GREENACRES, Fla. (AP) — Back in 1984, "Mom and Pop" Martinez's single-story house at the corner of Swain and Second seemed to entertain a constant stream of children.
There were the three grandchildren who lived there and a dozen more who frequently stopped by the three-bedroom home. And that's in addition to the neighborhood kids who came to play in the yard, family members recall, including, they say, Marjorie "Christy" Luna.
Thirty-five years after Christy was last seen buying cat food at the store catty-corner from the Martinez home, law enforcement spent five days excavating the small yard where she reportedly once played. The dig has raised the family's profile on social media, often in ways members say is unfounded and unfair, as rumors about what happened to Christy swirl anew.
At a news conference Monday (Aug. 5), Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said his office received a tip in late May prompting investigators to dig up the yard on the one-tenth-of-an-acre property.
By Friday (Aug. 9) afternoon, crews wrapped up the dig. They found both large bones, identified as animal bones, and small ones, which also appear to be from animals.
However, the sheriff's office won't be able to say for certain where the bones came from until a lab at Florida Gulf Coast University examines them.
Bradshaw said the tip that led them to the yard at 265 Swain Blvd. came through social media shortly after his social-media team released a 19-minute documentary on the 35th anniversary of Christy's disappearance.
Bradshaw called the tip "one of the best and most credible leads that we have got to date to solve this case," but would not elaborate on who gave them the tip, what exactly it said or how investigators worked to verify it in the two months since they received it.
From Monday morning through Friday afternoon, sheriff's investigators worked alongside a team of forensic anthropologists from Florida Gulf Coast clearing vegetation outside the home, shoveling dirt and methodically sifting through those piles, bucket by bucket, for any trace of the missing second-grader. On Friday, six members of the Cardinal Newman High School football team helped in the dig, too.
"I think we're going to bring Christy home," her mother Jennie Johnson said to reporters Monday across the street from the dig site. "We are going to bring Christy home."
The investigation continues
Sheriff's investigators have remained tight-lipped about the specifics of the search. However, a review of property records indicates it likely included a search of the septic tank, which sits on the southeast corner of the property. It appears the tank has been there since Guadalupe and Maria Martinez bought the property in 1977.
About 10 years ago, the couple's oldest daughter, Maria Ruiz, and her husband opened that tank. They spotted a white, round object about the size of a volleyball at the bottom.
Ruiz recalled the object looking deflated and remembers thinking, "Who would throw a ball down in the sewer?"
They didn't pull it up. She hadn't thought much of it until the excavation, she said.
Greenacres building director Michael Grimm said Friday that larger objects can get into a septic tank if the lid has been compromised. For example, he's seen cases in which a car unknowingly drives over a tank, breaking the top of it.
Current owner Rolando Melillo bought the home in 2009 shortly after that septic-tank discovery. Maria Martinez died months later. Her husband died in 2002.
Melillo never lived in the home, he said. He said he currently rents it to one of the former owners' grandchildren.
Tammy Dickerson, who has known the family since she was 14 and is married to the couple's grandson, Ronnie, admits it's a logical jump between looking for the remains of a missing girl in the yard of a family's longtime home to questioning the relatives who ventured in and out of it at the time of her disappearance.
What she doesn't understand is why online postings single out her husband, who was 17 at the time of Christy's disappearance, and her brother-in-law Donnie, who was 14.
"Detective (William) Springer is asking anyone who knows a Ronnie or Donnie Dickerson to contact him immediately," numerous public Facebook posts read.
Springer, busy shoveling dirt alongside anthropology students Thursday, wouldn't comment on the social-media postings, and Facebook users who shared those posts said they were instructed not to speak further about them.
As far as Tammy Dickerson knows, no one from the sheriff's office has reached out to her husband or brother-in-law in regard to the case.
And, she points out, they're not hard to find.
Ronnie Dickerson's home address is on his driver's license, she said.
In a telephone conversation late Friday, the 52-year-old said he'd gladly speak to detectives about the case. He talked to a Greenacres police officer after Christy's disappearance and mentioned that he saw a white van parked on the south side of the general store days before she vanished. He said that two men in the van tried to lure him inside, saying they were selling electronics.
"That always stuck in my mind," he said. "That was weird to me."
But that's about all the information he could offer about the investigation into the little girl's disappearance, he said.
He doesn't recall ever seeing Christy at his grandparents' home, though he said "the door was always open" there.
Ruiz, however, said she specifically remembers on two occasions seeing Christy playing in her parents' yard.
As for Ronnie's younger brother, Donnie Dickerson is finishing a three-year prison sentence in Raiford for burglary and theft. He won't be out until September, according to Florida Department of Corrections records.
Donnie's criminal history, mainly theft- and burglary-related offenses, stem from drug addiction, his family said, one that started when he was barely a teenager.
"Pffttt, my little brother," Ronnie Dickerson said, "for him to be involved in it, I very seriously doubt it."
Most of Donnie's life has been spent between drug-rehabilitation centers and jail, his older brother said.
Donnie's struggle with drugs and run-ins with the law, along with other "family trash," of which the Dickersons admit there is plenty, are being aired online in light of the excavation.
Tammy Dickerson said all it's doing is taking away from the search for Christy.
Rumors since she vanished
Rumors around the disappearance of the 8-year-old girl have circulated since she was last seen that Sunday afternoon in 1984.
Tammy Dickerson was 17 and living with Ronnie and her mother down the street from the general store where Christy was last seen. She's heard her share of the rumors:
Christy fell into a septic tank; the general store owner was involved; the Rambo brothers — Willis and Chuck, who lived on the same street as the Luna family, and who later were charged with molesting her best friend — were to blame.
Then there's Victor Wonyete, a golf-course worker from New Hampshire who told prisoners that he abducted, raped and killed Christy and Tammy Belanger, an 8-year-old who disappeared in New Hampshire months after Christy last was seen, according to police testimony during Wonyete's 1992 trial in Palm Beach County on unrelated charges of indecent exposure and burglary.
In the decades of rumors, Dickerson said she never heard anyone mention the Martinez family as having played a part in the disappearance.
During the news conference Monday, Bradshaw indicated that the tip that led them to the yard on Swain Boulevard is one investigators hadn't explored.
"I hope she finds her answers," Tammy Dickerson said of Christy's mother. "I just don't think she'll find them there."
A boy, not much younger than Christy when she was last seen, chomped on bubble gum Thursday morning as he tossed a cold water bottle into the hot air not far from where crews dug, sifted and searched for remains of the little girl. He swung the bottle like a baseball bat, seemingly unaware of the crime scene 3 feet deep behind him.
He and one-half dozen others filed in and out of the home, which sat inside the crime-scene tape.
A woman sat in a foldout chair with a golf umbrella over her head. Two people set up a tent.
Across the street, Christy's mother lit up a cigarette and watched the dig from the shaded overhang of the Greenacres Historical Society Museum. It was day 12,856 in the search for her little girl.
The sheriff's office and Crime Stoppers of Palm Beach County are now offering a $15,000 reward for information regarding the case.
Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this report.
Information from: The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, http://www.pbpost.com