Longform

An Imperfect Murder

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Born in Havana, Cuba, Martinez immigrated to the United States at age 15 during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which brought 124,776 immigrants -- some convicted criminals -- to South Florida. He often went by his childhood nickname: "Flaco," or "Skinny." Despite a brief stay in New York City, Martinez had spent most of his adult life in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

In December 1995, Laura Carnes, then a 21-year-old stripper working at Palace Centerfold in Miami, met Martinez. She was sitting at a traffic light near downtown Miami in her 1991 Acura Integra when the tall Cuban pulled up next to her in a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Porsche 993. "We were waving, smiling at each other," Carnes recalled in a 1996 deposition. They exchanged telephone numbers at the intersection, then talked on their cellular phones as they drove west on the Dolphin Expressway.

A relationship blossomed. Two months later, Carnes moved in with Martinez at his home on Park Avenue in Miami Beach. He was a man who liked to flaunt his status, Carnes said, and he hated the idea of his girlfriend's driving a commoner's car. Instead, he purchased her a Rolls-Royce, writing a check to the dealership. "I found out that the check was no good," Carnes would say later. Indeed, at the time, the stripper had only a vague idea of what her boyfriend did for a living. "From what I understand, he is an independent person who brings deals to different mortgage companies, different brokerage houses," she said. "Supposedly he owns a company."

She was right about one thing: Martinez was working. Since arriving from Cuba, he had been an industrious con artist. His rap sheet is littered with grand theft, fraud, and dealing-in-stolen-property charges. He received three and a half years of community supervision in 1989 for two grand theft charges and for writing a bad check. But the law had never given Martinez more than a pinch. Despite 11 felony charges by the mid-'90s, he had yet to spend a single day in prison.

Carnes' relationship with the con man was good in the beginning. Martinez spoiled her. But he had another, more ominous side. "He can be very calm at one moment," Carnes said, "and be a complete animal the next."

The breaking point came February 20, 1996, when their relationship was less than three months old. Martinez was on the phone at their Miami Beach home, and Carnes was about to leave with a friend. She invited her boyfriend along.

"Give me a minute," Martinez said.

Carnes went outside, and after about ten minutes, she came back to remind her boyfriend. "Luis, we have to go now," she said.

Martinez slammed down the phone, ripped it out of the wall, and then threw it at Carnes, hitting her in the leg. She fled. "I went out to the car, where my friend was, and I felt hands around my neck, around the back of my neck, and he was basically choking me," she recalled. Martinez released her, walked inside for a moment, then "came out of the house, calm as a cucumber, like nothing had ever happened," Carnes remembered.

"I'm leaving you," she told him. "I'm going to go get boxes, and I'm leaving you."

Carnes dropped off her friend and called her mother, crying. She made plans to meet her mother at Martinez's house to gather her belongings. But when Carnes arrived first, her boyfriend came out to the driveway. "He was very sweet to me, very nice," she recalled.

"Oh, I'm so sorry that this happened, and if you want to leave, I completely understand," she remembered him saying.

"Well, I'm just going to wait for my mom," she told Martinez. "I don't want to go into the house until she gets here."

Martinez stood in the driveway, talking gently to Carnes; then he suddenly yelled: "Come here, motherfucker!" Martinez grabbed her by the neck and pulled her into the garage. Carnes screamed.

She heard something from behind her.

"Hey, what the hell do you think you're doing to her?" a neighbor said as he ran into the garage.

That startled Martinez. He loosened his grip. Carnes broke free, ran down the street, and hid beneath hedges, crouching in silence and fear. Later, she heard the neighbor's voice.

"It's all right," he told her. "You can come out now."

Martinez was arrested and charged with domestic violence and aggravated battery. He bonded out of jail the next day. But he wasn't finished with Carnes. In the following days, she received letters and flowers at work and at her mother's home, some with nice messages, others threatening.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson