This day last year Limerick man Jason Corbett was beaten to death in his North Carolina home. His death sparked a custody battle for his children between his Irish relatives and the stepmother who will stand trial for murder next week, writes Joe Leogue
At 3.04am on August 2, 2015 emergency operators in North Carolina received a 911 call from a large four-bedroom home set on a half-acre site on Panther Creek, a quiet cul-de-sac in suburban Davidson County.
“My daughter’s husband, my son-in-law, got in a fight with my daughter. I intervened and I think… he’s in bad shape. We need help,” the 65-year-old caller told operators.
“He’s bleeding all over and I may have killed him.” Thomas Martens told operators he hit his Irish son-in-law Jason Corbett, 39, with a baseball bat.
“He was choking my daughter, he said: ‘I’m going to kill her’,” Martens claimed.
Over the course of the 14-minute call, the operator attempted to guide Mr Martens, a former FBI agent, and his daughter Molly Martens Corbett, 32, on how to resuscitate Mr Corbett.
It was in vain. Police and emergency services arrived to find the Limerick native dead at the scene.
His autopsy report showed he died as a result of blunt force head trauma; that he suffered “multiple lacerations, abrasions, and contusions of the head”, “extensive skull fractures” and haemorrhages, as well as “other blunt force injuries: scattered abrasions and contusions of torso and extremities”.
Mr Martens told deputies from the Sheriff’s Office that he and his wife Sharon were visiting their daughter; her husband; and Jason’s two children from a previous marriage, Jack, aged 11, and nine-year-old Sarah on the night of Jason’s death.
He said they were staying in a guest bedroom in the basement of the house when he heard a disturbance in the master bedroom. He told law enforcement officers that he had an aluminium baseball bat nearby — a gift he bought for Jack but which he had yet to give to the boy — and that he brought it with him to investigate the noise.
He said he came upon Jason Corbett ‘choking’ Molly Martens Corbett, and that he intervened by striking Jason Corbett across the head with the bat. Police were told that the victim had also been struck with a concrete paving brick. Mr Martens described the altercation as a ‘Donnybrook’ — an uncontrolled fight.
However, investigators had their doubts about Mr Marten’s account.
In an application for a search warrant, later released by the court, Detective BM Smith said that neither Mr Martens nor his daughter suffered any injuries during the alleged struggle.
“Throughout my law enforcement career, I have been in several of what would be described as ‘uncontrolled fights’. In my opinion; the struggle described was not consistent with the evidence at the scene, particularly the master bedroom,” Detective BM Smith wrote in his application to the court.
The investigators also outlined how Mr Martens and his wife had “suddenly” changed their plans to visit Corbett’s home the day before his death — behaviour that they described as “unusual” for Mr Martens.
The detectives also questioned Mr Martens’ account of how he came to bring a baseball bat with him when investigating the disturbance he said he had heard.
While Mr Martens claimed he had the bat to hand as it was a gift he was going to give Mr Corbett’s son, Jack, court documents revealed that Jack Corbett told a counsellor that Mr Martens had already gifted him a baseball bat the previous summer. Investigators also said they saw pictures of the young boy playing with the bat.
“I have probable cause to believe that the baseball bat used to assault Jason Paul Corbett may have come from the sports equipment bag used by Jack Corbett and stored in the garage,” Detective Lt WS Thompson wrote.
In September, a month after Jason Corbett’s death, investigators filed search warrant applications to get access to the couple’s bank statements, email, Facebook accounts and phone records, as well as the phone records and social media accounts of Ms Martens’ parents.
The documents filed by investigators with the courts revealed their belief that Jason Corbett had planned to move back to Ireland with his children — without Molly Martens Corbett.
Detectives were told by Mr Corbett’s friends, co-workers and family of his planned trip to Ireland.
“The Ireland trip was allegedly for the purpose of moving him and his minor (young) children back to his native homeland permanently,” Detective Lt WS Thompson wrote in his search warrant application.
“Additional information received from business partners of Jason Corbett indicated that in preparation for that trip, Jason Corbett allegedly discussed transferring some of his financial assets ... to his home bank in Ireland.”
“Investigators also learned from members of the Corbett family that Jason Corbett was possibly concerned about the spending habits of his American wife, Molly Martens Corbett. Both of these issues were allegedly a source of conflict between the couple,” the officer wrote.
The application also notes that since Mr Corbett’s death “large sums of money have been removed from some of his bank accounts that he shares jointly with Molly Martens Corbett”.
“Jason Corbett’s alleged comfortable financial status provides additional possible motive for his untimely death,” Detective Lt WS Thompson wrote.
Investigators also said that Mr Corbett “had expressed intentions of not inviting his wife, Molly Corbett, to join them on the trip [back to Ireland] and that he and the children were not going to return to the United States”.
This information came to light last January, after Thomas Martens and Molly Martens Corbett were charged with second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. They are pleading not guilty, claiming their actions were in self-defence.
Meanwhile, a bitter battle for the custody of his two children ran in parallel with the murder investigation.
Jack and Sarah Corbett’s mother Margaret died as a result of an asthma attack in 2006, after which Jason hired Molly as an au pair. The couple subsequently became romantically involved, getting married in 2011 and moving to the US. However Mr Corbett’s will, made prior to his marriage to Molly, named his sister Tracey Lynch and her husband David as his children’s guardians.
Just weeks after Jason Corbett’s death, the Davidson County Court heard both Molly Martens Corbett and the Lynch family put forward their case for custody of the children.
Documents that would be later released by the court revealed that the custody hearing was told of allegations of Ms Martens Corbett’s erratic behaviour — she showed examples of ‘volatile behaviour’, according to Jason Corbett’s sister Tracey Lynch.
Ms Martens Corbett denied the allegations put to the court, describing them as ‘slander’ and ‘lies’.
Tracey Lynch recalled a number of incidents that were of concern to her, including an allegation that Ms Martens Corbett sought to punish Jack Corbett for playfully splashing her with water.
“She yanked him up under her arm and with some force brought him into the kitchen. And she turned on the faucet... and put him under the tap where the water was running over his face,” she told the court.
“Jason ran in to try and intervene and Molly pushed him away. We were all shouting at her to stop. And she was shouting: ‘Now you’ll think twice about splashing water on me’.”
Ms Lynch described a woman who was unstable and desperate for the children’s affection — she alleged that Martens Corbett insisted on the children calling her ‘mom’ and claimed that Jack “resisted and was punished for resisting” this request.
“There was regular conflict and Molly was very erratic in terms of she would lose control quite quickly and equally be very calm in a short period of time. It was very distressing. It was disconcerting,” Ms Lynch told the court.
She said this erratic behaviour had been going on for years, and alleged that there was another incident at Molly and Jason’s wedding.
“Molly flipped out at the wedding and completely lost control and began screaming at Jason and at my husband,” Ms Lynch said.
“She threw her chief bridesmaid and her parents out of the wedding.”
After wranglings from both sides, Clerk of the Superior Court, Brian Shipwash, awarded custody to Tracey and David Lynch.
“Jack and Sarah Corbett are citizens of Ireland,” he said in his ruling.
“If the fact pattern were just the opposite and they were United States citizens, I would want to bring these children back to the US, where the extended family would be waiting to embrace them.
“The parents of Sarah and Jack, I am almost certain, would want their children to be raised in the land of their origin, where the culture, religion, customs and their extended family on both sides are prepared to nurture them in a manner that would be in the children’s best interest,” Shipwash said.
“David and Tracey Lynch have maintained an ongoing relationship with the children and have a suitable home and familial support to give the minors a nurturing environment to deal with the deaths of both their parents and maintain the Irish culture and heritage in a manner consistent with their natural parents,” he said.
“They have already arranged schooling and counselling for them in anticipation of their return to Ireland,” he found.
An unsuccessful attempt by Molly Martens Corbett to prevent the children from leaving the US for Limerick was not well received by the Corbett family, who went public in their criticism of her appeal of the court decision.
“The crux of this, to be brutally honest, is that the deliberate, obstructive, cruel, way that the Martens family are carrying out this prolonged pain on my family is unforgivable,” Jason’s brother, John, told RTÉ following Molly Martens Corbett’s appeal to the custody ruling.
“If she genuinely loved those children and was remorseful for the brutal death of my brother it wouldn’t have gone this far,” he said.
What has followed since then is a tug-of-war over the children, played out in public. Two weeks after the custody ruling, and on the day after Sarah’s birthday, Molly Martens Corbett gave a controversial interview to the Niall Boylan Show on 4fm.
“I am distraught, they are my children. It seems like anyone who has children would understand the pain that I’m in, not having seen or spoken to or held my children in two and a half weeks,” she said.
Ms Corbett Martens said she was going on Irish radio in the hope that her message would get through to the children.
“These children, that I have raised for eight years, have called me ‘Mom’ for almost all of that time. I wanted to tell my daughter, my sunshine, that ‘I love you, I love you so much with all my heart’,” she said.
The segment was the source of complaints from listeners who allege that the segment caused “extra pain and suffering to the family for the sake of ratings” according to a Facebook page calling for a boycott of the show.
However, the majority of the campaigning has been carried out on social media, where the Martens have posted a number of messages directed for the attention of the children. Meanwhile, in Ireland, a Justice for Jason Facebook page has repeatedly called for the case to progress.
Months after the decision, Martens Corbett took to Facebook to complain about the decision to grant custody to the Lynch family.
“Our lives do not matter in the eyes of the law. A will made when you were “infants,” and before I came into your lives is what matters,” Martens Corbett wrote.
“It does not matter that clear decisions were made after this short document — moving across the ocean to another country, a marriage... It does not matter that I took you to every doctor or dentist appointment. It does not matter that I signed every parent form you ever had at school from age four up.
“What matters, in the eyes of the law, is that I do not share your blood and I am not listed as your guardian on a document created before I met you. I am heartbroken, and devastatingly sorry. Our lives together may not have mattered in the eyes of the law, but they are what matters most to me,” Martens Corbett said.
Her family have constantly used the medium to post messages of support.
“My daughter is so strong but no one should have to endure the pain she has lived with by having her children being ripped away in an instant. My grandchildren are strong, they have endured a multitude of sufferings in their short lives but no child should be subjected to the needless loss of a wonderful mother,” Sharon Martens wrote on Facebook.
Away from social media, the case has played out in the courts, with tumultuous developments taking place before the murder trial has even begun.
In March it was revealed that Molly Marten’s Corbett “took a majority of the tangible personal property” from the home she shared with Jason Corbett and put property in storage — in violation of a court order.
A consent order agreed between Mr Corbett’s estate and Ms Martens Corbett last September stated that she was not to remove any “tangible personal property” owned either solely by Mr Corbett or jointly by the couple.
Documents filed with the court revealed that after Ms Martens removed items from the house on January 21 — less than three weeks after she was charged with his murder — “the only property left was Mr Corbett’s clothes, property that Mr Corbett brought to the home from Ireland, and items owned by the children”.
Mr Corbett’s estate subsequently filed a motion to enforce the consent order and sought a restraining order preventing Ms Martens from taking any further property from their home or from selling the items she had taken.
At a hearing on February 2, Ms Martens said agents acting on her behalf took the property from the home and that the items were either gifts to her or bought by herself or her parents. She argued that the items she had bought were paid for on a credit card registered solely in her name.
However, the court found that the bills arising from the card were paid for by the couple’s joint account, which mostly contained funds earned by Mr Corbett.
The court also found that there was a “high probability” that money transferred by Mr Corbett to Ms Martens and her parents was the source of payment for the items she and her parents had bought. The court ruled that “immediate and irreparable injury would have resulted to… the beneficiaries of the estate” if Ms Martens was allowed to take or sell the items.
Ms Martens was given 30 days to return the property she took from the home, after which Mr Corbett’s estate was instructed to sell the items and pay the proceeds to the court, which will hold the funds until it decides ownership of the property.
In March, attorneys representing the Martens accused Mr Shipwash of having unethical private conversations with the lawyer representing Jason Corbett’s estate.
“Respondent submits that the Clerk has engaged in a series of ex parte communications with counsel for (Jason Corbett’s estate), and constitute violations of the following (nine) ethical standards,” attorney, Walter Holton, wrote.
“Said conduct by the Clerk is so egregious as to necessitate the disqualification of the Clerk from any future proceedings in this matter.”
The North Carolina-based Winston-Salem Journal reported that the order compelling Martens Corbett to return the items she had taken from the Panther Creek home was at the centre of this motion against the court clerk.
The newspaper reported that “Shipwash and Edward Griggs, a lawyer with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice representing Jason Corbett’s estate, exchanged emails and notes about a draft of Shipwash’s order that actually had been written by another lawyer with Griggs’ firm.” The attorneys have argued that this amounts to ex parte communications that had unfairly excluded the defence team from the process.
A month later the attorneys accused the Sheriff’s Department of “wanting to make a case” and told the court that they do not think their clients will get a fair trial in Davidson County.
They further alleged that law enforcement agencies — using the warrants they had received to access the Corbett’s email accounts — had accessed communications with their legal representatives which should have been protected by attorney-client privilege. They claimed that the information arising from these communications informed the Sheriff Department’s investigation.
“This is not a game,” Holton told Fox News.
“It appears to be for some of these detectives like a game. Either they don’t know what the rules of investigation are or they don’t care. But either one is bad. You’ve got two people who are innocent whose lives are now on the line because these detectives want to make a case.”
The attorneys further alleged that members of the Martens family have received death threats on social media, and that the Sheriff’s Department had harassed some of its witnesses.
“Some of the witnesses that we provided the sheriff’s office [with] were harassed by the sheriff’s office,” Defence Attorney David Freedman claimed.
“They told them they didn’t believe them.”
The Sheriff’s Department rejected the attorney’s claims.
Speaking outside the court Mr Corbett’s brother-in-law Mike Earnest told reporters that he believed the pair are innocent.
“I’ve known Tom for 44 years,” he said. “There’s no finer person that I have met. He is a wonderful husband, fantastic father. You can’t ask for someone who has greater integrity than Thomas Martens.”
The most recent development saw defence lawyers attempt to block prosecutors from submitting an interview with Jack Corbett as trial evidence.
Lawyers acting for Molly and Thomas claimed the video statement recorded in May in Ms Lynch’s Limerick home “is hearsay, was obtained under coercive circumstances, and is not sufficiently trustworthy to be admissible”.
The defence lawyers argued that the statement “attempts to contradict prior statements” during which Jack and his sister Sarah described “incidents of verbal and physical abuse by Jason Corbett inflicted upon Molly Corbett”.
Court documents disclosed how, in the days after their father’s death, the children were interviewed by social services officials, with detectives observing behind a two-way mirrored glass wall.
“Sarah reported that: her dad started fights with her mom for ridiculous reasons; he would hurt her mom; he would scream at her mom every day and sometimes twice a day; he would call her mom names on a daily basis; he would call her mom a lot on the phone; she saw her dad step on her mom’s foot, pull her mom’s hair, roll over her mom’s foot with the car, hit her mom in the face and call her mom names like ‘worthless’,” the documents stated.
“Jack reported that: his dad would physically and verbally abuse his mom; he would punch, hit and push her; he saw her [sic] dad push her [sic] mom down one time because he wanted to look through her phone; his dad would cuss and scream at her; his mom would cry and try to block her ears; his dad’s anger was worse over the past few months, he would scream, get mad and cuss more, he was getting angrier; his mom would try to get him to stop but his dad was strong; his mom would scream for him to stop but sometimes she would just ball up under the covers and block her ears.”
The defence documents claim the interview with Jack on May 27 was procured “under coercive circumstances without any of the safeguards to ensure trustworthiness or reliability”.
The Justice for Jason page accused the Martens of attempting to discredit the late Mr Corbett.
“A full year since he was brutally & callously murdered. If beating him to a pulp on August 2nd 2015 was not enough they have ceaselessly and in the most vile ways tried to blacken and batter his good name & his character,”read a status posted the week the Martens sought to block the May statement by Jack from reaching the trial.
A year on from Jason Corbett’s death, his wife and father-in-law are to stand trial for his murder. The case is due to return to the courts on August 8. However, it is not known if the Martens will take the stand and give their account as to what happened the night Jason Corbett was killed.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved