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An aspiring artist, Martre Coles’ imagination swirled with bold and colorful characters. But after his mother’s untimely death following hip surgery when he was just 16, his mind was filled with dark, depressive thoughts.
As Martre struggled with losing his mom, he also grappled with his father, Maurice Coles, quickly moving his girlfriend, Denise Gay, into their home in Henrico, Virginia, not far from Richmond.
Exacerbating an already tense situation was Denise’s 9-year-old daughter, Alana, a girl who could turn out of control and violent. She even once stabbed her stepbrother with a pair of scissors that left a wound in his shoulder blade. Denise hushed the incident up and kept it from Martre’s dad, according to “Killer Motive,” airing Saturdays at 6/5c on Oxygen. Tensions simmered.
In March 2017, the now-19-year-old Martre’s creative talent appeared to offer a potential ticket out of the pressure cooker. He received an email posted from Full Sail University in Florida inviting him to visit the school to explore advancing his art.
Martre’s girlfriend, Ashlyn Knight, told “Killer Motive'' host Troy Roberts that the teen was excited about the opportunity. On March 12, he headed to the bus station to travel to the school. It was a bright moment, but it quickly turned dark.
Martre went off the radar. Knight didn’t hear a word from him, nor did his sisters, Marqweisha Cole and Michelle Cole, who visited places their brother frequented hoping to find him. They feared Martre’s depression may have led to a terrible conclusion.
Martre’s disappearance then took a more sinister turn. After inspecting the email supposedly sent by Full Sail University, Knight questioned its authenticity. It was from a Gmail account, which wasn’t standard for an academic institution. Martre’s sisters then made inquiries and discovered the invitation to explore the school was bogus.
As his girlfriend’s and sisters’ anxiety grew, Martre’s father seemed relatively unconcerned. Martre was an adult, who wasn’t necessarily missing but perhaps just on a personal trip, he reasoned.
But on April 2, 2017, three weeks after Martre was last seen, a workman walking through a wooded area near an industrial park caught sight of a large plastic tub that looked oddly out of place. As he neared the container, he saw a sneaker sticking out of it, he told producers.
He lifted the cover and was shocked to see a lifeless young man inside the container. He called the police, who rushed to the scene, which was located just five miles from Martre’s home.
The victim was identified as Martre Coles, who authorities described as being folded up “like an accordion.”
“The state medical examiner’s office said Coles died from asphyxia, but the office could not definitively say how his oxygen supply was cut off — such as whether he suffocated in the box or had been strangled,” reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2018.
Analysis also found traces of Trazadone and GHB, two drugs that slow breathing, in Martre’s body, Shannon Taylor, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Henrico County, told “Killer Motive.”
As investigators worked the case, a police report made on March 31 helped illuminate Martre’s murder. On that date, two officers responded to a call made from the home of Maurice Coles. When they arrived, Denise’s daughter told police it was a false alarm and that she was in trouble for calling them.
But when she was taken aside by the officers, she told them a different, far more disturbing story. “I saw my mom kill my step-brother,” she told them, NBC News reported in 2018. She said that her sister LaToya helped, and that she’d seen her drag a big plastic container through the house.
At the time it seemed like a story from a girl with a history of issues, according to Taylor. But after the discovery of Martre’s body in a plastic container, Alana’s story was reconsidered. A question loomed: Why would Denise and LaToya kill Martre?
Officials dug deeper into Denise’s background. They found she had a rap sheet full of felonies, according to Stacey Davenport, former Commonwealth’s Attorney for Henrico County. Denise had been busted for fraud and passing bum checks.
As investigators reckoned with Denise’s scrapes with the law, they observed that Maurice seemed “ambivalent” about his son’s death. It was a red flag that couldn’t be ignored.
With Martre’s family members as possible suspects, investigators made the difficult strategic decision to quietly beef up surveillance and not inform any of them, including his sisters, that the victim’s body had been found.
Instead, investigators operated as though they were still working a missing persons case. They re-interviewed Martre’s sisters, taking DNA swabs for analysis. They also spoke with Denise and LaToya, who they covertly trailed after the interview.
Officials covertly put a camera in the area where Martre's body was found to monitor comings and goings. Eventually the camera caught a figure getting out of a vehicle. Police determined the person the camera captured was Denise Gay.
In short order, evidence grew against Denise, who, authorities learned, had access to the drugs found in Martre’s system. Forensics experts then confirmed that Denise’s computer was used to create and send the fake Full Sail University email to Martre.
On April 10, 2017, Denise Gay was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
Martre’s sisters believe that the motive for murder in the case was their late mother. Martre was a daily reminder of her, and Denise wanted to erase that memory.
At trial, the jury found Denise guilty of conspiracy to commit murder but were deadlocked on the charge of felony murder.
A retrial was set for April 2018, and prosecutors found that Maurice Coles, who was uncooperative at the first trial, did a complete 180-degree turn. He handed over Denise’s cell phone, where her texts and searches about decomposing bodies strengthened their case.
On April 20, 2018, the retrial began and prosecutors hammered home the fact that Denise put Martre in a container and “threw him out like trash.” She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
In a separate trial, LaToya Gay, 23, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for her role in the crime.
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