Assistant U.S. attorney couple balancing criminal prosecutions, home life amid pandemic – The Columbus Dispatch

Marc Kovac
 
| The Columbus Dispatch

Heather Hill was looking forward to making Christmas cookies before the holidays, a brief bit of yuletide normalcy to end an anything-but-normal year.

She loves baking. Maybe she’ll open a bakery after she retires.

“Baking is one of my stress relievers,” she said.

Talk about a good time for stress relief, following months of global pandemic and national upheaval. For Hill and her husband, Brian Martinez, there’s the added pressures that come with their everyday work as assistant U.S. attorneys for the Southern District of Ohio.

It’s been an unrelenting year all around, with days long on pressure and short on romance and relaxation.

“What we’re dealing with isn’t any different than what a lot of other families and other couples are dealing with,” Martinez said. “When you’re working from home all the time, the work is always there. You have to make a really conscious effort to not do it … It’s a challenge when your work and your home are in the same place.”

While it’s not easy, Hill and Martinez are finding ways to cope. Their shared legal backgrounds and careers helps.

Martinez is from California. Hill is from Ohio. At one point in their legal careers, they were both living in Washington, D.C., and knew a lot of the same people.

But their paths didn’t cross until 2011, after Hill returned to her native state to become an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, and both happened to attend an annual retreat for federal prosecutors at Miami University.

Hill’s boss, then-U.S. Attorney Carter Stewart, was friends with Martinez’s boss, then-Assistant U.S. Attorney General Tony West — tangentially, he’s Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ brother-in-law — and West was one of the featured speakers at the event that year.

It was July, in Oxford, Ohio, and Hill and Martinez hit it off, spending several hours talking about law and common connections. Martinez was interested in becoming an assistant U.S. attorney. Hill talked about her work in the Southern District of Ohio and her career aspirations.

“He listened,” Hill said. “And he actually seemed really interested. That was sort of what drew my attention initially, him being a good listener and having that interest in the intellectual side.”

Neither of them was on the lookout for a future spouse.

“I certainly did not move back to Ohio to find a future husband who was still living in D.C.,” Hill said. “We had to come to tiny little Oxford, Ohio to meet each other.”

Martinez added, “She was interesting, she was engaging, I wanted to hear what she had to say. I was there for work — I was not going to Ohio to meet my future wife. … It was certainly not something planned or intended. It was just sort of serendipity that I would happen to meet this wonderful woman and ended up talking about life and work and everything else.”

The next weekend, Hill was heading back to Washington, D.C., to visit some friends, and she and Martinez had a first official date. He was named an assistant U.S. attorney in Columbus in 2014, and the couple were married in 2016 during a trip to Greece.

Even that required a lawyerly approach, with documents gathered, legal questions considered, even the Greek Embassy in Chicago contacted in advance. Hill took the lead on the marriage case, as Martinez was in the middle of a 10-week gang trial at the time.

“It wasn’t clear for a minute if it was going to work,” Martinez said. “Once we got married in Greece, under Greek law, making sure that the state of Ohio was going to recognize our marriage as valid and lawful.”

Hill and Martinez were already balancing stressful careers with their married lives prior to the craziness of 2020. They’re both involved in the prosecution of heavy, heinous crimes committed in central Ohio and beyond.

Martinez, who serves as deputy criminal chief in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, worked to dismantle the transnational MS-13 gang’s operations in central Ohio, with convictions for 19 of 23 members involved in “multiple acts of murder, extortion, drug trafficking, money laundering, obstruction of justice and/or witness tampering,” according to court documents.

Hill, who is coordinator of the district’s Project Safe Childhood program, has led on child exploitation cases, including felony charges announced earlier this year against a Scioto County man and multiple other men and women who abused children, “potentially for decades,” according to court documents. She was honored for her work by former U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman in 2017 after leading three separate jury trials over four months that ended in convictions and prison sentences for the perpetrators.

Pandemic aside, child exploitation and other crimes haven’t stopped.

“The activity is still rampant,” Hill said.

Martinez added, “Criminals do not abide by stay-at-home orders. They don’t care about quarantining. They don’t care about social distancing. There is still child exploitation going on. There are still shootings going on. There’s still drug trafficking going on. It’s still happening. … The challenge that we have to overcome is doing our work in the midst of a pandemic.”

Working in the same office (Hill and Martinez both praised the others in U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio) and in the same profession has helped in navigating criminal prosecutions during a pandemic.

“We can understand and relate to what the other person is doing and going through,” Martinez said. “In some ways, it’s even more healthy and helpful when you can vent or confide in your spouse about, ‘Wow, this really horrible thing happened today,’ or ’This is a thing I had to do today,’ and they can understand it maybe in a way that someone else wouldn’t.”

Hill added, “We’re able to talk about problems we have in cases, frustrations with things. Each of us understands what the other one is going through.”

Not that it’s easy, with heavy caseloads and the blurring lines between work life and home life.

“It’s hard to get away from the work, especially when your office is at home,” Hill said. “You’re working all of the time.”

It’s not been a great year for romance, either, with few opportunities for impromptu restaurant dinners or vacations.

But Hill and Martinez try to find ways to unwind. They exercise or go on hikes. They watch football (Ohio State Buckeyes and the Las Vegas Raiders). They make deliberate efforts to disconnect from prosecutorial work when they can, putting down their phones or leaving laptops in bags.

“Someday, we will get back to a time when we’re coming into the office together, we’re leaving the office together, and it’s just the normal pressures,” Hill said.

Martinez added, “Yeah, it’s frustrating and it’s hard, but we realize that we’re some of the lucky ones. … There are a lot of folks out there that are out of work, looking for work, struggling in many, many ways. There are people out there who have lost close loved ones, people who are sick themselves. Heather and I, knock on wood, haven’t had to endure those true tragedies. We haven’t lost a close loved one to COVID-19, we haven’t lost our jobs.”

And when all else fails, there are always cookies — molasses cookies and chocolate chip cookies, chocolate caramel thumbprint cooks, cutout sugar cookies, an array of different brownies.

“Every year it’s a little more,” Martinez said of Hill’s Christmastime baking. “The repertoire expands.”

mkovac@dispatch.com

@OhioCapitalBlog

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