From Hollywood limelight to ministry behind bars

November 26, 2018

Sandra Griego Martinez remembers it vividly — her first confrontation with God.

She was standing in the massive backyard of her home in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, where, as a young film and TV actress, she had moved with the first love of her life, Hollywood star Ted Cassidy.

But Cassidy was gone. He died during their engagement.

She married another man shortly after Cassidy’s death and became pregnant with a baby girl. Less than two years later, Martinez’s husband asked for a divorce. That same week, her father died.

Devastated and alone, Martinez stood outside her Los Angeles home and shouted at God.

“If you exist, make yourself real to me,” she recalled saying.

The encounter brought Martinez a kind of peace, she said, and inspired her to get to know God better.

The backyard plea, says Martinez, now 71, launched her journey into Christianity and eventually led her to begin a volunteer ministry at the Santa Fe County jail, where she offers women Bible lessons, counseling and judgment-free camaraderie.

For her efforts, Martinez was selected as one of The New Mexican’s 10 Who Make a Difference for 2018.

Martinez has visited with women in the county facility just about every week for the past 14 years, bringing them “hope, encouragement, love and inspiration,” said Jane Douthitt, one of several people who nominated Martinez for the honor.

“One of Sandra’s most seminal roles turned out to be prophetic in her life,” Douthitt said, explaining the 1974 made-for-TV movie Born Innocent, starring Linda Blair as a young runaway who lands in a juvenile detention center, spotlighted the harsh realities that incarcerated women face and caused a public outcry for reform.

“The girls in the jail, I tell them: ‘Without a test, you don’t have a testimony,’ and this was my test,” Martinez said, referring to the difficult time in her young life in L.A.

It’s a powerful story for the incarcerated women, she said. “They see if, through all those things, I made it — and not only made it but did good — they can do good.”

Martinez was born in Bernalillo in 1947, the youngest of six girls and three boys. Her mother was from La Cienega, and her father was a Bernalillo-born coal-miner and the last blacksmith at the Southern Union Gas Co.

Martinez’s childhood wasn’t a wealthy one, she said, but she never felt poor.

She recalled running around the family ranch in La Cienega and taking trips to the grocery store, where the family would collect castoff vegetables.

“Never in my life did I think I’d be an actress,” she said, “or meet big celebrities.”

In her early 20s, Martinez was living in Santa Fe and working for a radiation scientist. Overworked, she was pondering a career change when a producer working on the 1970 film Flap, starring Anthony Quinn, ran into her at La Fonda and mistook her for an actress.

The chance encounter spurred Martinez to move to California, where she scored minor film roles, such as “Indian Maiden” in 1974’s The Trial of Billy Jack and worked on television shows The Chisholms and Born to the Wind. She fell in love with Cassidy, famous for playing Lurch in The Addams Family. Cassidy died in 1979 following heart surgery.

And then, after her whirlwind marriage and divorce, Martinez started going to church.

It was during a Wednesday service at the massive Church On The Way that Martinez met the man who would become her second husband, Ray Martinez — whom she’d first met as a child in New Mexico.

The pair got married, and Sandra Martinez had her second daughter.

In the mid-1990s, the Martinezes returned to New Mexico. They now live in a Santa Fe County subdivision just south of the jail.

Martinez’s visits with female inmates there were prompted by the plight of young man her daughter knew. Both of his parents were jailed, Martinez said, and he ended up in prison himself after killing his girlfriend during a dispute.

Feeling distraught and wanting to do something for the youth, Martinez started ministering with Shalom Ministries at what was then the New Mexico Boys’ School in Springer. Then she began her work at the jail.

Often, she said, the young women come out of their cells to see her because they hear she was an actress. They stay because she shows them love.

“They feel so lost,” Martinez said, “and when someone shows them love, they know real love. You can’t fool those women.”

It’s Martinez’s genuine personality that makes her ministry so successful, said Chaplain Robert Ortiz, who used to work with Martinez at the county jail.

“It gives them hope. It helps them to realize that just because society throws them away, God doesn’t throw them away,” Ortiz said.

“She’s such an encourager,” he added, “and it causes them to realize that ‘I can get through this. I can get out of this addiction,’ or whatever it happens to be.”

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