The killings were barbaric, and yet the killers were so young that for years the courts argued about whether they’d been boys or men.
In 1991, Miguel Angel Martinez,17, Manuel “Milo” Flores,17, and Miguel Angel Venegas, Jr.,16, each played a role in a triple axe-and-knife murder that rocked the small city of Laredo, Texas.
The motivation behind the seemingly random explosive violence remains shrouded in mystery. But Martinez, Venegas and other community members give their versions of the night in question in a series of straight-to-camera interviews on Episode 4 of “I Am a Killer,” available now on Netflix. Each hour-long episode of the 10-part documentary series profiles a different death-row inmate who was convicted of capital murder. (A+E Networks U.K, Sky Vision Productions and Netflix teamed up for the true-crime documentary series.)
Drunk and high on cocaine and marijuana, the young men invaded the residence of 33-year-old James Smiley, 33, a Baptist youth counselor. Having a previously established relationship with Smiley from working under him at an Arby’s restaurant, Martinez had a house key that got the group access.
According to Martinez, it wasn’t the first time he and Flores had gone to the home, which they would sometimes burglarize for drug money.
“It was supposed to be what we had done before: Nobody home, we go in, we take something.”
But things changed when Venegas was added to the group dynamic, Martinez asserts. According to Martinez, Venegas “insisted on doing some damage,” which is why the group took an axe, a baseball bat and several knives to the scene—all weapons procured from the Flores residence.
After arriving at the scene, Venegas initially went to scope out the house and saw that it wasn’t empty. At that point he was the one who called for an escalation to violence, according to Martinez.
“He was on a mission, and it was not to go steal anything…to him, he was on a mission for Satan. Satan wanted their souls.”
Some of the facts surrounding the murders are unambiguous: Venegas used the axe to kill Ruben Martinez, 20 years old, who was sleeping on a couch. Miguel Martinez also stabbed that victim with a folding knife. Then Venegas went into two other rooms of the house, killing Smiley and 14-year-old Daniel Duenez. Martinez and Venegas then stole a television set, a telephone and Smiley’s car.
But Venegas remembers the buildup to the slayings differently. According to him, it had been Flores’s idea to bring weapons, not his own. He further claims that even before they’d gone to the house, the topic of killing had come up, with his cohort daring him to kill.
“I come from a machista culture,” says Venegas. “A dare is a dare.”
Venegas admitted to the idea that he felt under control of Satan, noting that he’d felt under the influence of the Devil as a child. At age 8 he would fill jars with black widow spiders, dump them on his chest, then revel in the lack of bites he’d suffer, seeing it as proof of his dominion over the underworld.
On the night of the murders, Venegas said he got further proof of his Satan connection when his first victim woke up before the attack, looked at him, then went back to sleep.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘The devil’s got my back.'”
And there was no way he and Martinez could back out of the murders, either. Venegas told Martinez, “Satan wants their souls.”
Venegas had previously denied Satanic influence as a motivating factor.
Flores never entered the house, and the three young men faced starkly different consequences for their roles in the murders.
Because he was only 16, Venegas’s case bounced between courts for years as the state attempted to determine if he should be tried as a juvenile or an adult. In 1993 he made an armed escape from a juvenile-detention facility and crossed the border, but was recaptured in Monterrey, Mexico in 1995. In 2004 the courts determined that he would be tried as an adult, at which point he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 41 years in prison on three counts of murder.
Martinez, only one year older, was immediately tried as an adult, convicted of capital murder, and sentenced to death. That made him the youngest person on Texas’s death row, drawing international attention. In 2002, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Flores never went to prison. His father Manuel Flores, was a local attorney who served 20 years as a district judge, causing some speculation that connections to the law had saved his skin.
The elder Flores acknowledges that the group of teens were together at his home and that his son had given Martinez and Venegas a ride into the neighborhood where they committed the murders. But says he wishes his son had the chance to clear his name.
“I would have preferred for him to be accused, and face a jury of his peers and that he would’ve been declared innocent,” he says. “Because there were no facts that showed any guilt.”
And while the motivation for the crime remains a mystery, the grim determination behind the violence is unquestionable.
“These are hands-on weapons,” says O.J. Hale, who served as the lead investigator on the case for the District Attorney of Laredo. “It takes a lot. You have to be really into what you’re doing.”