The boy who
There was no one to protect Marco Flores, and, just 9 when it started, he couldn’t protect himself. But then one day he realized that others he loved were in danger, and that it was up to him — up to him to end it.
This story is based on extensive court and police documentation, including Marco Flores’s recorded confession to police and his video recording of the murder, which was viewed by the Globe with permission of the court. Dialogue in quotation marks was taken from recorded source material. All other dialogue was reconstructed from the recollections of the speaker and, where possible, corroborated by another person participating in the conversation. Flores was interviewed many times in prison and by phone.
Fury rising inside him, Marco Flores gathered what he would need.
A choke chain he’d bought for the pit bull his mother made him give away; an all-in-one tool with folding knife blades; and a Flip video camera, so no matter what happened to him, the world would know.
He picked up the camera and aimed it at himself.
“Today is the day,” he said. “I’m off now. I’m gonna go for a bliss walk, then I’m gonna go head down there.”
He paused, his deep brown eyes looking away for an instant then back. “Enjoy your day.”
It was a warm summer evening, May 22, 2011. A week earlier, Marco, 17, had walked across the street to his neighbor’s basement apartment. There, he’d caught a glimpse of something that unsettled him.
What is that picture? Marco asked.
Nothing, Jaime Galdamez replied.
Lying atop a stack of photos, it had looked at first to Marco like an ordinary snapshot, one that might have been taken at any of the countless family cookouts or get-togethers where Jaime, a 31-year-old dishwasher at a downtown pizza joint, was always included. He had been, when Marco was small, his after-school baby sitter, a friend so entwined with the Flores family that they considered him one of their own.
Marco walked back across the street to the neat, slate-colored duplex in East Boston where his family lived. He didn’t sleep that night, or the next. He couldn’t get the picture out of his mind, of his 6-year-old nephew, smiling and affectionate, on Jaime’s lap.
Marco thought he knew what the picture meant. No, he knew exactly what it meant.
Sitting in his room, blasting the angriest music he could find, Marco started to plan. He pored over a copy of “Forensic Science: An Introduction to Scientific and Investigative Techniques” that he had found in his biology classroom. With the camera, he recorded himself talking through the idea coming together in his head.
He knew what he had to do. There would be plenty of time later, for him and for others, to worry about whether it was right.
“Today at 6 p.m., I’m going to begin my mission,” he said. “It all ends tonight.”
Long before that day — before he even came to America — Marco Tulio Flores had felt twice abandoned. His father disappeared when Marco was too young to remember. When he was 3, his mother left the small Salvadoran city of Metapan, where they lived, for the United States. She left him in his 14-year-old brother Oscar’s care and promised that one day she would send for them.
She became a figment of Marco’s memory, a sweet voice on the phone from somewhere far away and the name on packages that came in the mail. A Red Sox jersey. Stuffed animals. To remind himself what she looked like, he would go find the photograph they kept of her, take it from its envelope, and stare at the image, a very tall woman standing in a doorway.
On a sunny day when Marco was 6, Oscar took him from the countryside where they lived to a small plaza in the city. There, a middle-aged woman and a younger man waited for them with a car. Oscar took his brother by the hand and led him to them.
You’re going to see Mom, Oscar said. He put the boy in the car with the strangers. Marco bawled with fear.
You’ll be OK, Oscar said.
The strangers drove Marco to a village, where they put him in a new car, with new companions. It went on that way, from car to car and village to village.
Somewhere in Mexico, new people put Marco on a plane with another boy bound for the United States. When the plane landed in Boston, Marco walked off the jetway and saw, beaming at him, a small, round woman wearing a sweat shirt with a big Boston “B.” He did not recognize her. She swept him in her arms, laughing and crying.
She noticed his two front teeth missing.
You look taller in your picture, he said, and she laughed harder.
Outside, there was snow. The size of the buildings in the skyline awed him.
None of it held his attention.
I’m with my mom, he said to himself, repeating the words as they drove to his new home in East Boston. I can’t believe I’m with my mom.
Marco’s mother tried to make up for lost time, spending every minute she could with the boy. She took him rollerblading at Revere Beach, or to play soccer in the park. When it snowed, she leapt with him into big piles and made snow angels. Marco was full of energy and craved her attention.
Vamos, Mama, he would demand. Let’s go!
But she was gone often. She worked long hours cleaning offices in the Back Bay. There was rent to pay, and she was trying to save for the future, for something better for her children. And she had to save for Oscar’s passage from El Salvador.
It took two years to do that. When Oscar arrived, he moved in with his mother, brother, and sister, the eldest of the three siblings and the first to come to Boston. But the joy of the reunion quickly gave way to reality. There were more bills to pay, and Oscar soon went to work, too. He got a cleaning job like his mother and worked six days a week. She worked seven. She was there to make breakfast for Marco — café con leche and toast — and to drop him off at school. Then, she and Oscar made the trip to the glittering office buildings across the harbor, not returning until long after dark.
Marco’s mother worried about him. He was shy and didn’t know English well. He had few friends. His teachers liked his sweet, quiet demeanor, and he excelled at school when he tried. But more often than not, he would daydream and fall behind.
Marco is always in the clouds, his third-grade teacher told Marco’s mother. He’s always counting the stars.
She had managed to find people to look after him while she was at work — friends of the family, usually, but it was a constant struggle. Often, she had to pay. Once, she came home to find that the woman she’d hired had gotten Marco drunk on beer. She longed for a responsible companion for her boy. Someone who could give him the attention he needed.
It seemed almost a miracle, then, when Jaime Galdamez came into their lives.
Outside the basement apartment, where Jaime lived alone, Marco heard the TV blaring. He opened the door and stepped into the gloom and clutter.
Jaime was on the couch, staring glassily at the news on the big flat screen in the corner.
Marco sat down in a chair nearby. He moved slowly. He took the knife out of his pocket and played with it. He wanted to be menacing. He pointed the Flip camera at Jaime.
“What would you say if this was your last day?” Marco said. “Poof, you blew up. What would you say?”
They had met Jaime at the home of Oscar’s girlfriend. He said they shared a family name, Flores, and said they probably had relatives in common.
They soon discovered that not only had he come from El Salvador, but he was also from their hometown. Marco’s mother delighted in the connection.
Jaime was 21 years old then and lived down the street. He suddenly seemed to cross their paths every day. When Marco and his mother walked out the door of their house many mornings, he often happened to be passing, beefy and rosy-cheeked, quick to say hello.
Oh, what a coincidence, he would say. How are you doing?
Soon, he was visiting the house. When Marco’s mother came from the grocery store, he was there to help lug the bags inside or to watch Marco skate in the street while she rested inside. When she struggled in halting English to communicate with the cable company, he took the phone. She thought of him as another son.
It made perfect sense to say yes when Jaime eventually offered to baby-sit for free. By the time Marco was 9, the boy’s mother was calling Jaime three or four times a week, asking whether he could be at their apartment when Marco got home from soccer practice.
The two fell into a routine on those days: Sweaty and muddy from the soccer field, Marco would shower, change in his bedroom, then come out to while away the evening with Jaime, playing video games and eating the pupusas Marco’s mother had left for them.
One afternoon in the spring, after Marco showered and changed, he returned to his bedroom and found Jaime inside. His back to Marco, Jaime was reaching for something behind the dresser. Marco lowered his gaze to the floor and saw what had dropped there. A video camera.
What are you doing? Marco asked.
Jaime’s face flushed, and he began to stammer. Marco was confused. He started to speak, but Jaime talked over him, raising his voice.
Your mother will be really upset if you tell her, he said. She will think you’re lying and get mad at you.
The words stopped Marco. They stayed in his mind that day and for a long time. Jaime must have hidden the camera and filmed him while he changed clothes. The thought filled the fourth-grader with revulsion. But what if Jaime was right? What if his mother blamed Marco? What if she didn’t like him anymore? What if she went away? As the days went by, Marco felt sickened and afraid. But he said nothing, and so each new day when Marco returned from practice, Jaime was there to greet him.
In the dark of the basement apartment, Jaime’s blank face was lit by the glow of the TV screen as he lay on the couch. Looking at him, Marco’s rage mounted.
After a few minutes, he got up and slipped the dog chain around Jaime’s neck. “Your new chain,” he said.
Jaime didn’t react.
“Are you OK, Jaime?” Marco said, his voice thick and mocking.
“I’m fine,” Jaime said, pointedly staring at the TV. “You?”
“Are you OK?” Marco said again.
“No, you’re not,” Marco said. “You’re sick in the head.”
Gradually, even after he was caught with the camera, Jaime regained Marco’s trust. Whatever he had been doing that day in Marco’s bedroom didn’t happen again, and by the time Marco turned 10 that fall, Jaime was baby-sitting every day. He bought ice cream and cheap toys. Sometimes Marco would stay at Jaime’s apartment until his mother or brother came home from work.
On one of those cold afternoons, after they had watched TV in silence for a while, Jaime led Marco into his bedroom. Dusk was gathering outside the window, and in the murky darkness, Jaime guided him to the bed and told him to lie down. Marco’s heart pounded as Jaime knelt before him. He felt like a car was about to hit him.
Don’t worry, Jaime whispered. I’m not going to hurt you. You’re going to like this.
When it was over, Marco jumped off the bed and ran to the door, fumbling in the dark for the handle. When his hand finally found it, he flung the door open and ran, sobbing, toward home. His mother. He wanted his mother.
But she wasn’t home. No one was. When Marco reached the front steps, Jaime caught up with him and grabbed him by the shoulders.
Don’t worry, he said. Everything is going to be fine. Just don’t tell your mother.
He didn’t. And now, when Marco got home from school in the afternoon, Jaime drew him into a bedroom and cooed that the oral sex he performed on Marco was normal. It was love.
This is what friends do, Jaime said.
Marco shut his eyes and silently prayed: I wish he would go away. I wish he would disappear.
The years passed. He turned 11, then 12. On his birthdays, Jaime was there to help celebrate. He bought expensive gifts. Marco came home one day to find a brand new orange-and-black bicycle on the porch. There was a card on it: “For Marco.”
Later, there was a DVD player, an Apple computer, a cellphone, a new bike to replace the old one.
“You’re spoiling him,” Marco’s mother objected. But the gifts kept coming.
Marco could make no sense of any of it. He felt sickened by shame and helplessness but also wondered whether it was true what Jaime said, that this was what love was like.
He grew sullen and removed and performed badly at school.
Many afternoons, he went to the living room and turned the TV to Animal Planet for his favorite show. He watched transfixed as the man in safari khakis bounded up trees or plunged into oceans or rivers of mud in pursuit of deadly animals that snapped and writhed in his grip. “Crikey!” the man would exclaim merrily after a close call. Marco wanted to crawl into the TV scene so he could be there, too, so those animals could attack him, and he could fight back.
Jaime was sitting up on a chair now, Marco in front of him with the camera inches from Jaime’s face.
“So, what did you do? You didn’t try to kiss me when I was a little boy? Did you not succeed with that? Answer the question. What did you do?”
Jaime watched Marco carefully. At last, he said in a quiet voice, “I loved you.”
The girl with the ponytail was gregarious and pretty. She laughed at everything, talked to everyone. Marco watched her in the after-school program he’d signed up for, where instructors taught study skills and how to play tennis. He saw in her confidence and poise, everything he wanted.
He was 13 now. Jaime didn’t come after him as often but was still a regular presence at the house, doing Marco’s laundry, cleaning his room, cooking for him.
Marco felt liberated by his feelings for this new girl. Those feelings were also a revelation. For years, Jaime had acidly warned Marco to avoid girls, telling him they were no good. Once, he yanked Marco from a friend’s 13th birthday party because girls were there. He regularly called numbers listed on the family’s phone bills to see whether any girls answered.
But the girl with the ponytail did not seem at all like the horrible creatures Jaime described. She and Marco talked and grew close. One day, he took her hand and told her he loved her.
Soon, she was spending time at Marco’s house and coming to family cookouts. Jaime ignored her. But one afternoon, when she and Marco were in his room, thinking they were alone in the quiet house, there was a sudden thunder of pounding on the door and a shriek of rage. Jaime burst into the room and grabbed Marco by his shirt and shook him violently, shouting in Spanish.
Puta! he bellowed at her. Whore!
Marco pleaded with him: Calm down. It’s OK.
Marco took the girl’s arm and rushed outside. Frightened, she asked him what the outburst was about.
Marco lied: He was just mad at me for taking some money he’d left on the counter.
The girl didn’t believe him, but Marco offered nothing more.
Marco hated the lie, hated all the lies he had to tell to protect his secret. He wished he could blurt out everything. But he just couldn’t.
“You have pictures of [him],” Marco said, referring to his nephew. His mocking tone was gone. He was serious now. He felt deadly. Marco told Jaime to get the pictures, and the man got up, retrieved a stack of photos and handed it over. Marco flipped through. There were pictures of other boys but not his nephew.
“I saw the photos . . . in here,” Marco demanded. “Where are they?”
“I don’t have photos of him,” Jaime said, looking away, as Marco replied:
“You would take that to the grave with you? You would die for that answer?”
The panic attacks began when Marco was in the ninth grade. One day, leaving school after class, his book bag on his back, his heart started to race, thumping hard. Sweat soaked his shirt. His mind became a whirl — a jumble of mental pictures and feelings of terror and rage. He glimpsed his reflection in a car window and didn’t recognize himself.
He began to run, across the street and into a park where there was a baseball diamond. He sprinted furiously around it, pumping his arms, the book bag jostling on his back. He counted 17 laps before losing track. He kept running until his body couldn’t do it anymore.
Afterward, he resolved to get stronger. He joined a Planet Fitness down the street and furiously lifted weights. He signed up for preenlistment training for high school students that the Marines organized on Boston Common.
Twice a week, he met the group at a McDonald’s on Tremont Street and then endured the grueling drills — push-ups, sit-ups, long runs along the Charles River, wind sprints. Sometimes after he was done, when he got back to East Boston, he went to the gym and worked out more.
He started smoking a lot of marijuana, too. In the high, he found relief. His mother smelled it wafting from his room and confronted him. Marco lashed back, screaming so fiercely at her that Oscar would intervene.
Then Marco would go quiet and stare at the floor, tears rolling down his face.
What is wrong? Oscar asked.
Jaime looked afraid now.
“Marco,” he beseeched.
“Pervert,” Marco spat and then took a breath. “So when I was younger, what the f--- did you do, huh? What did you do to me?”
“I am a person who loved you, that’s all,” Jaime said softly.
“Oh, it’s just me?” Marco shuffled through the stack of pictures. “How many boys are there? How many little kids are you f---ing messing with?”
“No,” Jaime said. “I swear. I never hurt you. I never mistreated you.”
“That what you just said?” Marco shot back. “Is that what you just said?”
Jaime looked down. After a long while, his voice barely above a whisper, he said: “I had sex with you.”
Marco choked up and started to sob.
“Are you happy to see me like this?” Marco said. “You like seeing me cry? Cry, Jaime. Cry, cry with me.”
Jaime’s words were muffled. “Inside,” he said.
“Oh, you’re crying on the inside, “ Marco replied. “I want to see it on the outside.”
For two years, Marco had managed, for the most part, to keep his distance from Jaime.
But then one evening in early May 2011, he walked over to Jaime’s apartment. He had no reason for going, nothing he could name — only that another flood of panic and fury was washing over him. He knocked on the door. Jaime was alone.
Why did you do this to me? Marco demanded. Jaime stared blankly back.
Don’t you know what you did to me? Marco said. Don’t you know how you messed with my head?
Jaime still only stared.
Marco slugged him, hard, and the big man fell. Marco jumped on him and punched again and again as Jaime writhed under him and buried his face in his upraised arms. Marco reached into his pocket and brought out a knife. He flicked open the blade, held the handle in his fist, and raised it to plunge.
Jaime’s terrified eyes stared up at him. Marco cursed and jammed the knife into a cheap plastic drawer case next to him. He got to his feet, pulled out the knife, and left.
Marco and Jaime crossed paths from time to time in the days after that and greeted one another coolly. Neither said anything about what had happened, and Marco focused his attention on school.
He had proposed a project, a video montage of student accomplishments. It was a great idea, his teachers said. But he needed a digital camera. The only person he could think of who had one was Jaime.
When Marco knocked on the door, Jaime let him in. He told Marco he could have the camera and went to the TV console to open the little safe he kept there. It was then that Marco saw the picture of his nephew, Oscar’s son, on Jaime’s lap, and the stack of other photographs underneath it. It was then that his mind began to stir, leading him, in the sleepless nights that followed, to this: He wasn’t the only one. He had to protect his nephew. And he needed something else.
Jaime had to tell the world what he had done, and to say out loud that it was not Marco’s fault.
A few days later, Marco was ready once again to walk across the street.
At last, it was time.
Marco moved closer to Jaime. He took hold of one end of the choke chain around Jaime’s neck and tugged on it, drawing it tight.
Jaime seemed resigned. He asked Marco not to stab him, that the pain would be too much. Marco led him to a chair in front of a mirror and told him to sit facing it.
“Look at yourself,” Marco said. “You don’t like what you see?”
“Good. I don’t like what I see, either . . . I see somebody who’s a threat to my family.”
He bound Jaime’s wrists with duct tape and put a strip over his mouth, then jerked hard on the chain until Jaime went slack.
He dragged the body onto a bed, doused it with charcoal lighter fluid, then went home to wait. When it was light and he believed Jaime’s neighbors would be awake and able to escape, he crept back and dropped a lighted match through the window. He wanted nothing to remain of his tormentor but ash.
Someone called 911 in a panic. There were flames coming from the basement apartment.
Firefighters were there in minutes, rushing through the alley, breaking down the back door. Through the flame and thick black smoke, one of the firemen made out a figure on the burning mattress.
Cap, he called out. We got a body.
Police would work all day and into the night picking through the ashes and photographing bits of possible evidence: a charred bottle of Kingsford lighter fluid, a roll of duct tape, similar to the tape that bound the wrists and covered the mouth of the victim. It was plainly a homicide, but there were few meaningful clues about who did it or why.
In time, investigators would have plenty of evidence: Marco’s video, which captured almost everything, hundreds of photographs and transcripts taken from the hard drive of a computer that Jaime used. But by 2 a.m., the detectives working the case were far from done and exhausted after hours at the crime scene.
The lead detective was just falling into bed when his phone rang. It was the supervisor at the East Boston station telling him that a quiet 17-year-old boy wanted to speak with him. When the detective and his partner arrived, Marco was sitting at a table in the station’s roll call room. He said he would tell them everything.
Marco had already confessed to Oscar and to his mother, who screamed and wept. Oscar said he should go to the police. Marco agreed. There was no reason to stay silent anymore.
The confession checked out in every detail. As the investigation unfolded, it became clear to authorities that Jaime had done what Marco said he had, and more. Federal investigators, it turned out, had been tracking child pornography being sent from and received on Jaime’s computer. They had been close to filing a search warrant for his Saratoga Street basement apartment.
When forensic specialists examined Jaime’s computer’s hard drive, they found hundreds of images and videos of 10- to 13-year-old boys and some 50,000 lines of encrypted chat that included his tactics for manipulating young boys and “warming them up a little” to plant the seed of sexual desire. Ten-year-olds are especially susceptible, he wrote. “They will ask for it.”
He described in detail his methods for succeeding with young boys, especially Marco. Not long before Jaime died, he posted a picture of Marco as a child. “He was so beautiful then,” he wrote. He also wrote that among the many children he knew, “There are some good ones coming up,” including Marco’s nephew.
The case took two years to come to court. Prosecutors initially charged Marco with first-degree murder, which carries a life sentence. At a hearing in May 2013, Assistant District Attorney Ian Polumbaum told the judge that they had reached a deal with Marco’s court-appointed lawyer, James Budreau, to reduce the charge to manslaughter. Budreau had filed motions detailing how he planned to defend the teenager — a jury would hear of the trauma Marco suffered, the story of a broken boy driven to kill.
They all agreed that Marco believed he had acted to safeguard his nephew in the only way he could.
“Killing Mr. Galdamez, in his own mind, was the only way to protect the child,” Polumbaum told the judge.
Still, Marco had killed a man. And though he had waited until daylight to light the fire, he still endangered two families living on the upper floors of the building, Polumbaum said. There had to be consequences.
Marco was sentenced to 15 years.
Now, at the Souza-Baranowski maximum security prison in Shirley, Marco plays chess, watches PBS, and reads voraciously. The inmates who know his story treat him kindly. So do the correctional officers. His mother comes regularly to see him. His old girlfriend with the ponytail comes, too, on occasion.
Marco doesn’t like to talk about the murder, but when asked, he does so in a measured, uninflected tone. And he will reflect, up to a point, on the fact that he took a human life.
“Killing someone is never worth it,” he says. “But I don’t feel bad for him. I feel he was a very bad person. It’s not like he tried to seek help. He chose to do it. I’m not saying I don’t have remorse. But I don’t feel sad for him passing away.”
When he’s scheduled to be released in 11 years, Marco will be 32. Because he is not a citizen and pleaded guilty to a felony, he will probably be deported to El Salvador.
He tries to use his time in prison well. He talks to a therapist when she is available, about once a month, working to unwind the damage of those years. Still, sometimes the rage boils up again, so fiercely he’ll fall to the ground and do push-ups until his arms collapse. He knows he has lost something of himself, never to be recovered.
And sometimes the old wish comes back, of one day going out into a jungle, a hero taking on a dangerous beast. In his imagination, he always wins.