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May 26, 2022

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Abuse allegations mount against South King County politician charged with domestic violence

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SEATTLE — A South King County politician currently charged with domestic violence against his partner is now being accused of physical and emotional abuse by two former partners, magnifying questions about his position and about how communities should respond to abuse allegations against public figures.

Police arrested Des Moines City Councilmember Anthony Martinelli in October, and a prosecutor charged him with six misdemeanor counts of domestic violence. The case is based on a series of Facebook messages that Martinelli’s current partner allegedly sent to her mother, who eventually called the police.

In the messages, which detail alleged incidents over eight months, the partner allegedly told her mother that Martinelli shoved her while she was holding their child, hit her in the face and stomach, threatened to kill her and stopped her from calling 911, and threatened to slit her throat.

She now denies being abused and said she made up or exaggerated the allegations. The Seattle Times is not naming her because she is identified as a victim in a domestic violence case.

Martinelli, 32, was elected in 2019, unseating an incumbent with a campaign that focused on increasing police funding, government transparency, homelessness assistance and mental health services.

He’s pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charges and has denied abusing his partner, who now says she lied to her mother about the incidents. Martinelli remains on the council, although the council voted to censure him in November, with the mayor calling on him to resign.

Martinelli and his lawyer declined to be interviewed for this story and didn’t respond to written questions detailing the allegations against him.

“As you are aware, there is a pending criminal matter,” Martinelli’s lawyer, Gina Buskirk, wrote in an email. “Mr. Martinelli has entered a plea of not guilty and he continues to maintain his innocence. He is a well respected council member who has no criminal history. We look forward to working through this matter in the court of law and will not litigate the issues in the press.”

Two of Martinelli’s former partners, including Burien City Councilmember Cydney Moore, have given statements to the police and The Times alleging additional instances of abuse.

Moore and Kayla Wolfe say they decided to come forward because they see some of their experiences reflected in the current charges against Martinelli and because they believe the charges show a pattern of escalating coercion and violence on Martinelli’s behalf.

They also say they want to raise awareness about what domestic violence can look like. Some of the allegations that Moore and Wolfe have made involve physical abuse, but the women also have described alleged behavior that extends outside the scope of criminal statutes.

Since Martinelli’s arrest, Des Moines council members and their constituents have been grappling with a thorny problem — what to do about a sitting politician accused but not convicted, and how to balance public action with the privacy of a community member allegedly subjected to abuse.

“I know how it looks”

Martinelli has pleaded not guilty in Des Moines Municipal Court to fourth-degree assault, reckless endangerment, two counts of harassment, exposing children to domestic violence and interfering with the reporting of domestic violence, according to the court clerk’s office.

The case began when Martinelli’s partner’s mother called the Des Moines police, who launched an initial investigation. The mother provided copies of Facebook messages she said she copied into a Word document, in which her daughter described verbal, emotional and physical abuse by Martinelli. The case was reassigned to a Tukwila detective who completed the investigation.

The prosecutor noted that Martinelli’s partner worried about reporting her abuse because he was “an elected official well known and respected in the community.” They also argued that the partner was particularly susceptible to influence by Martinelli “due to feelings of helplessness and isolation she has expressed to her mother.”

When Martinelli was arrested, according to a police report, he claimed his partner was “making these allegations up.” His bail was set at $15,000 and he was released on bond with no-contact orders covering his partner and their child.

The partner requested that the no-contact orders be lifted, and a judge in December ruled that Martinelli could have supervised visits with their 14-month-old child. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20. Des Moines prosecutor Tara Vaughn charged Martinelli, but prosecutors from SeaTac and Renton have been handling the case, due to Martinelli’s position with the city, Vaughn said.

In post-arrest text messages to Moore that she shared with The Times, Martinelli called the charges “flimsy shit” and “a joke,” expressing confidence they would “either be dropped or a plea will be entered for probation at most.

“Every single charge is false or entirely made up,” he wrote, adding, “I am definitely getting help. But I’m not abusing anyone.”

Martinelli’s partner said she is currently living separately from Martinelli, under the no-contact order covering her, with their child.

In an interview with The Times, she said the Facebook messages she sent to her mother were lies and exaggerations made in a bid for attention while she struggled with postpartum depression.

Martinelli’s partner said she has never been abused by him, and wants her family to be reunited.

“I know how it reads, I know how it looks,” she said, adding, “No relationship’s perfect, but I’ve never been abused, I’ve never been hurt, not in this relationship.”

She also criticized the police, prosecutors and the Des Moines City Council’s handling of the allegations. The public nature of the case — including a moment when the council briefly attached Martinelli’s police report to a public agenda — have led to panic attacks, she said.

“I’m not a victim, I don’t feel like a victim, but the lengths [the previous prosecution] and the city government have gone to to shame me make it seem like there’s complete disregard for myself and my family,” she said.

Violence, threats

When Moore, 32, heard about the current charges against Martinelli, she says she heard echoes of her relationship with him from 2011 to 2016. Moore and Martinelli have two children together.

In a Nov. 30 interview with the police and in interviews with The Times, Moore said Martinelli regularly verbally abused her, calling her a “slut” and a “whore,” sought to isolate her from friends and relatives, deleted phone and email messages, snapped her phone in half, interfered with medical appointments, and kept her from leaving their home.

Moore also said he swung his fist toward her and told her he could knock her teeth out; punched holes in walls in homes they shared; threw a phone across the room at her, leaving bruises; and hit her in the face while she was holding their children.

“It’s not just physical abuse. It’s controlling behavior, psychological abuse, verbal abuse,” Moore said.

Some behavior, as described by Moore and Wolfe, may not fit a criminal case, or constitute physical violence. But patterns of abuse are important, said Merril Cousin, executive director at the Seattle nonprofit Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence.

“So much of what is so harmful about intimate partner abuse is not just a single act of violence. It’s all these forms of power and coercion and control and humiliation and threats,” Cousin said.

Emails that Moore sent during her relationship with Martinelli refer contemporaneously to some of that sort of alleged behavior. In an email to Martinelli in 2015, Moore described Martinelli as controlling and abusive, saying he had hurt her, and fearing he might hurt her worse or even kill her.

Moore’s friend, Rose Peden, said she remembered Moore telling her about the relationship. “She would talk to me about all the yelling and fighting and throwing things,” said Peden, 31.

Seattle lawyer Douglas Hiatt met Martinelli, Moore and Wolfe when they worked together on the Sensible Washington campaign for legalizing marijuana, he said

Hiatt said he first heard about Martinelli’s alleged abusive behavior toward Moore in 2012 when Martinelli allegedly snapped Moore’s campaign phone in half because he was angry with her. Hiatt said Moore came to his office in 2016 to tell him that Martinelli had hit her in front of her children.

Moore says she never went to the police when she was in a relationship with Martinelli initially because she “didn’t understand how bad it was … I think that’s probably pretty common,” and later because she worried about losing her housing and because Martinelli had threatened to try to take their children away from her.

Many survivors resist reporting because they know police involvement could result in them losing their partner, their housing and other things, Cousin said. At the same time, “We need to understand that abuse is common and that false accusations are rare,” she said.

Moore added: “My hope is that by putting this information out there” other people at risk will be able to avoid harm, she said, adding, “We need to end the stigma against victims. … Abusers rely on our silence to keep getting away with it.”

Pressure, interrogations

Kayla Wolfe, 32, reconnected with Moore after Martinelli’s arrest in October, and they went together to the police. Wolfe began a six-year relationship with Martinelli when they were teenagers and they stayed together until 2011, when Wolfe was 22, she said.

Despite their youth, that relationship damaged Wolfe’s mental health for the decade to follow, according to Wolfe, her mother and her therapist.

It began with Martinelli’s acute jealousy of other men in Wolfe’s life and at her fast-food job, she said. Martinelli limited the movies or TV shows she could watch for fear that Wolfe would want to have sex with male actors in them, Wolfe said, and isolated Wolfe from her friends.

Wolfe also alleges that Martinelli repeatedly pressured her into sex when she was religious and didn’t want to participate, telling her she would have sex with him if she loved him and wasn’t cheating on him. Eventually, Wolfe says, she became afraid to say no.

Wolfe also said Martinelli would interrogate her for hours about whether she had crushes on other men, including celebrities. During one of these interactions, Wolfe slapped Martinelli, after which he slapped her, she told police. Wolfe also told police that during one fight, Martinelli hit the rearview mirror of her car with his hand, which caused the windshield to shatter.

At times, Wolfe said she felt so tormented by their dynamic that she fantasized about driving off the road on the way to his home so she wouldn’t have to deal with Martinelli.

“This has been a pattern of his for 15 years now,” said Wolfe, who now manages an office for a financial firm. “I’m frankly very, very, very worried about his current partner, potential future partners, his children. … He does seem to be progressing in the way he abuses people.”

Wolfe’s therapist of 10 years confirmed that she met Wolfe at the tail end of her relationship with Martinelli. The therapist, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her practice but received permission from Wolfe to share details of their sessions, also said that Wolfe’s behavior and description of incidents in therapy “left no doubt that Kayla was a victim of physical and emotional abuse.”

Wendy Haley, Wolfe’s mother, said her daughter told her that Martinelli bullied her into sex the first time they had it. She also said her daughter told her at the time about Martinelli’s jealousy and some of his controlling behavior.

When Martinelli ran for City Council, both Wolfe and her mother considered making some of her allegations public, they said.

“I prayed that it would eventually come to light and he would pay for what he has done,” Haley said. “And maybe it would change him in a way that he can have better relationships.”

Political response

Des Moines Mayor Matt Pina learned about Martinelli’s arrest almost immediately and issued a statement urging Martinelli to resign.

“As a council, we do not condone this type of behavior and I am deeply saddened that he has tarnished the office in such a way,” Pina said in that statement.

The council voted 5-1 on Nov. 18 to censure Martinelli, for acting in a manner unbecoming of a council member, bringing disrepute to the council and for the commission of an unlawful act, and removed him from committee assignments. In Des Moines, only voters can remove a council member from office, Pina said.

Council members cited the city’s “zero tolerance” stance on domestic violence and mentioned that Martinelli had in 2020 supported the creation of a new crime in Des Moines of “exposing children to domestic violence.”

Leading up to the censure vote, council members wrestled with how to handle Martinelli’s plea of not guilty, and with how to balance their responsibilities — to the public versus Martinelli’s partner, who called on them to leave her family alone. They didn’t know about Moore and Wolfe’s allegations at the time.

“Innocent until proven guilty refers purely to a very limited number of criminal charges,” Councilmember Traci Buxton said before voting to censure Martinelli, explaining her reasoning regarding due process considerations.

Cousin, the executive director at the Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence, was heartened to see the council take the allegations seriously, though she questioned the wisdom of a rigid “zero tolerance” approach toward abuse. Each situation is unique and should be treated as such, with the aim to increase safety and accountability rather than to punish, she said.

Pina, whose term expired last month, said he never doubted the need to censure Martinelli over what he described as a shocking “distraction for the entire community.”

“This is not the type of thing you ignore,” he said.

But the then-mayor, who didn’t seek reelection last year, did struggle with the privacy question, including the decision to link to Martinelli’s police report from the council’s agenda, he said. In a recorded statement played during the public comment part of the council meeting, Martinelli’s partner accused the council of spreading lies and shaming her.

Cousin said that to some extent the council was “choosing between bad options” — ignoring the matter or outing an alleged survivor.

The council ultimately voted to take down the police report after approving Martinelli’s censure. “You’re between a rock and a hard place,” Pina said. “You’re trying to reconcile city business and the rights of the victim.”

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