When he apologized for molesting them, his 2 victims bolted from Gulfport courtroom

Ernesto R. Martinez
Ernesto R. Martinez

She was nine years old and her father had just died the first time family friend Ernesto R. Martinez, who was in his 50s, molested her.

He did the same to her cousin, who was 13 when the abuse started.

Over several years, until December 2016, Martinez rubbed his hands on the breasts of both girls, penetrated them vaginally and did other things that never came up Tuesday in court, as Circuit Court Judge Lisa Dodson noted at the end of Martinez's plea hearing.

Both girls and their families were in the courtroom when Martinez, now 57, pleaded guilty to one count of touching a child for lustful purposes and one count of the more serious crime of sexual battery. Dodson sentenced him to life in prison.

She said the remorse he showed sat on one side of the scales of justice.

"On the other side of that scale are two young ladies who were victimized not once, not twice but for years by you," Dodson added.

Martinez also had been convicted of a sex crime against a child in Texas back in 1986, but served only four months in jail before he was released on probation. He was not required then to register as a sex offender.

The girls met him through a relative, whom Martinez was dating. The girls frequently spent the night with the relative. They told their parents about the molestation only after the relative broke up with Martinez, who had been accepted as a member of the family.

Both girls wrote letters that they asked prosecutor Alison Baker read in court. The youngest, referred to as L.M., said in part: "You made me feel like girls were just pretty faces. But now I know that I can make a difference in the world. I'm going to rise from this. I'm strong. You can't hurt me anymore."

The older girl, S.W., who was 13 when Martinez first molested her, wrote, "When I was a little girl, Ernesto Martinez took most of my childhood . . . This man was brought into my life as a grandfather figure. I trusted him . . .

"My trust was broken . . . My childhood was taken away and I am still recovering from this every day."

Martinez told the judge that he wanted to apologize and asked permission to face the family. He turned to them in the courtroom.

"I am so sorry," he said. "I don't even know where to start. I love y'all very much. I'm so sorry. "

Both the girls rose from their seats and bolted from the courtroom as Martinez spoke.

"Turn back around, Mr. Martinez," Dodson told him. "I don't believe they want to hear from you."

Anita Lee can be reached at 228-896-2331or @CAnitaLee1