The ‘pistol-packing, jail-breaking expert’ Galveston couldn’t contain

A view down Broadway, sometime in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of the Galveston and Texas History Center, Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas)

A view down Broadway, sometime in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of the Galveston and Texas History Center, Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas)

At about 10 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 28, 1952, two teens swaggered into Galli’s grocery store and tavern at 3228 M ½. Nicodemo Areanas San Miguel, 17, pulled a gun from the waistband of his pants and demanded money. Instead of emptying the cash register, Nick Galli came out from behind the counter waving a knife. San Miguel shot him once in the chest and the boys fled in the car they’d stolen hours earlier.

Galveston police set up a roadblock at the causeway but it was too late. San Miguel and his 14-year-old accomplice, Santos Guiterrez Valdez, had already made it to the mainland.They drove as far as Dickinson, where they quickly got lost. Rather than hunker down and wait for daylight, the boys knocked on the door of a nearby house and asked the way back to Galveston. The homeowner, Jack Milton, got suspicious and summoned his neighbor, Charlie Mills, who called police. They held the boys at gunpoint until officers arrived.

San Miguel and Valdez quickly confessed, admitting to stealing the car and robbing the Esenel Hotel on Seawall Boulevard—where they got $1—before killing 49-year-old Galli. Police also suspected San Miguel of stealing three rifles from Lack’s Hardware on Winnie three weeks earlier. The teen at first tried to claim he was 15, but the birth certificate in his wallet said he was old enough to be charged and tried as an adult.

A judge found Valdez mentally deficient and ordered him sent to an institution for juvenile offenders. San Miguel went to the Galveston County Jail. On March 16, he had a visitor. A few hours later, he sawed through two bars of his second-story cell and shimmied down the drainpipe to freedom.

Jack Milton and Charlie Mills, who helped capture San Miguel after he murdered Nick Galli. (The Galveston Daily News)

Jack Milton and Charlie Mills, who helped capture San Miguel after he murdered Nick Galli. (The Galveston Daily News)

Galveston County Sheriff Frank Biaggne feared San Miguel would flee to Harlingen, where his uncle had a ranch, and from there cross the border into Mexico. Investigators interviewed family members and had officers in South Texas on the lookout, but the teen had vanished. After five long weeks, Biaggne figured his fugitive was long gone.

But at about 10:15 p.m. on April 22, San Miguel showed up at the Gatesville School for Boys, a reform home for teens about 40 miles west of Waco. He confronted the attendant at gunpoint and demanded he release 16-year-old Allexandro Agguerie. Biaggne later told the Galveston Daily News that Agguerie didn’t want to go but San Miguel forced him to leave.

The teens took off, headed north through Gatesville, where a local police officer spotted a car speeding through town. He gave chase and quickly figured out the car held the two fugitives. Well-armed locals joined police to track down the teens, who eventually ran off the road about 8 miles north of town. Hiding in the brush along the road, the boys listened to the search posse gathering nearby. When Agguerie heard the dogs start to bark and howl, he decided to turn himself in. Police found him wandering down the road.

But San Miguel wasn’t giving up without a fight. When the searchers got close to where he lay concealed in the tall grass, he ordered them to stop or he would shoot. The odds were not in his favor. The nearly 50 men surrounding him opened fire. Shotgun pellets rained down around him. One grazed his head, but he refused to move. When another crashed into his elbow, he’d had enough. The officers who arrested him couldn’t believe he was still alive.

Biaggne came to Gatesville to bring San Miguel back to Galveston. On the long drive home, San Miguel willingly told the story of his five weeks on the run. After leaving the jail, he’d gone to his sister’s house on the island. He claimed he wasn’t at all worried about being caught. The next day he visited some friends in Houston who advised him not to stick around. So, he hitchhiked to Laredo, changed his name to Lewis Gonzales, and started looking for work. He found a job as a busboy at a Laredo hotel, where he worked for almost a month.

“It gave me a kick to see people pass me on the street never looking twice or realizing that there was a reward for me,” he told the sheriff.

When he grew tired of Laredo, San Miguel hitchhiked to Temple, where he bought a .38-caliber automatic for $23 and stole the car he used to drive to Gatesville. In retelling San Miguel’s sensational story, The Daily News played up the “most gruesome” part. Before escaping from the Galveston jail, San Miguel had a cross tattoo on the bridge of his nose and letters spelling out “LOVE” on the knuckles of his left hand. When he was recaptured, he only had scars in those spots. He told the sheriff he had taken a match and burned them off.

When they asked if it hurt, he just smiled.

Galveston jailers kept a close eye on San Miguel this time around, but that didn’t prevent him from trying to escape again. Officials told The Daily News they “had to take everything away from him because he even tried to break a window with a bar of soap.” In June, San Miguel was transferred to the Galveston State psychopathic hospital for evaluation.

In July, a Galveston County jury found him insane and incapable of standing trial for Galli’s murder. The chief defense witness was James A. Turman, a clinical psychologist who treated San Miguel when he was in Gatesville. He first arrived at the boys home in June 1950. In 10 months, he escaped four times. Apparently tired of trying to keep him locked up, officials released him in April 1951 on indefinite furlough. He was back in November, and during the next three months he escaped four more times. Turman examined San Miguel during his Gatesville stay and described him as a “disturbed child.” He found him to have “severe traumatic neurosis” accompanied by hallucinations. The teen once tried to commit suicide by throwing himself head-first down a flight of stairs.

The judge sent him to the Rusk State Hospital in mid July 1952.

Six months later he was back in Galveston and ready to stand trial. Testimony lasted for less than a full day. Prosecutors asked for the death penalty. San Miguel’s attorneys mounted an insanity defense. After deliberating for four hours, the jury found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

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