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I am a Killer: Miguel Martinez

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“Satan wants their souls...”

That was the reason Miguel Angel Venegas Jr. gave Miguel Angel Martinez Jr. as to why the two teenagers couldn’t leave restaurateur and Baptist deacon James D. 'Jim' Smiley’s residence that night without killing everyone in the house. A short time later the pair would escape through the back door of the house. But only after carrying out the devil’s work.

Laredo is most famous throughout the United States as the setting of the classic country song Cowboy’s Lament (aka The Streets of Laredo). This border city is no longer the domain of John Wayne and Randolph Scott-style archetypes, though.

Laredo's 95.6% Hispanic and Latino population now makes it the least ethnically diverse city in the entire country. Yet like so much of Texas, it still retains some of that true Wild West feel and spirit. Townsfolk still wear nine galleon Stetsons and mustangs still roam the plains. Except nowadays they’ve got four litres, instead of four legs. And while they may not use the gallows or a length of rope and a tree anymore, the state of Texas still kills its most itchy trigger-fingered cowboys.

Thursday 17th, 1991. Three bored teenage boys, Vanegas, Martinez and their friend Milo Flores kick back in Flores’ annexe. The other two kids lived in relatively small houses with their large families, so rich kid Milo’s self-contained apartment was an ideal hangout spot for them all. They played computer games, drank beers and got high. Good weed wasn’t hard to find that close to the Mexican border, but only Flores - with his dad’s allowance money - could afford good coke. The trio was having fun and doing what teenagers do until Miguel Vanegas began to get restless...

The livewire element of the group, Miguel Vanegas would often make the other two feel pretty uncomfortable with his impulsive spontaneity and unpredictable behaviour. But he was fun and kept things interesting, so they never thought to ditch him. That night he was particularly tweaked and wanted to go out and cause a little trouble. Smash something up or rob someone. Petty crime wasn’t alien to the boys, they often stole to afford drugs and liquor.

Soon they had jumped into Flores’ car and took off. The plan? To rob the empty house of Martinez’s former boss, Jim Smiley. Just in case Smiley was at home, Vanegas suggested the boys threaten him a little. So they took with them an axe, dagger and pocket knife from Flores’ woodshed.

Things were already looking like spiralling out of control. Vanegas was like a whirlwind when he got started and the glue he’d been sniffing all day wasn’t helping. When the boys reached Smiley’s house, Flores told the other two to jump out and get started while he turned the car around and found the optimum ‘getaway’ place to park. He took the opportunity to drive off and get the Hell away from what was going down...

What was going down? Well, the two Miguels weren’t entirely sure until they entered the Smiley residence using a spare key Martinez had for the property and realised there were actually three people sleeping in the house, including someone asleep on the living room sofa in front of them.

It seems the two boys really were working for the devil that night. And he soon found work for their idle hands to do...

Vanegas suddenly switched. He no longer wanted to rob and smash up the house. He wanted to kill people. With a crazed look in his eye, he raised the axe above his head, preparing to bring it down at the man’s head. As he did that, a panicked Martinez suggested they leave. But they couldn’t, Vanegas insisted. They had to murder the three people in the house. With good reason - Satan wanted their souls.

It seems the two boys really were working for the devil that night. And he soon found work for their idle hands to do...

33-year-old James Smiley and his overnight guests, 22-year-old Ruben Martinez and 14-year-old Daniel Duene, were discovered just a few days later. The three had all died of a combination of axe blows to the head and stab wounds to the chest. Vanegas having killed all three.

Martinez was still found guilty of capital murder, though. Under Texas’ odd ruling, the ‘Law of Parties’, a person needn’t actually commit a murder to be held responsible for it having taken place. Because he took no steps to prevent the crimes from happening and effectively aided Venegas, 17-year-old Martinez, despite killing no one that night, was convicted and sentenced to death. At the time, he was the youngest person to ever be sent to Death Row.

Vanegas, who was 16 at the time, escaped a death sentence because of his age. By virtue of being just a couple of months younger than Martinez, he swerved the state governor’s needle. He was still tried as an adult, though Martinez was sent down for a full 41 years, becoming eligible for parole after ten. He is still in the H. H. Coffield Unit in Anderson County to this day.

The whole sorry affair made for a needless waste of life all round, of course. But this isn’t just a tragic little tale of bored kids going too far. There are lots of odd little subplots that turn this story of a violent home invasion gone wrong into one of real intrigue…

The District Attorney in charge of prosecuting the case, one Joe Rubio Jr., sought capital murder charges for Martinez and Vanegas. But for Milo Flores? The third teenager who provided Vanegas with the murder weapons and drove the pair to the house? He was oddly forgiving towards him. In fact, Rubio had completely failed to bag any form of indictment against him.

Many people claim Rubio didn’t exactly try all that hard. The reason? Allegedly the relationship between the DA and Flores’ father. None other than State District Judge Manuel R. ‘Meme’ Flores.

As Vanegas left the bedroom of Jim Smiley that night, he looked behind him at the man he’d just murdered, lifeless and covered in blood, and noticed a crucifix on the man’s bedside dresser. Be it through a love of twisted irony or, more likely, his Satanic delusions and hallucinations, Vanegas turned the crucifix upside down before he left the room. This was something that didn’t play well with the jury.

America, a deeply religious country - especially in the south - was still recovering from the so-called ‘satanic panic’ of the 1980’s and remained sensitive to such things for all sorts of different reasons. Whispers of local Mexican drug cartels and gangs practising black magic and dabbling in occult religions such as the bloodletting-obsessed Santeria were also rife in Texan border towns like Laredo at the time. The ‘Satanism’ angle helped paint a picture that the two boys were irredeemably evil.

The boys’ case was made all the more damning by the ‘main’ victim, a seemingly respectable religious figure. If there’s one thing Texan juries appreciated less than devil worshippers back then, it was kids on drugs killing their local religious leaders. But why did Miguel Martinez choose Smiley’s house? Where did that resentment come from? Why did he have a spare key? Why was Smiley known to cross the border so much with young Mexican children? And why did he have a 14 year-old boy sleeping in the room adjacent to his…?

It’s certainly food for thought.

Swing your rope slowly, rattle your spurs lowly/ And give a wild whoop as you carry me along/ In the grave throw me and roll the sod o'er me/ For I'm a young cowboy and I know I've done wrong."

So goes the penultimate verse of the frontier ballad The Streets of Laredo. A song about a young man from the Texas town who commits a crime and faces death, it’s a fitting theme tune for this grim tale. But while the old wild west tale ends in the cowboy’s death, the story of Miguel Martinez is a marginally less depressing one. While he was on Death Row for some time, his sentence was later commuted to a life sentence.

"Young, easily led and intimidated by a brash and violently unpredictable friend, Miguel Martinez was found guilty of the capital murder of three people, despite killing none of them. Even though, perhaps, he may have had reason to want to kill one of them...

It seems as though Satan got plenty of souls that night. Not least of all that of Miguel Martinez.

Listen to the producers discuss the making of the series in the officialpodcast.

Watch the UK premiere of I am a Killer season two this October only on Crime+Investigation.