The Wandering Woman Who Haunts Phoenix’s Downtown

In the central Phoenix neighborhoods of Encanto, Maryvale, and Alhambra, a legacy of America’s great crime wave still haunts those foolish enough to come to the door too late at night. Unique amongst Arizona’s ghosts, the Wandering Woman at the Door — “La Mujere Errante” — does not stalk her victims from the state’s Old West past. She is more modernly dressed and reminds the state of its more recent sins.

In 1994, 231 people were killed in Phoenix — the highest murder rate in the city’s history. Phoenix was hardly the only place enduring record-high crime in the 1990s; New York City peaked with 2,245 murders a year in 1990, Chicago with 761 in 1997.

It was a violent time for many inner cities, the product of economic collapse, structural racism, and urban planning that hammered the working classes. But Phoenix was designed quite intentionally to avoid the urban blights of cities back east. It had no industrial base to rust away, nor tenement housing to fester into ghettos. It had no significant white-black divide, being too small during the Great Migration in the 1920s. Founded as a Progressive state in 1912, it had no Jim Crow laws to erase.

Yet while Phoenix may not have been around for much of America’s worst racial transgressions, its urban planners, its white middle class, and its Boomer and Generation X citizens were hardly pioneers in social equilibrium.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Phoenix’s downtown pre-war bungalows found themselves abandoned as whites sought ever cheaper, ever newer housing on the endless horizon. Its population had no black-white divide cut cleanly by Jim Crow, yet its white middle and upper classes, through HOAs and gated communities, managed to shove much of its Spanish-speaking working class, mostly Mexican, into the neighborhoods they abandoned. Its post-war urban planners may have had a blank slate, but they could not overcome the ingrained habits of their compatriots back east, as they sliced the city up with highways and canals, setting their appointed undesirables behind them.

The result was the same as elsewhere; a prosperous, safe, largely white middle-class suburbs, and crime-ridden, poor, largely Spanish-speaking barrio pockets, cut off from public services and transport and placed behind the barriers set by urban planners. Police routinely, and largely humanely, patrolled the tax base of the suburbs and exurbs, while the older neighborhoods, including Encanto, Maryvale, and Alhambra, fended for themselves, or endured recurrent, heavy-handed police raids.

Young Generation Xers formed into violent gangs and cliques and carried out of much of the same crime wave as found in other cities; their new city was far from immune to the popularity of anti-social behavior sweeping the rest of the country. And in the barrios, youths found themselves the least restrained at all.

What is different about the Wandering Woman — as opposed to the Coal Man of the Adams Hotel or the Lost Patrolman of the Rim — is we know her name: Maria Antonia Martinez. 62-year-old Mrs. Martinez was found murdered in her home, where she lived alone, on September 16th, 1992, the victim of a clean shot through the eyehole of her front door. No arrests were ever made, and the murder did not even make the local papers except for a brief blurb on the back pages of the Arizona Republic. With so many murders nationwide, the death of a lonely woman in an unloved neighborhood warranted little attention from mainstream journalists.

Urban legend fills in many of the other details. A Phoenix New Times article in 1999 compiled some of them:

If you talk to the right people — in the right bars — at the right time in October — in the Encanto working-class neighborhood, you’ll hear mention of La Mujere Errante: the Wandering Woman. A one-eyed murder victim, the Wandering Woman is the reminder of an unsolved crime Phoenix PD has left beneath its mountain of ignored murder files.

The Wandering Woman, said to be the spirit of murdered Maria Antonia Martinez, killed in September 1992, is described as wearing a light blue frock, the late night garb Ms. Martinez was found in, as she wanders from door to door, knocking late at night, and waiting for a victim to answer. If one is so unlucky to not only have her visit, but also to be dumb enough to open the door, it is said that the Wandering Woman rushes into your house, where she takes something of great value from the household. And no, it’s not the stereo.”

There are several all-too-real tragic accidents attributed to the Wandering Woman. The veracity of the accidents, both recent and well-documented, is not in question. What remains not fully understood is the Wandering Woman’s role in them.

Take the case of Jessica Whitman. In November 1996, Jessica Whitman of Scottsdale, a 14-year-old student at nearby Xavier Catholic High School, was visiting the Arizona State Fair near the Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum on 19th Avenue and McDowell — an event that even then was sliding into decline and irrelevance, and plagued with unreliable equipment. Whitman and two of her friends boarded the Pirate’s Bay ship see-saw ride — a ride with a dubious maintenance record — at approximately 9 pm. On the third see-saw motion, Whitman was heard screaming — and her dismembered arm spotted falling.

Whitman, as police records show, had put her arm out of the ride into a dangerous spot, and it had been lopped off when the boat passed a beam built just a few feet too close to the boat. Whitman survived, in shock, and the Pirate’s Bay ride was shut down. A lawsuit filed by her family went nowhere, for the ride’s operator has clearly told them to keep their hands and feet inside at all times — a direction that Whitman had apparently ignored.

Whitman’s version differed quite dramatically the official report. Yet even in her account, the fault lay not with the operator, or the ride’s owner, but with the Wandering Woman. According to Whitman, as recorded in court transcripts obtained by The Phoenix New Times, she had been the subject of a monstrous revenge after opening the wrong door at the wrong time. The following has edited out the questions to allow Whitman an interrupted story.

“We were staying at Maria’s house. She was in my Spanish class at Xavier [a nearby Phoenix Catholic High School]. She wanted us to have a scary sleepover. We thought it was stupid — well, I thought it was stupid. We dressed up like ghosts and stuff and we just watched movies until midnight. It was pretty normal. But after midnight Maria brought out this mirror. She said it was her grandma’s from Mexico. She said if we called any dead person’s name in it three times after midnight, they’d appear at the door, and we could talk to them. So we all tried it. I asked for my Uncle Kevin [Kevin Whitman had died in a car accident in 1991]. Nothing happened. We all laughed because it was spooky and stuff. But nothing happened with the mirror.

So we went to bed. That was it. Except that sometime later, there was a knock on the door. It was loud, it kept repeating. I woke up and I tried to get Maria to answer it. But she froze in place. ‘We never answer the door this late,’ she said. ‘Just ignore it.’ I asked her why. She just said they didn’t answer the door over and over again. I was getting annoyed, really annoyed, because the knocking was loud. The two other girls — Candice and Tanice — they were annoyed too. They told me to go at least look through the eye hole. But Maria, she got really upset. She told me to stay.

But the knocking kept going and going for a long time. Maria just stayed there. Finally, because Candice and Tanice were both just as mad as me, I jumped up and went to the door. I shouted through it that I was gonna call the police. I hoped that if they heard me yell in English, they’d run away, they’d know that it wasn’t just some poor Mexican kid living there they could harass. [Maria lived in Maryvale and was of Hispanic descent]. I know, that wasn’t very nice of me. But I was mad and it was late.

The knocking didn’t stop, though. So I looked through. And when I did — that’s when I saw this — this hole, fleshy, blue and black. I knew from movies what a dead body looked like. I stepped back, I screamed, but when I did no sound came out. Then the door opened — it swung out, not in, like it was supposed to — and she was standing there. She just stared at me with the one eye — she had only one eye, the other was a hole — and then she walked towards me. I wanted to move — I wanted to shout — I wanted help. But I just froze there, and eventually she passed through me. I heard the words ‘One piece of you to fill one piece of me.’ And then she was gone.

I mean, I didn’t sleep. I was so scared. But after two weeks, it seemed like nothing was gonna happen. My friends even convinced me I’d dreamt it up. I thought I had. But then I got on that ride.

And when they pulled down the bar, I saw her. She was standing very far away in the parking lot, standing on a car. Just standing there. And again I wanted to scream. But I couldn’t. The ride started, it swung up and I lost sight of her. When it came back down, she was closer — way, way closer, near the edge of the park. The ride went up, and she was on the edge of the ride itself, right where you really shouldn’t be if you wanted to keep your head. And it went back down. And when it came up again, she was next to me. She grabbed my arm, she pulled it out. She didn’t say a word, didn’t like violently grab me, I just let her. And the metal beam just cut it right off, and to be honest for a few minutes there it didn’t even hurt.”

Jessica Whitman was not the only one. Anthony Fernandez lost his right foot while crossing the road in 1998 after he answered a random door knock a few weeks earlier; Fernandez claimed a woman had dragged him into traffic in the early hours of the evening. Manuel Jackson fell from a construction site in 2001, and claimed he was pushed by an apparition who had visited him just a few days prior. The Phoenix New Times compiled five stories in all in 1999; since there, various blogs, Tumblrs, and Spanish-language radio stations have recorded at least a dozen incidents.

It is entirely possible that some of the stories are embellishments, told for fun amongst a community embracing the Wandering Woman as a means to accept a painful past. It is also possible that some stories are real enough, but retold so many times by so many people that the original story splits into dozens of variants, lending the appearance of a widespread epidemic of ghost-induced mutilation. No murders are attached to her, only lopped hands, arms, legs, and feet, bits carried off a woman who herself is not whole.

Yet telling is that the Wandering Woman is never seen north Camelback Road — an informal barrier for Latinos, and a clean line Phoenix PD used to view as the border between the well-patrolled middle-class neighborhoods and the ungoverned downtown. Whatever she is looking for, she is seeking within the boundaries the city’s past set for her. Doubtless, she will find something this year as well.