Murder in the Village
With no witnesses and little evidence, the mystery of Carl Diener’s death seemed impossible to solve. But Arlington Detective Rosa Ortiz never gave up.
Tammy Bagnato was about to break the law. It was 5:40 in the morning, just a few days after Christmas 2009, and she was standing outside a ground-level apartment unit at the Fort Strong Properties complex, trying to find a way inside. She had already tried the windows and the sliding-glass door, to no avail.
She called 9-1-1 to warn the Arlington County Police dispatcher that she was ready to break the door down.
“Just stay there. I’ll have someone there right away,” the operator told her.
The apartment, on North Calvert Street in Arlington, was the home of Bagnato’s friend and weekend biking companion, Carl Diener. He had lived there 35 years.
Diener worked at the Arlington Sport & Health on North Kirkwood Road and was known to be punctual. Early birds like Bagnato counted on him to open the health club in the wee hours so they could fit in their workouts before work.
“He was the only person I actually saw every single day of my life,” says Bagnato, now 47, a trim brunette with long hair. “I knew his ways. I told him, ‘If you ever don’t show up, I’m calling the police.’”
On this chilly morning, Bagnato’s words turned out to be prescient.
She had arrived at the gym, only to find the doors locked and the parking lot full of idling cars as members waited for Diener, who was 30 minutes late. Fearing her friend had suffered a medical emergency, she drove the mile and a half to his place. When he didn’t answer, she called the police.
Soon after, Bagnato was sitting in an unmarked car with Arlington Police Detectives Rosa Ortiz and Scott Linder. They asked her to describe what her friend might have been wearing that morning. “I said his shoelaces were red,” she says.
That small detail caused the detectives to exchange a knowing glance. Linder asked Bagnato to look at a photograph on his phone.
The picture was of Diener, but the face Bagnato saw was unfamiliar. “He was on the ground and he was dead,” she says. “I didn’t recognize him. I said, ‘What is this?’ ”
That’s what Detective Ortiz was determined to find out.
Prior to meeting up with Bagnato, Ortiz had been at a nearby crime scene at the intersection of North 13th and Irving streets. It was there that Diener, 57, had been discovered lying on his back in the roadway at 2:50 a.m. by a passing motorist.
His face was bruised, his glasses strewn on the street. A single puncture wound in his right side went through the multiple layers of clothing he had worn to keep warm on his walk to work. A stab wound had pierced his diaphragm, liver, an artery and a major vein.
Forensic pathologist and medical examiner A. Wayne Williams, who performed the autopsy, estimated it took at least 30 minutes for Diener to bleed to death.
Diener was now one of two homicides in 2009, in a county that hasn’t seen double-digit homicides since the 11 that occurred in 1995 (since then, Arlington’s murder rate has averaged 3.5 annually). It was an uncommon crime, in an even more uncommon setting: just off Clarendon’s bar and restaurant strip, on the edge of Lyon Village—a tree-lined, family-friendly neighborhood where picnics and potluck dinners are the norm, and the median household income is $175,000.
“I feel like the murder was an anomaly for our neighborhood,” says H.K. Park, a recent president of the Lyon Village Citizens Association. “More common is the drunken behavior that goes on in Clarendon—beer cans in your lawn or people messing with your garden stuff. Murder is definitely not common.”
Ortiz knew she had no time to waste. By then a 17-year veteran with Arlington police, she had spent nearly a decade in its criminal investigation division (CID), where she became the first Hispanic detective. Although the Diener murder was only her second case as a lead investigator, the bilingual detective had been involved in many high-profile cases, having frequently assisted other detectives as a translator. Now it was time to put what she’d learned to the test.
She and two dozen officers began gathering as much information as they could, interviewing area residents and those who worked in nearby bars and restaurants. They realized the first 72 hours would be crucial in gathering evidence and getting witness accounts while witnesses’ memories were still fresh. After that “the odds [of solving a case] go down,” Ortiz says.
But no weapons were found and detectives were unable to find anyone who had seen Diener being attacked. Neighbors who heard noise told police they’d assumed it was just intoxicated passersby leaving the bars.
The investigators asked nearby businesses for copies of any outdoor surveillance videos that had been captured the previous night and early morning. There wasn’t much to choose from—most businesses only had indoor cameras—but something on a video from Red Top Cab caught Ortiz’s eye.
The top of the screen showed a light-colored car driving east along 13th Street. After the car passed, a person (whom Ortiz presumed to be Diener) could be seen walking on 13th Street in the opposite direction. Moments later, the same car returned, this time heading west. The car entered the frame again and made a U-turn on 13th, before making a right onto Hudson Street toward Wilson Boulevard. This erratic driving behavior wasn’t a driver looking for street parking.
“I personally knew these are our guys,” says Ortiz, 51, whose unflappable presence makes her seem much taller than 5 feet 2 inches. “There’s just no way somebody’s going to do these kinds of things. Who stops? Who backs up? Why not keep on going? Instead of going straight, why do you loop around and head the other way?”
Additional footage provided by the Clarendon Apartments building similarly showed a light-colored car, but the video wasn’t clear enough to identify the vehicle’s make and model, let alone capture a license plate.
Ortiz knew that finding a suspect by putting out a call for a “light-colored car” was about as unlikely as finding the killer’s phone number by acquiring all the data on calls made in the area on the day of the murder (an avenue she also pursued).
But the detective had no choice but to work with what she had. Watching a live feed, Ortiz had officers drive different cars of varying colors through the same intersection—the idea being to determine which automobile makes and models might possibly match the appearance of the recorded car.
“I knew what was possible and what was not possible,” she explains. But rather than releasing information about the car to the public, Ortiz kept that detail close to her vest, sensing that she might be able to use it to test the validity of a suspect’s statements later on. Now all she had to do was find a suspect.
With preliminary queries and searches producing no significant leads—even a $25,000 reward fund (www.carldienerrewardfund.org) raised by the victim’s friends yielded no calls—investigators turned to the only major piece of evidence they had: Diener.
Who was Carl Diener? And who would want him dead?
Friends remember Diener as a generous and gregarious guy who was impossible not to like.
“If he invited you to lunch, he was treating,” says Mark Kovalcik, a co-worker and pal of Diener’s for 25 years. The pair had started working at the U.S. General Services Administration within months of each other and became fast friends, frequently heading to lunch at the now-closed Hodges Sandwich Shop on New York Avenue in the District. Diener always ordered the roast beef.
Prior to working as a program analyst for concessions at GSA, Diener had been a D.C. health inspector, a job he took in 1974 after moving to Arlington from his hometown of Scranton, Pa., where he had graduated from the University of Scranton. A modest person, he disliked being the center of attention—so much so that he refused to allow co-workers to throw him a goodbye party upon his retirement from GSA in January 2009. He opted instead for a low-key lunch with two colleagues.
A bachelor, he loved the New York Giants and hated the Redskins. He enjoyed his privacy, but had a big heart.
Patti Diener Lough, his only sibling, remembers the time her older brother visited her home in Boise, Idaho, in August 2008. During that trip, he asked if they could stop by the local Ronald McDonald House. He had recently started collecting and sending aluminum soda can tabs to the charity, which recycled the metal scraps as a fundraiser. “I said, ‘Why are you sending bags of aluminum tabs to Boise, Idaho? Why don’t you just mail them a check?’ ” Lough recalls.
Diener had his reasons. In this case, the donation was in tribute to their mother, Gertrude, who had passed away in Boise in April 2005. Stopping by the Ronald McDonald House near their mother’s home, he greeted volunteer Mary Hansen, who manages the nonprofit’s tab-collection program, with one hand behind his back. He then produced his loot with a flourish.
“Usually my mother taught me to bring flowers to a young lady,” he told Hansen, “but in this case I knew you’d want tabs.”
Back in Arlington, Diener turned the everyday grind of staying in shape into a social activity for the members at Sport & Health. “I would walk in the door and he would throw his arms up in the air and say, ‘Yay! Tammy’s here!’ ” Bagnato says. “He did that to everybody.”
Diener continued to work part-time at Sport & Health even after retiring from his government job—not because he needed the money, but because he relished the friendships he had made there. Keeping it simple, he didn’t own a car, a cellphone or a computer. He walked to work every morning.
An avid tennis and racquetball player, he was also quite fit.
Jameelah Hassan, a front-desk receptionist at Sport & Health, remembers Diener hitting the racquetball courts with club members and barely breaking a sweat. “He’d stand there and let the other person do the running. It was so comical to me. I used to love to watch him.”
Today, Diener’s racket is affixed to a plaque at the gym. It lists winners of a racquetball tournament held in his honor.
It’s not the only totem installed as a memorial. Just down the road in Lyon Village Park sits a wooden bench facing the tennis courts he frequented. A plaque on it reads: “In Memory of Carl Diener, 1952-2009. Stranger to no one, friend to all.”
That tribute sums up what Ortiz surmised herself after interviewing family members, friends and acquaintances in search of clues as to why anyone would want to harm Diener. There weren’t any.
After six months, police still had no viable leads.
“That was the most frustrating part of the investigation,” Ortiz recalls. “You’re looking everywhere for information. We had to start with Carl and he was just such an outstanding citizen. Nobody wanted to personally hurt him.”
So who did?
On Dec. 29, 2010, the first anniversary of Diener’s death, Ortiz and dozens of officers canvassed the crime scene area once more—this time handing out fliers to motorists and knocking on doors—as a group of Diener’s friends held a candlelight vigil where their friend had drawn his last breath.
It was a vexing time for Ortiz, compounded by the fact that she suffered a terrible personal loss that same day. Upon learning of her father’s passing, she flew to Puerto Rico for his funeral, but her stay was brief. She had a case to solve, and decided her own grief would have to wait.
Returning to Arlington six days later, Ortiz felt somewhat defeated. She still didn’t have much evidence to build a case around. “There were people who saw some things, heard some things, but really there was not an eyewitness of the actual incident,” she says. “And the video that we had did not actually cover the [area] where he was…attacked. But at the end you don’t give up on cases.”
On top of that, a tip that had been sent to police three months earlier proved to be a dead end. While it resulted in six arrests and convictions (she won’t discuss specifics), there was no connection to the Diener murder.
Still, investigating the other crime did have one key takeaway for Ortiz: It provided more insight into the criminal mind—specifically, how perpetrators think when they are premeditating a robbery.
“When people are planning to rob someone, they know that they’re looking for somebody to rob,” she explains. “When they find their target, their adrenaline is rushing. They get excited and nervous because of what they’re going to do. When they do this, their heart rate goes up, they start sweating.”
Sweat carries skin cells. Skin cells carry DNA. And that DNA can be cross-referenced with DNA samples collected from previous arrestees.
She remembered Diener’s pockets. “I knew they had gone in his pockets, because his pockets were turned out,” Ortiz says.
On a cold winter day, a suspect may have worn gloves, she thought. But then again, maybe not, if he or she was riding in a car with the plan of getting in and out of the vehicle quickly. It was a hunch she had to pursue.
Ortiz called the DNA lab that had first handled the Diener evidence. They still had the victim’s pants.
“I consider myself a pushy person,” she says. “I really wanted to see the results. At this point...after you exhaust everything, we had to do this.”
On March 24, 2011, she got a call from the lab. DNA taken from Diener’s pockets matched a DNA sample stemming from a 2009 assault-and-robbery arrest in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
“That’s when I first heard about Roger Clark III,” Ortiz says.
At the time, Clark, was attending Allegany College in Cumberland, Maryland. Tall and lanky with soft brown eyes, the baby-faced 20-year-old was known to friends as “Slim.” He had a girlfriend studying a dozen miles down the road at Frostburg State University, where he was known by local police, having been arrested for underage drinking, disorderly conduct and attempted burglary.
When school let out in May, Clark returned to D.C., where he lived in a 16th Street Heights house with his father, Roger Clark Jr., a municipal finance attorney.
But Ortiz didn’t rush out to arrest Clark. Treating the DNA match as a mere starting point, she spent the next few months building a profile on Clark to verify, with certainty, that he was a viable suspect. She learned his routine and—after obtaining access to cellphone records—who he called most often.
“Once we had a name, we had to proceed carefully,” she explains. “I don’t want to run and arrest somebody and then he comes and tells me he used to hang out with Carl and play racquetball on the weekend. We needed to do our homework.”
After confirming that there was no connection between Clark and Diener, other than the DNA found in Diener’s pockets, Ortiz procured a warrant for Clark’s arrest.
On June 6, 2011, Clark was arrested and brought in for questioning.
“For me, it was a sense of relief,” says Ortiz. “I remember right before I went to interview him…it was peaceful. It’s hard to explain how. Prior to that, you get nervous, you get worried, you think 20,000 things. You try to be positive and make sure nothing goes wrong.”
Her serenity was short-lived.
Ortiz and Detective Kevin Norwood interrogated Clark off and on over a seven-hour period, during which Clark’s recap of what had happened on Dec. 29, 2009, seemed to change with each passing hour.
At first, he denied having any knowledge of the crime.
Once presented with the DNA evidence, however, he changed his tune. He told detectives that a friend of his—a woman named Diamond—had gotten him a ride home from a party in Southeast D.C. with someone she knew—a tall guy who went by “G.” Clark said he’d passed out in the backseat of G’s car only to wake up and see G—whom he had just met—assaulting Diener. Moments later, Clark said, a second passenger, a “short guy,” got out of the car and stabbed Diener.
Clark claimed to have searched Diener’s pockets only because he was forced to by the attackers. “I wish I could have stopped this,” he told police. “I wish I could have done more to help him.”
Upon further questioning, Clark identified the “short guy” as his cousin Javon Martin.
The name wasn’t new to Ortiz. She had previously noted Martin as a person of interest after cellphone records confirmed Martin to be one of Clark’s most frequent contacts.
After naming his relative, however, Clark revised his previous statement. He now named “G” as the stabber, not Martin. “I’ll put it on my own mother that Javon did not stab him,” Clark told the investigators.
Despite these inconsistencies, Ortiz knew Clark was at least partially telling the truth. In describing the attack on Diener, Clark mentioned facts he could not have made up—such as the appointment reminder card from a neurologist’s office that the assailants had found in Diener’s gym bag.
Ortiz had already been told by Diener’s friends that Diener always walked to the gym with a bag. She also knew that Diener had epilepsy.
“We weren’t 100 percent on whether or not it was actually a robbery until Roger starts talking about what they did and what they took,” she says.
Javon Martin was arrested two days later, on June 8, 2011.
Compared to Clark, Martin was significantly less forthcoming. Standing 5 feet 7 inches with dreadlocks nearly to his shoulders and two teardrops tattooed under his left eye (Ortiz believes each signifies the loss of a loved one), he didn’t seem to share his cousin’s sense of distress.
Whereas Clark had been soft-spoken and respectful, Martin, then 24, was cocky, with a blatant disregard for the gravity of the situation.
He denied having been at the crime scene, even before detectives mentioned the day of the incident. And unlike Clark, who had been visibly disconcerted when detectives showed him photos of Diener’s body, Martin was unmoved.
“He’s cold,” says Ortiz. “He’s a cold-blooded killer. He had no problems. He looked at the pictures and he didn’t really care. He’s seen dead bodies before. Total disregard for humanity.”
After a few minutes of interrogation, Martin refused to speak further without a lawyer.
In early October 2011, charges against Martin were dropped and he was released. There wasn’t enough solid evidence to connect him to the crime. Though police had collected more than half a dozen knives and reviewed those found in other crime scenes, the murder weapon had not been found.
Furthermore, portions of Clark’s statements didn’t hold up. For starters, “G” and “Diamond” didn’t exist. Martin—who was serving a year of probation for drug possession in D.C.—continued to be monitored by police, but it was up to Ortiz to find more proof.
Meanwhile, Martin moved on with his life, in a manner of speaking.
An aspiring rap star who went by the stage name “Microphone Legend” (“ML”), he recorded a video featuring two new songs. The subject matter was eerily familiar.
In both tracks, Martin—now sporting short hair—reenacts his questioning by police.
In the video, “Going In,” he walks out of the D.C. Superior courthouse in June 2011—referencing his first arrest—and lays down lyrics that parallel the Diener case:
I got a phone call, voice said, Get outta town. They locked your cousin up and I’m like, ‘What I do now?’ They say you committed murder. Cold blooded murder. Cold blooded murder. Cold blooded murder…
The lyrics in “Came Home So Fast” subsequently allude to his October 2011 release:
Came home so fast. I’m shocked too, I’m supposed to be locked up too… They let me out, I went straight to the mall. This Ralph Lauren cost more than a ball.
The video was uploaded to YouTube on Jan. 19, 2012, but Martin never saw the finished clip.
Two weeks earlier, he had been arrested a second time and charged with robbery and first-degree murder.
At the Same time that the would-be rap star had been gloating about his freedom, Ortiz had built a case to end it. She had tracked down and interviewed those whom Martin texted and called most frequently, including his former girlfriend Jernika Ingram, whom he had been seeing at the time of Diener’s murder.
Ingram told detectives that she owned a silver four-door 2006 Honda Accord—a light-colored car—that Martin frequently borrowed, oftentimes dropping her off at her job in Falls Church. She mentioned one winter morning when Martin hadn’t brought the car back when she needed it for work.
In late 2011, Ortiz had also received another key piece of evidence from special agent Jennifer Banks, a member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Cellular Analysis Survey Team. Banks had conducted historical cell site analyses on Clark’s and Martin’s phones for the evening of Dec. 28 and the morning of Dec. 29, 2009. (The technique estimates a geographic radius for calls from a specific cellphone, based on the location of the cell tower that’s pinging the calls.)
In urban areas like Arlington and the District, Banks explained, the farthest distance from cellphone to tower is no greater than two miles, given the area’s high concentration of cellphone towers to provide coverage for a high volume of users. On the evening and early-morning hours prior to Diener’s murder, Clark’s and Martin’s phones were pinging near one another—suggesting the two men were together.
The cellphone data also independently corroborated new information that Clark would provide to police and prosecutors on Jan. 2, 2012. He said he was ready to come clean and make a deal: For a reduced sentence, Clark would plead guilty to first-degree murder and testify at his cousin’s trial.
In January 2013, Clark took the stand in the Arlington Circuit Court and told his version of what had really happened on that early winter morning three years earlier.
Clark and Martin were bored.
The cousins, who shared a room on the third floor of Clark’s father’s house, headed over to a friend’s townhouse in Anacostia. Both were drinking on this Monday night and Martin was gambling, rolling dice for money. When their liquor ran out, Martin drove Ingram’s Accord to Branch Avenue Liquor in Temple Hills, Md., so that Clark—who doesn’t have a driver’s license—could buy E&J Brandy to bring back to the house.
Upon their return, the dice weren’t rolling in Martin’s favor. Angry at his bad luck, Martin wanted to make up for the money he’d lost.
So the pair left the party and headed for Virginia. It was a route Martin knew well since he often drove Ingram home to Falls Church. The plan, Clark testified, was “to get some money real quick. Try to rob somebody.”
They stopped at a 24-hour Shell station on Wilson Boulevard to buy gas and tobacco. From there, they continued to Clarendon, looking for a target.
Carl Diener was wide awake.
An early riser, he had recently written to his friend Julia Alos that he was suffering from insomnia. As a result, he had been sticking around Sport & Health after it closed, straightening up the facility to ready it for the next day.
To alleviate his restlessness, he was also arriving earlier in the mornings—checking to make sure the gym equipment was in order and the locker rooms had enough towels. He occasionally used a computer at the gym to email Alos, now 52, the daughter of a former co-worker, who lives in Waikoloa Village, Hawaii.
The pair had met in person only once—when Alos visited D.C. in summer 2009—but they had developed an e-relationship of sorts, sharing the innermost details of their lives. The previous morning, Diener had ended an email to Alos with an uneventful farewell:
What do you have planned for New Year’s? How are the folks?
That’s it for now, cutie.
It was the last message Alos would ever receive from Diener.
Around 2:15 a.m., Clark and Martin were driving east on 13th Street, just two short blocks from Clarendon’s popular bar and restaurant drag, when they spotted Diener walking alone.
Wearing a white hooded sweatshirt and blue sweatpants, he was headed in the opposite direction, walking toward Sport & Health. The gym bag he carried caught the would-be robbers’ attention.
This would be an easy grab and go, they thought.
Martin made a U-turn and headed back toward Diener, stopping before they reached him so Clark could get out. The plan was for Clark to grab the gym bag and run back to the car, so they could quickly speed away.
There was just one thing the cousins weren’t prepared for: Diener.
When Clark caught up to Diener and tried to grab his bag, Diener didn’t let go. He fought back.
“I didn’t expect him to react like that,” Clark recalled. “To have that strength.”
The two men tussled and Clark punched Diener in the head, doing everything he could to wrestle the bag from him. But Clark was more evenly matched than he had anticipated.
Thanks to his racquetball and tennis regimen, Diener was physically fit and strong. And at 6 feet 2 inches, he was an inch taller than Clark.
Seeing the men struggling, Martin got out of the car, according to Clark’s testimony. He held a knife.
With a single motion, Martin thrust the blade into Diener’s midsection. Diener groaned and slumped to the street.
“He let go of the bag,” Clark said.
Martin picked up the bag while Clark searched the dying man’s empty pockets before they fled to the car. Once inside, Martin quickly wrapped the knife in a T-shirt and placed it in the backseat.
As the two sped off with Martin in the driver’s seat, Clark rifled through the bag to find the prize they had fought for so violently—the amount they had gained in exchange for Diener’s life:
On Feb. 5, 2013, an Arlington jury convicted Martin (who had pleaded not guilty) of first-degree murder and robbery, and recommended a sentence of 27 years. (At press time, the sentencing hearings for both men were still pending.)
Ortiz now works in the police department’s cold-case unit, where she is helping train other detectives who may find themselves working unpredictable twists and turns. Persistence, she tells them, is everything.
“When you don’t know who did it,” she says. “You have to look everywhere and never give up.”
Lough, meanwhile, has returned to her home out West with her husband, John, and daughter, Dana, where life has resumed some sense of normalcy—as much as it can, at least, after losing your only sibling to such a brutal and senseless act. She recently came to a strange and sad realization.
“I am now the age that [Carl] was,” she says. “To these murderers, these kids, [it was] ‘Oh, he’s just an old man.’ You know?”
But to those who keep his memory alive, Carl Diener was more than that.
“He was a very young 57,” Lough says. “He was fit and he had a long life ahead of him. All he wanted to do was grow old in that neighborhood where he’d spent so much of his life. He just wanted to have a good retirement, [and] be with his friends.”
Kris Coronado is a freelance writer in Arlington. You can read her work at Kriscoronado.com.