'He was my hero'

2015-01-31 | High Point Enterprise

Jan. 31--HIGH POINT -- Melanie Harless stood by the painted ghost bike memorializing her husband Todd Martinez in the spot where he lost his life.

She remembered the sunny afternoon they rode their bikes down the well-paved Scalesville Road in the middle of the country town.

At the end of the road where they turned around, she passed him as he began to slow down. It was a change since he was the one who was always motivating her to keep up with him as they rode, she said. She raced ahead of him as they headed back toward the house.

"All of a sudden I just heard this loud noise, and I turned around and saw him flying through the air. I just threw my bike down and immediately ran for help. I didn't go to him. That was my first instinct, there's nothing out here."

They were essentially "in the middle of nowhere" and neither she or Todd had their cellphones. The closest house was nearly a half a mile down the road.

It was in that split second that truck hit Todd their lives changed forever.

"I just remember EMS got there and they were just pounding on his chest," she said with tears pouring down her face.

Todd was taken to the hospital where he died. That was a year ago today.

The teenager who took Todd's life wasn't on the phone, texting or driving under the influence. Andrew Bray Barham, now 20 years old, pleaded guilty to the felony hit and run killing of Martinez in his October trial.

Barham was sentenced to 16 to 29 months in jail. Judge John Craig III said he has to serve four months of this term in custody. The remainder of the sentence will be suspended for four years, during which time he will be on probation. Barham's expected release date from the Guilford County Jail in High Point is Feb. 9.

The sentencing outraged family and friends of Martinez. Chet Hodgin, a well-known victim's advocate in the High Point community who has been mentoring Harless, is also working to help her convince lawmakers in Raleigh to enforce penalties that are more strict on offenders of hit and runs, especially those that end in death.

Todd's death has taken its toll on Harless who began redirecting tidal waves of grief into a drive to spread awareness and help the community.

Since his death she's given speeches to high school students in the Vehicle Injury Prevention for a Very Important Person, a program that teaches teens about the choices and consequences of texting or drinking and driving and other distractions a wheel of a car.

She's led and participated in fundraiser bicycle rides with High Point Regional and Hospice of the Piedmont, like Ride of Remembrance and Ride of Silence rides that honor those who were killed riding their bikes on the road.

She's also a supporter of Bicycles in Greensboro, also known as BIG, and has been working with the organization to spread awareness about the impact of driving distracted.

In attempt to have reminders for drivers to be conscious of cyclists on the roads, she contacted the North Carolina Department of Transportation and convinced them to find room in the budget to have yellow bicycle signs posted along the roadside. So far, they agreed to post at least two signs by the end of January. Her goal is to have them posted in areas across the Triad.

"Hopefully that will help someone else. You know, if they see that, maybe they'll just pay a little bit more attention, that's what I'm hoping," she said.

She has committed herself to continuing to advocate driver awareness and act on plans to help the community as they develop. She's also thought about creating a support group for families of victims either killed or injured by hit and runs.

She wants to live by Todd's example. This is what he would've done, she said.

When reflecting on Todd's life, Harless used the word passion persistently in describing the way he lived his life.

Growing up close to the ocean in California made him passionate about scuba diving, spear fishing and snorkeling, "that made him so happy," she said.

He was passionate about being a fireman and paramedic, making it less of a job and more of a way of being.

"He was always on the job. It was his life. His passion. Oh, I've got a list of passions," she said. "He was very dedicated, very meticulous. He loved helping people. He always put people in front of him. He was proud to be a civil servant."

His pride was evident in the way he ironed his uniform each day. He shined his shoes and would lay his uniform on the bed and step back to make sure everything was in the right place.

He went the "extra mile to take care of things." When a fire truck didn't have the proper equipment, he would either buy it himself or go to City Council and "beat the big stick," she said.

He adored his two boys, Bryce and Ryan, and two stepchildren, Mitchell and Rachel, and lived his conviction of God through his actions, not ever saying a preaching word, she said.

Knowing lives were at risk each time he left for work, he made sure he kept himself in top physical condition so he could be prepared for the unexpected and protect himself and his community.

Harless is donating Todd's garage full of gym equipment to the Summerfield Fire Department.

With Todd as her motivation, she said she aims to live the compassion he embodied every day of his life.

"He was my hero. I think he was a lot of people's hero. There are so many reminders of him and so many things that he did that have influenced other people."

emeeks@hpenews.com -- 888-3601 -- @HPEemily

Copyright © 2014 All Rights Reserved by OOIDA, Inc. Questions and comments should be directed to: washingtonoffice@ooida.com