved for Rangers and wildlife and even the Rangers didn’t go DEEP in. Even now, in most of the acreage, there are no roads to drive and no trails to hike. You don’t go in those woods for recreation, you go in to disappear.
I met Tony because we had one thing in common. We both wanted to disappear.
I grew up in the town of Hayward, the seat of Sawyer County. I lived with my mom and Stepdad and neither one of them paid much attention to me.
Until I found the key to my stepdads safe. I had nothing against my Stepdad, but I felt no guilt in grabbing a $100 bill and having a great time with my friends in Duluth for a weekend. It’s when I took off with the whole $10,000 that I got his attention. I didn’t think twice about taking it and he didn’t think twice about calling the cops. It probably won’t surprise you if I said I was certain I could outsmart the entire Sawyer County sheriffs department. I took off to the vast expanse of Wisconsin woodlands to wait it out. Scared and totally unprepared, I ran into Tony after my first horrible night in that wilderness. I wandered into a small clearing hidden deep in the woods. I took my backpack off and lay down in the clearing exhausted, scratched and marred from my trek through the trees and brush. As silent as the insects that crawled in soil around me, he came out of his hiding spot and stood over me. I almost pissed myself when opened my eyes to see him towering over me.
An hour of interrogation and intimidation followed. I finally convinced him that I was who I said I was and he invited me to stay in his “camp” with him.
Tony was an ex-cop. He wouldn’t tell me what department he’d worked for. I found out years later it was the New Orleans Police Dept.. It was pretty corrupt in those days and he crossed the wrong people, effectively exposing himself to both the department and the crime syndicate. He was as good as dead if he was sentenced to any prison. He was as good as dead if he stayed and the criminals found him. So he fled. He went way north, ditched his car on the streets of Chicago and hitchhiked into the northern woods of Wisconsin where he’d been for 10 years. 10 years! I’d been there overnight and I was ready to cry and crawl back home. He’d learned, out of necessity and pure will, what he’d needed to know about living out there. He kept warm without a fire. He hunted without a gun. Fashioned clothes from animals and built makeshift shelters. The only things he really missed were Hershey bars and comic books. This large, muscle bound, ex-cop, who’d lived on the edge of death for many years, missed Hershey bars and comic books!
It was pretty clear to him that I wasn’t going to make it out there, based on the look of tortured confusion on my face, the defeated slump of my shoulders and obvious fear in my every movement. He talked me into going back and turning myself in, which I did. But, he also made me promise not to tell of my encounter with him. I promised to keep this secret forever, but I also wanted to help him. He said he didn’t need my help. I asked him to let me bring him Hershey bars and comic books. He said he never wanted to see me back in those woods again. I told him I would leave them in an old firewood box on the side of county road HH on the outskirts of Hayward. It was an old milling road that no one traveled anymore. He agreed. Our arrangement was every twenty days, I would leave him the chocolate, whatever comic he liked and a letter from me telling him about what was going on in the world. He agreed.
For fifteen years I dropped candy, comics and a letter in that wooden box. It was always gone when I came with a new batch and there was always a return letter on the extra blank paper I included in the envelope. Tony wrote about his days and nights in the wilderness and what he remembered about life outside the woods. He never wrote about the specifics of his former life as a cop, only that he regretted his failure to uphold the law and his duty to protect and serve. He felt like he had served a sentence and I agreed. I’m certain it was a harder life than he, I or anyone could have imagined living out there with no comfort or human contact of any kind. Many nights I contemplated telling someone about him, but I never did. I’ve never spoken of it until I wrote this story.
One day Tony simply decided he’d had enough. He came out of the woods, walked to the nearest town (which was a little unincorporated called Taylor) and called the sheriff. After coming and picking him up, taking him down to Madison and contacting the NOPD from there, they released him. They had no criminal record of a Tony Martinez. They didn’t even have a record of him being on the police force. He was free to go. Go he did. He moved to St. Louis and worked as a die cutter for a few years. The problem was, just because the law had forgotten, didn’t mean everyone else had. Tony had crossed some very dangerous people in his former life. They didn’t forget. They discovered that had rejoined civilization, and where he was. Luckily, Tony knew that they knew and stayed a step ahead. But only a step
Once again, he headed north and they pursued him northward, determined to finally settle the score.
The cops found Tony’s car on the side of a road on Highway 61 on the edge of Superior National Forest in Ontario, Canada.
I don’t know if they caught up to him, or he simply found a spot that looked good and just walked into the woods. There’s no romantic or poetic ending to this story, no trail of Hershey bar wrappers letting me know that he made it. My instincts tell me he did, but that could be wishful thinking. It feels good to tell this story. I’ve wanted to for a long time, but I felt like it would have been a betrayal to Tony. I’m only telling it now because I’m certain he won’t be back.