In a KFC restaurant, worry swelled to panic. An employee named Dania had worked the night before but hadn’t made it home. Police and her husband were out looking. She wasn’t answering her phone.
“What happened?” her co-workers asked each other. “Where is she?”
In the back, frying chicken and washing dishes, Elmer Campos-Martinez kept the answers to himself.
Maybe her body hadn’t been found, and if so, maybe his plan had worked.
“I felt pressure, anguish,” Campos-Martinez would later say to detectives. “I couldn’t work well.”
His worries, it turned out, were well-placed.
The 49-year-old was sentenced to life in prison without parole on Dec. 20 for the murder of Dania Mendez de Guerra in downtown Wheaton, Md.
The year-long case, marked by extreme violence and an audacious defense at trial, began after Campos-Martinez — who’d had a romantic relationship with de Guerra — met her outside the restaurant after her shift. The two argued as they walked in an alley behind a nearby CVS drugstore, with de Guerra saying she wanted to break things off.
Next to a dumpster, according to trial evidence, Campos-Martinez punched de Guerra, 21, repeatedly in the face and strangled her for more than 20 seconds so tightly that he burst blood vessels in her lips and eyes. He took her purse and phone, covered her body with empty boxes and old doors discarded next to the bin, then grabbed a cab home.
The pile hid Guerra’s body for five chilly days, even as pedestrians and delivery crews passed by.
In October, facing a jury, Campos-Martinez laid out the proposition that the killer was the victim’s husband. The assertion — presented after the husband’s gut-wrenching testimony of his days-long search for his wife — was undercut by the evidence.
“It’s preposterous,” Assistant State’s Attorney Rebecca MacVittie told jurors.
Dania’s husband, Jose Guerra Machado, met her in their native El Salvador when she was 16.
“She was like a queen,” he testified.
She came to Maryland on a visa, obtained a permanent resident card, and settled with her husband and their young son in an apartment in Wheaton. De Guerra began working at KFC in May 2017 on the evening shift and quickly showed herself to be a good employee, according to court testimony.
Already on the shift was Campos-Martinez, whose joking, well-liked demeanor belied his criminal past from long before.
In September 1991, a woman in Washington’s Petworth neighborhood called police to say she had just been attacked by a housemate — Campos-Martinez — after she’d returned from the shower to her bedroom and was jumped by him after he emerged from behind a curtain.
He pinned her to the bed and climbed on top of her before she was able to fight him off and run, police records show.
Campos-Martinez pleaded guilty to attempted rape and received an 11-month sentence in 1993. The next year, according to federal immigration authorities, he was deported.
At some point, Campos-Martinez illegally reentered the United States. He worked construction shifts from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and at KFC from 4 p.m. to midnight.
KFC corporate and franchise officials declined to comment about him, so it’s unclear what type of immigration or residency documents he may have presented.
With his jobs, he supported a son in Maryland and, in El Salvador, his mother, wife and two daughters.
By Friday, Nov. 10, 2017 — five days after de Guerra went missing — the search was still on. Her husband had distributed more than 100 missing-person fliers and called her phone 66 times, so often that the calls weren’t going through, a sign the phone had been turned off or the battery had run out.
Officers had gone door to door and used a tracking dog to try to pick up her scent.
“Our community, we all were worried,” testified Silvia Dominguez, 44, a Wheaton resident. “Everybody was thinking the worst.”
She told jurors about walking home near the CVS, at about 3 p.m. on a Friday, when a gust of wind caused her to turn her head so she was looking directly at the pile of boxes.
“I saw a black shoe,” Dominguez testified, choking up at the memory. “I followed the silhouette of a leg, and then, at the same time, the wind was blowing so hard that it blew away a box that was covering the body.”
She called 911.
Police couldn’t find any formal identification on the dead woman but found her work timecard. She was wearing a KFC uniform, as police reports and the missing-person fliers for de Guerra mentioned.
They went to her apartment, three blocks away, to tell her husband.
“Quiero a mi esposa!” he yelled in Spanish — “I want my wife!”
An hour earlier, Montgomery County police Sgt. Paul Reese had set out to follow a strong lead in what then was still a missing-person case. The lead had come after detectives took a detailed look at de Guerra’s phone and Facebook records, some of them obtained through court order, and noticed a lot of communication with a man named Elmer Campos-Martinez.
Reese drove to Campos-Martinez’s Rockville apartment and invited him to speak with police. Campos-Martinez agreed, an exchange so casual that he rode to the police station in the front seat of Reese’s car without handcuffs.
As they rode, a call came across the police radio: A woman had just called 911 to report seeing a body next to the dumpster behind CVS. Reese glanced at Campos-Martinez, who betrayed no emotion, according to court testimony.
Campos-Martinez was taken to the station and, eventually, into an interview room. Two new detectives walked in.
“I appreciate you waiting,” Detective Eric Glass said through a Spanish interpreter.
He and Detective Beverley Then questioned Campos-Martinez over seven hours. Their lengthy interview — translated and transcribed into 351 pages in binders — would be given to jurors and submitted into the court record.
Campos-Martinez at first denied ever speaking on the phone with de Guerra. And the only time they had even spoken outside of work, he said, was when he had run into her near the KFC as she pushed her child in a stroller to a medical appointment.
Glass eventually pulled out a printout of de Guerra’s phone records, placing them in front of their suspect: 263 calls between him and her.
“Um, Elmer, I really need you to be honest with me,” Glass said. “We’re trying to understand what happened.”
“We all fall in love,” offered the second detective as she tried to get him to open up more. “You know what? You’re a good guy.”
Campos-Martinez eventually acknowledged the affair and how he had met up with de Guerra after her Nov. 5 shift ended. But he contended de Guerra had attacked him as they argued.
Yes, he finally said, he had punched de Guerra. She fell next to the dumpster, he said, and wasn’t moving as he walked away to call a taxi.
“I left there quickly,” Campos-Martinez said. “I did think she was going to get up and go home.”
At trial, Campos-Martinez faced long odds.
While never saying he had killed de Guerra, he admitted to detectives that he saw her fall after his punches, and took her purse and phone. “I wasn’t trying to steal her purse,” he told the detectives. “I just, you know, didn’t want her purse there, because I was scared.”
Prosecutors showed jurors a jacket he had worn that night that later was found in his apartment, stained with blood that DNA analysis matched to de Guerra.
Through his defense attorney, Campos-Martinez attacked the credibility of a major part of the prosecutors’ case, asking how de Guerra’s body could have gone unnoticed for so long in a busy, urban area.
There was plenty of activity around the dumpster, evidence showed. A truck normally came Tuesday and Friday to empty it. It sat adjacent to what amounted to a driveway used by CVS drivers who backed 18-wheelers into the store’s delivery bay.
“It makes more sense that she was killed somewhere else and brought back to this location,” Campos-Martinez’s defense attorney, Ahmet Hisim, told jurors.
Pointing to a police photo of de Guerra’s bedroom, Hisim asked her husband, Machado, while he was on the stand, about a six-inch hole visible in the bedroom wall.
“It’s about the size of the back of someone’s head, wouldn’t you agree with me?” he asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Machado replied.
But police had another image of the same wall, captured by an officer’s body camera the morning of Nov. 6, when Machado asked police to come to the apartment to take a report that his wife hadn’t come home from work.
The hole, Machado said in court, was made days later when he punched the wall after police told him his wife’s body had been found.
“I lost my mind,” he told jurors.
And prosecutors stitched together how the body went unnoticed for five days.
The dumpster pickups? The Tuesday collection didn’t take place that week. And before Friday’s was to occur, de Guerra’s body was found.
The CVS semi-truck delivery? That occurred on the third night de Guerra was missing. But to get goods into the store, the truck as usual backed up to an elevated platform, and a ramp was extended into the delivery bay. New merchandise was then carried across the ramp that stretched over the boxes on the ground, said Assistant State’s Attorney Douglas Wink.
“Dania’s body is under here, undisturbed,” Wink told jurors, pointing to a photo of the scene.
Campos-Martinez declined to speak at his sentencing.
But Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl McCally did, and read aloud a letter she had received from Machado.
“He took the mother of my son, who cries because of the absence of his mother at night,” Machado wrote. “He asks me where his mother is. And the only thing I can tell him is she is in heaven, and from there she is taking care of him and protecting him. My son suffers. He does not want to leave my side, not even for a minute, because he says he is scared that I will leave him just like his mother left him.”
McCally looked up from the letter, facing Campos-Martinez and members of de Guerra’s family who had come to court.
“I don’t know how you tell a little boy, ‘Your mom didn’t leave, she was strangled to death,’ ” the judge said, her voice trailing off. “You don’t. You don’t.”