Sensing he was about to lose control, Rokeach gave Keto another hand target. This time Keto ignored it. He went after Martínez, driving him to the bottom of the pool with his nose.
AT 11:25 A.M. ON DECEMBER 24, 2009, Estefanía Luis Rodriguez’s cell phone rang. Rodriguez, 25, is an earnest, friendly young woman who works as a pharmacy technician near the coastal town of Puerto de la Cruz, on the north coast of Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. She glanced at the caller ID and saw that it was her fiancé, Alexis Martínez, a killer whale trainer at a nearby zoological park called Loro Parque, one of the largest tourist attractions in the islands. Loro Parque displays everything from birds and dolphins to sea lions and, as of 2006, four orcas it had been loaned by SeaWorld.
Rodriguez and Martínez, 29, had been together seven years, after meeting at a friend’s party, and had moved into an apartment together three months earlier. She adored Martínez, who was handsome, generous, funny, and, in his spare time, played guitar in a band, Inerte. He’d been working nonstop with the killer whales at Loro Parque’s Orca Ocean to prepare for a special Christmas show.
When Rodriguez answered, however, it wasn’t Martínez on the phone. The caller was Orca Ocean supervisor Miguel Diaz, using Martínez’s phone. He told Rodriguez that Martínez had been involved in an incident with a killer whale but that he would be fine, that he was being taken to the University Hospital in San Cristóbal de La Laguna, about 20 miles away. Rodriguez immediately called Martínez’s family and then joined his mother, Mercedes, to rush to the hospital.
In the car, Rodriguez was deeply apprehensive. For months, Martínez had been telling her that all was not well at Orca Ocean, that there was a lot of aggression between the killer whales and that they sometimes refused to obey commands, disrupting training and the shows. After starting in Loro Parque’s penguin and dolphin displays, Martínez had begun as a killer whale trainer in 2006. As he gained experience, according to Rodriguez, he began to fret about safety, and he twice contemplated leaving the job. Preparing for the Christmas show only added to the stress. “I’m so tired,” Rodriguez recalls Martínez telling her. “That’s OK, everyone is tired from work,” she’d responded. He shook his head. “My job is especially risky, and I really need to be well rested and ready. With everything that is going on, something could happen at any time.”
On the road to La Laguna, Rodriguez and Mercedes worked their cell phones, and their sense of foreboding increased. Mercedes’s brothers and others had heard that Martínez wasn’t at the hospital at La Laguna but at Bellevue, the local hospital in Puerto de la Cruz, five minutes from Rodriguez and Martínez’s apartment. Confused, Rodriguez called Miguel Diaz. He again said that Martínez was at the hospital in La Laguna, but a short while later he called Rodriguez back to confirm that Martínez was at Bellevue. When Rodriguez and Mercedes finally arrived at Bellevue—at around 12:30 p.m., after about an hour of errant driving—they found Wolfgang Kiessling, Loro Parque’s president, already there, along with legal representation.
It was at Bellevue that Rodriguez and Mercedes learned that Martínez had, in fact, been killed, by an orca called Keto, during a training session. Rodriguez was in a state of shock, overwhelmed by sorrow and disbelief. Martínez’s body had been wrapped tightly in a shroud, and only his head and face were visible. Rodriguez says that no one from Loro Parque would tell her much, except that there had been an accident and Martínez had drowned. In the days and weeks that followed, she asked Martínez’s fellow trainers for more information, but she says they offered only evasive answers. Not until months later, when Rodriguez and the Martínez family learned the details of the autopsy, did they become aware of the full extent of the trauma and bite marks Martínez had sustained, suggesting a much more violent incident.
Rodriguez believes that Martínez’s death had been obscured and covered up. Keto’s attack on Martínez occurred at 10:25 a.m. Diaz called Rodriguez an hour later, and the autopsy report gives an estimated time of death of 11:35 a.m. “They had time to talk and prepare the body,” Rodriguez says of the more than two hours that passed between the incident and her arrival at the right hospital.
I asked Patricia Delponti, director of communications and public relations at Loro Parque, about the incorrect information Diaz had given Rodriguez. “As soon as the accident took place, we called his family’s home but got no answer,” she explained in an e-mail. “Therefore, we took Alexis’s mobile phone and called his girlfriend, whose number was in the address book. This call was made right after Alexis was taken to the hospital by emergency services.”