COLUMBIA -- After Joseph Martone confessed on a prosecutor's voice mail to killing his newfound drinking buddy with one punch and asked for a personal meeting with the victim's family to share his remorse, prosecutors and his attorney praised him for taking responsibility and helping his victim's family cope.
But Christopher Fretz's grandmother never felt that way, and that's why she came to South Carolina from her home in Florida on Wednesday to oppose Martone's request for parole just four years after he went to prison.
The parole board rejected Martone's request, giving Gail Fretz some comfort. But Martone gets to come back each year until 2017, when he is projected to be released.
"At least he's still in there," Fretz said after the 15 minute hearing as she headed back to Palm Coast, Fla.
Martone's story was remarkable. Sometime while out on bail on a murder charge, he picked up the phone and left a message for the prosecutor on her voice mail. Martone told her he was deeply sorry and ready to take responsibility for Christopher Fretz's 2005 death.
The men met the night Fretz died. Fretz was buying drinks for mutual friends, and Martone had snorted cocaine. He told investigators he decided to rob Fretz, and his one punch to the back of his head killed the 22-year-old. Martone rifled through Fretz's pockets and stole money and his cell phone as he left the unconscious college student on the ground outside his car at his Myrtle Beach apartment.
"I have took the time to find myself through God. I understand it was a terrible thing," Martone said on the voice mail.
Prosecutors, who didn't have a real solid case, embraced the confession. They offered Martone a plea agreement to strong-armed robbery and involuntary manslaughter. He accepted and asked if he could personally apologize to Fretz's family. His defense attorney and prosecutors arranged the meeting right before Martone pleaded guilty in August 2007.
They spoke for nearly an hour. Martone's attorney said it transcended lawyers, and a prosecutor called it remarkable. They talked about how this meeting came from Martone's heart and Gail Fretz pulled her chair closer to her grandson's killer as they spoke.
"I just couldn't hear him. It got all twisted around," Fretz said of the meeting when she spoke to the parole board Wednesday. "When we went before the judge, they said I felt sorry for him."
Frets and her husband Jack don't feel sorry for him at all. Martone, 29, has sent them letters since he was in prison, but she said they are bizarre and rambling and show little of the remorse he appeared to have at his guilty plea. And they can't get past the fact that he could have served just over four years for the killing if he paroled Wednesday, and won't serve more than 10 years no matter what.
"Even if he serves the entire sentence, he will have 30 or 40 years of life, while Christopher is a dead man," Jack Fretz said.
Martone spoke to the parole board for about three minutes over a video feed from a Columbia prison. He told them he has taken classes in anger management and critical thinking. He told them he wants to move back to upstate New York to be with his family when he is released. He said he was a good man who got caught up in an unfortunate situation.
"I've learned violence is not the answer to everything and being a pacifist is the way to go," said Martone, who was accompanied by his father.
The three-member board rejected parole without discussion.
The prosecutor who Martone called understands the Fretz's frustration. Two co-defendants who were waiting in a car while Martone robbed his victim were given sentences as accessories under the state's youthful offender act and spent less than a year behind bars.
"There's no doubt in my mind he's responsible for that victim being killed. The evidence we had just unfortunately for us didn't fit into the elements that we needed to convict him on anything more than we were able to," prosecutor Heather von Herrmann said.
Gail Fretz said her grandson's death still tears at his whole family. His mother couldn't bring herself to come to Wednesday's hearing. In her home, she keeps presents, still wrapped, on her table. She planned to give them to her son on his 23rd birthday, which was the day after he died.
"He killed my grandson. He knew what he was doing, and he left him there," Gail Fretz told the parole board. "He took his money. He didn't call 911. He left him there to die. He didn't care about Christopher."
There won't be any closure for Gail Fretz of her husband. The relief from the hearing lasted only a few minutes before they began dreading the next trip to South Carolina, and the day they know is coming when the man who killed their grandson will walk free. Even if they accept that he is truly sorry for killing a man, they can't get past the stark reality that hits them each morning.
"He is still alive," Fretz said. "I am reminded my grandson is not here every day."