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Tag: George Torres

How the Fed’s Case Against a Suspected LA Gangster Imploded After Convicting Him on 50-Plus Counts

George Torres/la city beat photo
George Torres/la city beat photo

By Jeffrey Anderson

The defense lawyer for accused racketeer George Torres smelled blood. Torres, a self-made grocery store magnate and suspected drug kingpin, who was both feared and revered in the barrios of South Los Angeles, was on trial in federal court.

Prosecution witnesses were lined up waiting to testify that he was a brutal gangster, who exploited immigrants, cheated on his taxes and ordered gangland murders.

Yet at the trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in April it was Torres’ attorney, Steven Madison, a former federal prosecutor, who went on the offensive, insisting that a rogue L.A. detective had a vendetta against his client.

The detective, Greg Kading, was making promises and threats to witnesses and withholding evidence from the defense in his zeal to see Torres convicted, Madison argued.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson had made no effort to hide his disdain for the government’s case that finally came to fruition after 20 years of failed drug investigations of one of Los Angeles’ most elusive underworld figures.

Still, on April 20, the jury delivered a resounding victory for the prosecution, convicting Torres on 50-plus counts including two of the most critical ones: RICO counts (Racketeering Influenced And Corrupt Organizations Act) that involved criminal conspiracy and solicitation of murder.

In June, within two months of the verdict, the case unraveled and became a growing embarrassment for the U.S. Attorney’s office. The government voluntarily dismissed the two major RICO counts after serious flaws in the case were exposed.

Judge Wilson ordered Torres released from prison, where he had been held without bail since his arrest in June 2007.  And Torres decided to sell  his grocery chain to an L.A. based equity firm with a Houston partner, according to the L.A. Business Journal.

Last month, the judge delivered the final blow to the prosecution in a blistering 147-page order: “The court is disturbed by the conduct in this case,” he wrote of the government’s handling of key witnesses involving a pair of murders allegedly directed by Torres. He then ordered a new trial on remaining tax and bribery counts for Torres, whom the government was never able to catch with drugs or drug money.

“The Court finds it likely that the jury could have been improperly influenced by the subtext of the entire case, which was that George Torres was somehow involved in drug-trafficking,” Wilson wrote in his September 18 order.

Now, despite a jury verdict that once threatened to put him away for life, Torres, a fruit truck operator turned owner of the multi-million dollar Numero Uno supermarket chain and vast swaths of real estate, is a free man.

The case is perhaps another cautionary tale of how complex cases can go so wrong for a U.S. Attorney’s Office.

But the big question is: How did this one implode?

The Los Angeles media followed Madison’s lead and blamed L.A.P.D. Det. Greg Kading, the lead investigator on the case. The reality is far more complicated: a perfect storm of questionable witnesses, fallible detectives and a bold strategy advanced by Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Searight, who succumbed to an unusually assertive and skeptical judge.

The outcome has been a clear embarrassment for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and tarnished both Kading, who was dropped from the DEA task force, and Searight, chief of his offices’ narcotics division, who was replaced on the case by a superior.

Neither Searight nor Kading would comment for this story. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says it is prepared to re-try Torres on the non-RICO counts.

Torres’ attorney Robert Eisfelder remarked: “We’re extremely grateful for the time and effort the court put into this opinion.”

For decades, law enforcers suspected Torres as a drug kingpin with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, a Mexican organization known to have tentacles in Southern California.

Unsolved murders in the graffiti-scarred area around his flagship Numero Uno supermarket in South Los Angeles, along with an eerie deference by the locals, caused L.A. homicide detectives to regard him as a dangerous man.

Torres’ tendency to use coded language over the phone when talking to associates who were major drug traffickers, his preference to meet them to talk in person, and his use of a Puerto Rican bank known for its lack of cooperation with government investigations convinced drug investigators that he was a kingpin.

A father of five with a wife and a female companion who both bear his last name, Torres also earned a reputation for hard work, good customer service and fair prices at his 11-store chain of supermarkets, which he launched in the early 1980s.Until his indictment he perhaps was best known as the real estate partner of Horacio Vignali, father of Carlos Vignali, a drug dealer set free by President Clinton in the 2000 Pardongate scandal.

Torres’ indictment in 2007 on RICO charges stemmed from wiretap investigations in 1998 and 2004 of two associates and drug dealers, Derrick “Bo-D” Smith and Raul Del Raul.

The two were serving lengthy sentences for drug trafficking when they agreed to testify against Torres, who Del Real referred to as “boss,” even though Del Real never worked at Numero Uno. Del Real, Smith and others would finger Torres during trial in three unsolved murders in South L.A.

But while the 2004 wiretap investigation aimed to prove Torres was involved with Del Real’s violent drug trafficking conspiracy, which extended from Mexico to the East Coast, a tap of Torres’ phone yielded evidence of other crimes. Still, investigators never seized drugs or drug money in the case.

In February, during a pretrial hearing, Judge Wilson remarked: “It’s been pretty clear to me that the government’s strategy is to try a drugless drug case. Why wouldn’t a jury who is not deaf and dumb figure that out?”

At trial, Searight decided not to focus in on Torres as drug kingpin. Instead, he embraced the idea of him as a racketeer, a man who ran his supermarkets as a criminal enterprise in which he extorted money from helpless immigrants, bribed public officials and hired drug dealers to intimidate and sometimes kill those who crossed him.

The theory was fraught from the start. Judge Wilson distrusted the government’s use of the criminal RICO statute, which was enacted in the 1970s to disrupt the activities of the Mafia. By the time the case went to trial in March, the judge put Searight on notice that he was going to watch the government like a hawk.

During the trial the judge ended up suppressing evidence, throwing out some counts and accusing L.A. Det. Kading of acting with “reckless disregard for the truth” by misquoting conversations from a wiretap on Torres’ phone in a search warrant affidavit.

Seizing on the judge’s disdain, defense attorney Madison hammered away at Detective Kading’s credibility. Tapes of jailhouse conversations showed Kading resorting to inducements and threats to keep in line star witnesses and convicted drug dealers Del Real, who was serving 14 years and Smith, who was serving 24-years.

One call showed Kading offering to help Del Real’s brother stay out of trouble with the police. Another made it look as if Kading was supplying the answers to questions for Smith to say yes to.

Madison also complained of evidence that had not been turned over, such as police logs of witness interviews. He accused Kading of being obsessed with destroying Torres, and with bribing witnesses to corroborate a phony story.

The jurors didn’t buy it, convicting on more than 50 felonies that included Torres ordering the murder of an L.A. gang member named Jose “Shorty” Maldonando, who had tried to extort a tax from him. They acquitted him on one of the serious RICO counts involving the murder of Torres’ former right hand man Ignacio Meza.

Then Madison really went to work, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office saw its case come apart at the seams.

After the trial, Madison asked Judge Wilson to toss the verdict on grounds that Kading had tainted the entire case with lawless tactics. Madison turned up more tapes of jailhouse conversations that the government had not previously disclosed involving Kading, drug dealers Smith and Del Real, and other informants.

The tapes showed Detective Kading reminding one witness that he could face charges for other crimes if he refused to testify against Torres. The tapes also showed that Del Real and Smith expected early release and perhaps financial gain for testifying against Torres. No such deals could be confirmed.

Madison also discovered that Los Angeles defense attorney Wayne Higgins, a lawyer for Smith, allegedly received a free navigational system from a used car salesman with Kading’s help. Higgins had no comment.

Under the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, a failure to turn over such information – on the part of the prosecutor – can be grounds for a new trial or dismissal if the information is favorable to the defendant and may have prejudiced the outcome of the case.

On June 9, Wilson ordered Torres released from prison, after the U.S. Attorney’s Office dismissed the RICO case against Torres.

“Torres is clearly entitled to a new trial,” Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office told reporters at the time. “And after a review of the totality of the case we decided not to pursue the RICO case any further.”

Madison moved in for the kill, arguing that “inflammatory” racketeering evidence tainted the jury in weighing the remaining bribery and tax counts, and asking the judge to dismiss the entire case.

While the judge in his lengthy September order manages to deny most of the defense requests, he also manages to drive a stake through the heart of the United States v. Torres. And he reserves his harshest comment for federal prosecutor Searight:

“A prosecutor who does not appreciate the perils of using rewarded criminals as witnesses risks compromising the truth-seeking mission of our criminal justice system.”

Wilson ordered the new trial for the remaining non-RICO charges primarily on the spillover effect – essentially that the questionable RICO charges had tainted the other charges.

He also said the non-RICO guilty verdicts against Torres on tax, harboring illegal immigrants and bribery were based on a “weak” case and bolstered by witnesses who were “not credible” because they had not been prosecuted for their part in Torres’ tax crimes.

In issuing his order, the judge clearly had little regard or respect for the jury’s judgment. Many of his findings are prefaced with the words “No reasonable juror could conclude …” He questioned whether jurors were paying attention, or blinded by the lurid details and hardened witnesses from Torres’ inner circle.

“The jury was undoubtedly given the impression that George Torres was an unsavory character in light of his longtime friendship and associations with these despicable human beings,” Wilson wrote.

Of such a thorough undoing of such an overwhelming guilty verdict, veteran defense attorney Mike Stone, a lawyer for Detective Kading said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a case go like this.”

Asked why he thought the government dismissed the RICO counts without a fight Stone said, “I don’t think they’d have rolled over like that if they didn’t think they had a chance of keeping the other counts.”

Judge Wilson wondered the same, and speculated in his order: “Perhaps [the prosecution] concluded they could not proceed in good faith. If they had dismissed the RICO sooner, Torres would’ve enjoyed a trial that was free from the spillover prejudice of the RICO counts. Because of the government’s own failures, however, this information was not revealed until after the trial began.”

Defense attorney Steven Madison thinks he knows why the government caved. “My sense is that the government has concluded it cannot trust Kading,” he said in June, after the government dropped the meat of its case. “Searight relied on an unreliable guy.”

Madison’s focus on Detective Kading as the scapegoat in the case may have been unfair considering there were other investigators who failed to disclose certain conversations they had during the probe.

Veteran investigators familiar with the case are displeased with the way Kading has been dragged through the mud.

Speaking on background, a number of law enforcers said that Searight was cowed by the judge and was not aggressive in refuting the defense’s broadside attacks against Kading. Several said that Searight should have made sure that all Brady information was turned over to the defense.

Others see Judge Wilson as the wildcard. “A good defense attorney is going to sense a sympathetic judge and argue every technicality he can,” says a federal prosecutor familiar with the Torres case. “Federal judges are powerful. Maybe Wilson was stunned by the jury verdict. Judges can’t control jury deliberations but they control post-trial motions.”

The veteran prosecutor concedes, “It is virtually impossible to control every asset or agent in a case, and sometimes the cumulative effect can look bad.”

Not to mention the value of a stellar defender who appreciates when conditions are ripe for upheaval: “Madison kept pushing to see how far he could go in taking apart the case,” the veteran prosecutor says, “and he went pretty far.”

Read Previous stories on Torres by Jeffrey Anderson

Los Angeles City Beat (2/18/09)

Pasadena Weekly (4/2/09)

LA Weekly (6/14/07)

Read the Judge’s Ruling

L.A. Judge Drops Key Convictions in Racketeering Case After Feds Discover Tape Beneficial to Defense

George Torres

George Torres

This case was considered a tough one, which made it all the more gratifying for federal prosecutors when they emerged victorious. Now it’s an embarrassment. The prosecution said it just discovered a tape recording that was helpful to the defense. On Tuesday, the judge took action.

By Scott Glover
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
LOS ANGELES — A federal judge  today tossed out two of the most serious convictions in the racketeering case against supermarket mogul George Torres, dramatically reducing the amount of time Torres faces behind bars.

U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson ordered Torres released immediately on the condition he sign papers stating he would attend future hearings in the case.

The judge issued the order after federal prosecutors over the weekend turned over tape recordings of at least one key informant in the case that contained potentially exculpatory evidence.

The judge’s ruling marks a serious blow to prosecutors who last month won a conviction against Torres. Before the judge’s action, Torres faced a potential life sentence. With two of most serious convictions dismissed, Torres potential sentence will likely be significantly shorter. Authorities could not immediately say how much prison time he might face.

The convictions voided by Wilson were at the heart of the government’s case — racketeering and conspiracy, including murder.

For Full Story

The Suspicious LA Supermarket Mogul

George Torres

George Torres

By Jeffrey Anderson
Los Angeles City Beat
One day in October 1998, Ignacio “Nacho” Meza went to his job at Numero Uno grocery store, a block from his family’s home in South L.A., and then vanished.

His disappearance remains a mystery in the barrios surrounding the bustling turquoise-and-pink market on East Jefferson Boulevard. But police have long suspected George Torres, the man behind the Numero Uno grocery store chain, had something to do with it.

By the time Nacho Meza disappeared, government investigators had already spent years watching Torres, trying to bring him down on drug charges. That effort failed. But after Meza went missing, the government swept together the loose ends of its drug investigation ➤ into a 60-page indictment against Torres, including charges of racketeering, public corruption, and conspiracy to murder Nacho Meza – among others. The United States of America v. George Torres-Ramos is scheduled to begin in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on March 10.

The indictment includes a bewildering number of names and charges – robberies, extortions, bribes, frauds – and the government’s assertion that George Torres is friends with murderers and drug runners. Former employees and associates will testify that Torres is a brutal man, even a killer, who sought to protect a criminal enterprise that was both profitable and fearsome.

But will the government be able to prove it?

“I’ve heard the stories, listened to hours of wiretapped conversations and read more reports than I can count,” says the man who will prosecute the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Searight, chief of the office’s narcotics division. “But I have never met a person who can put George Torres in a room with large amounts of drugs or drug money.”

So Searight turned to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, to charge Torres with criminal acts going back some 22 years. According to a transcript of a recent hearing before a skeptical U.S. District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson, the result is a list of disparate charges built loosely around a theory Searight has no intention of proving: that Torres financed drug deals or laundered the proceeds of those drug deals through his supermarkets.

The RICO statute is broad, and flexible. It allows prosecutors to stitch together typically white-collar crimes – such as bank fraud or mail fraud – with murder, as long as it all relates to a central racketeering enterprise. Enacted in 1970, RICO was designed to give law enforcement a blunt tool with which to destroy the Mafia.

In the Torres case it is being used as a vehicle to prosecute a wealthy grocery store owner.

Torres will mount a formidable defense. Though his attorneys have refused City Beat’s numerous requests for interviews, it’s clear from court documents they’ll argue that the case against their client is a hodgepodge of unsubstantiated allegations, cobbled together by overzealous investigators obsessed with Torres. They say the stocky 51-year-old grocer is a hardworking father of seven with a rags-to-riches biography that began with a fruit truck and ended up with the Numero Uno grocery store chain, vast swaths of real estate on the south and eastside of L.A., dozens of houses and a Santa Ynez ranch.

In the shadows of downtown, in crime-ravaged South L.A., it’s hard to find a wall, corner store or panel truck that gangs haven’t tagged. Ramshackle Victorian homes, chipped stucco bungalows with bars on the windows and commercial strips of bodegas, check cashing stores and carnicerias: welcome to L.A.P.D.’s Newton Division.

Over 30 years, George Torres built an empire here.

Torres was born in Tijuana in 1957 to farm workers from Michoacan, Mexico. He has lived or worked in this neighborhood most of his life. Because his father, alleged in court documents to be a brothel owner and gun smuggler, urged him to give up school early and take up the family’s produce route, Torres barely reads at a grade-school level. When he was a teenager, he sold fruit from a truck and by going door to door.

“We called him ‘Fruit Boy’ – at least if you knew him well enough you could,” said a woman we’ll call Estella; she asked that we not use her real name. She runs a little business near Maple Avenue, where Torres owns Los Amigos Mall, a yellow- and purple-painted swap meet that includes an arcade, a food court, armed security guards and stalls of vendors reminiscent of a Mexican border town.

What if you didn’t know him well enough? “You’d get your ass kicked,” said Estella.

Torres’ work ethic earned him the approval of the Flores family, owners of El Tapatio grocery stores. In 1974, Torres met his future wife, Roberta, and the couple married in 1976. In the early 1980s, with a loan from Flores and Roberta, Torres rehabbed a liquor store at the corner of Jefferson Boulevard and San Pedro Street, and stocked it with meat and produce. He called it Numero Uno. Later he opened 10 others, including stores in Cypress Park and South El Monte.

His stores are known for cleanliness and order, with no tolerance for misconduct or theft. “The employees are clean, not with baggy pants and attitude,” Estella said.

Despite the charges Torres faces, Estella is impressed with him. He’s got more than 600 employees and a chain of stores worth tens of millions of dollars, and some four dozen residential and commercial properties scattered around South L.A.

“I’ve got nothing negative to say,” she said. “If the community asked something of him, he’d respond or send someone on his behalf. He gave out food at Halloween and Thanksgiving. He goes out of his way to serve a low-income community. He had heart for the neighborhood. He opened doors to people, even gang bangers. If they burned a bridge, then it was too bad.”

Nacho Meza fit that description. A member of the Latin Hustlers gang, he had been indicted in federal court in Alabama for drug conspiracy when he disappeared. For years before he went missing, Nacho was Torres’ right-hand man. Torres set him up with Buckets, a car wash near the original Numero Uno market. Nacho, his wife and children lived in a house owned by Torres, in Downey. Law enforcement records state that Nacho used the same private jet service to transport drugs that Torres flew to Vegas to gamble.

The government’s case against Torres turns, in part, on this series of events: In 1997, Nacho’s drug activities blew up in Alabama and he went into debt. Government informants say he got desperate. One of those informants, Nacho’s former drug-dealing associate, says he and Nacho stole half a million in cash from Numero Uno one night in March 1998. The indictment says Torres retaliated by seeking to have Nacho killed.

Once Nacho was gone, Raul Del Real, his former partner at Buckets, became Torres’ right-hand man. With Torres’ help, Del Real, known as “Ra-Ra,” opened his own car wash, called the Real Deal. But like Nacho, who law enforcement documents state was deep into the drug game, Del Real, a member of the Ghetto Boyz gang who used to show up at Numero Uno frequently and meet in private with Torres, was also a dope trafficker – a violent one.

A tape-recorded conversation at L.A. County Jail on December 26, 2002, suggests that Del Real was involved in gang killings. According to a transcript of the conversation, and law enforcement reports, “a known Mexican Mafia shot caller” named Armando Ochoa tells Del Real, “My homeboys killed Lefty and now you guys got one of my homies, so let’s just call it that, right there.” A separate wiretapped conversation shows Del Real pondering his violent nature and telling his sister, “I broke a guy today.”

In 2005, Del Real pleaded guilty in a major L.A.-to-Baltimore drug conspiracy case and was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. But not before he agreed to testify against his old friend George Torres.

Estella came up in this neighborhood with Nacho and Ra-Ra; she said she knows of no wrongdoing on their part. While she conceded that Nacho fit a drug dealer profile, she said Ra-Ra, who has told investigators that Torres asked him to kill Nacho, is just a neighborhood character.

“George hired kids off the street,” she said. “They’ve all known each other since they were kids.”

Despite the fact that Del Real and several of his accomplices who are serving lengthy federal prison sentences ran a drug operation out of the Real Deal car wash, Estella said she never saw anything illegal. Indeed, she said, “I felt safer than ever when the guys were over there. Since George was arrested and the guys were sent to prison, the neighborhood has gone to shit. I lost a nephew [to gang violence]. That wouldn’t have happened if the guys were around. They kept the peace.”

Though Estella isn’t alone in focusing on Torres’ largesse more than the gravity of the charges he faces, she’s among his more ardent supporters.

“What is this petty crap about racketeering?” she said. “What is it about our justice system? You can’t come up so fast, so strong and be a Mexican? Everyone knows the United States is not founded on the bible, eh?” Businessmen like George Torres should be left alone, she argued. “People in this community think highly of him because of his accomplishments. He is an excellent father. He is never rude to people. I’ve never seen him dealing drugs, never seen a violent side.”

And then she lays out what could be the defense strategy: George Torres’ only crime is that he’s too kind, too loyal. If anything, she said, Torres is being maligned for his generosity, for reaching out to people like Del Real and Meza.

“They are who they are and we come from where we come from,” she said. “It’s part of the Hispanic character that you don’t get too big for your britches. George hasn’t forgotten his roots. Around here, he’ll be judged on that.”

Last fall, with his family in the second row of the gallery behind him, George Torres conferred with one of his lawyers in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson. Being stuck behind bars since his arrest in 2007 and watching helplessly as the government seized millions of dollars of his assets has altered Torres’ demeanor. His face betrayed an earnestness that wasn’t there when he was first arrested.

Civil attorney Robert Eisfelder, a longtime advisor to Torres, greeted Torres’ children and Torres’ longtime companion, Dolores Notti, who goes by “Dee Torres” and lives in a house in Arcadia owned by Torres and his wife Roberta. A young boy and girl were seated on either side of Dee Torres, and next to the young boy was Torres’ oldest son Steven, a protégé likely to inherit the Numero Uno chain, but for the fact that he too is charged with violent crimes in aid of the alleged racketeering enterprise.

Before court began, Torres turned and smiled warmly at his family. He offered a nod of encouragement to Stevie and a regretful shrug to his younger son. Torres, who turns 52 this month, still has most of his hair and deep laugh lines. He exudes charisma, even in his white prison jumpsuit with his hands cuffed beneath the table. Under different circumstances it is easy to see how his presence could be comforting, if not mesmerizing to a child.

Steven, or “Stevie,” is Torres’ oldest son by his marriage to Roberta Torres – who was not in court that day. In his gray suit, white shirt and tie, and with his arm draped over his younger half-sibling, he remained impassive throughout the hearing. Police once listened to a father-son conversation on a wiretapped call, during which Torres gave instructions on how to assault someone who threatens the family interests. “Let your daddy take care of this,” Torres told his son, according to a detention-hearing transcript.

Torres has seven children – five by Roberta Torres, who has filed for divorce, and two by Dolores Notti – and provides for them while setting an example of hard work, pride and tenacity.

Yet it was hard to imagine that his children and companion who sat in court that day know and approve of the man the government has portrayed. Their bland facial expressions suggested either they have been coached or are used to hearing (and ignoring) their father described as a bully, a thug and a gangster.

Stevie was born in 1980. Another son, Brian, was born in 1983 and recently earned a masters degree from USC. Daughter Brittany, now 19, Tawny, age 15, and son Brandon, age 14, are all in school. A law enforcer familiar with Torres says he has emphasized education with all of his children. “George has made sure that his children do not end up uneducated like he did,” the law enforcer says. “He’s a very dedicated father.”

In the early days, George and Roberta Torres were true partners, as Roberta helped with bookkeeping and banking. They worked tirelessly as they opened store after store and acquired large tracts of real estate, including industrial and commercial properties and dozens of residential properties in South L.A. and neighboring cities.

With money and success came complications to Torres’ Horatio Alger story. “She put up with a lot,” Estella says of Roberta Torres, who filed for divorce in 2005 after obtaining a restraining order and gaining custody of the couple’s two minor children. “George probably isn’t the easiest person to put up with. Where you have money you have women. But Roberta helped him build his empire. There’s no doubt about that.” Through her lawyer, Roberta Torres declined to comment.

Women, however, are the least of Torres’ troubles. His association with convicted drug-traffickers, gang members and people with ties to the Mexican Mafia and drug cartels has branded him an elusive barrio-style Godfather.

“It’s true that George is a hard worker, and that he is a family man,” says a veteran narcotics detective. “But he just can’t get that ghetto out of him. He’s always hanging with lowlifes because that’s the environment he comes from.”

Part of the government’s back file on George Torres involves the notorious Reynoso family, who, according to recently unsealed investigative reports, played a key role in Torres’ imperial rise.

Family patriarch Jose Reynoso was the owner of Reynoso Brothers International, a $37 million import-export company based in City of Industry that made headlines in the mid-1990s in connection with a major drug trafficking prosecution. The family allegedly smuggled more than eight tons of cocaine between 1991 and 1993, working with Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman and Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel. The cocaine made its way through the U.S. via the Reynoso Brothers’ national food distribution network.

In 1993, Jose’s son Rene Cruz Reynoso was convicted of ordering the 1991 killing of Ronald Ordin, a Los Angeles developer and owner of the Central Wholesale Market. The investigation revealed that Ordin had threatened to evict Rene from a commercial space where Rene stored narcotics; a police report claims Rene retaliated by ordering Ordin’s murder in a drive-by on National Boulevard just off the Santa Monica Freeway in West Los Angeles.

That same year, federal prosecutors identified a member of the Reynoso family as having an interest in an Otay Mesa warehouse and canning facility situated near the end of an unfinished, 1,400-foot-long, 65-foot-deep tunnel originating in Tijuana.

Jose Reynoso was convicted in 1995 of conspiracy to traffic cocaine and was sentenced to 151 months in federal prison.

Neither Torres nor Rene Cruz Reynoso were ever charged with drug running. Government documents reviewed by City Beat identify them as alleged co-conspirators who smuggled cocaine in laundry detergent containers and jalapeño chili cans in the 1980s and 1990s, and distributed the drugs via a network of storage facilities and 18-wheel tractor-trailers. Drug Enforcement Administration reports claim that Torres worked with members of the Reynoso family to distribute 1,800 kilos of cocaine per month, at times using small customer-service buses to transport cocaine to his warehouse. Employees who saw or handled the cocaine were few and trusted, the reports state – a process so hermetically sealed that many employees were never aware of cocaine trafficking.

Despite the dramatic claims, Operation Soapbox, as the DEA investigation was called, yielded no criminal drug charges. Nor did subsequent efforts Operation Vacationer and the Robin Hood Investigation. Indeed, the government now concedes it has no evidence of Torres’ “hands-on” involvement in drug trafficking.

Yet recently unsealed wiretap affidavits, transcripts and DEA investigative reports tell a fragmented story of sanctioned killings, drive-by shootings and other violent crimes involving gang members and the drug trade, with Torres – known on the street as “Mexican George” or “G” – in the middle of it all.

The documents also show Torres using walkie-talkie phones that are hard to trace; insisting most of the time on talking in person; running cash businesses and banking with firms allegedly willing to alert him to investigations; avoiding direct contact with drugs or drug money; and allegedly threatening people who were likely to talk to police.

None of that information, however, is damning enough on its own. On the eve of trial, Searight must also rely on “the dirtiest of informants,” as Torres’ lawyers put it, to prove to a jury that Torres is an arch criminal with few peers.

But RICO statutes also permit Searight to reach as far into Torres’ past as he wants, as long he can prove a racketeering enterprise exists. Searight contends Numero Uno markets are both a front and an essential part of such an enterprise.

So far, Searight has not really said what, if not drugs, the enterprise is built on.

Santa Ana winds were blowing last September when a veteran drug task force detective took me on a ride-along through Newton Division, where the imposing Numero Uno warehouse rises like a fortress over this humble neighborhood.

“This is a real high-crime area down here,” the detective said, nodding to a group of young African Americans and Latinos who spotted him as a cop as we drove down a street lined with rundown apartments and bungalows. “George had ➤ some kind of stronghold on it.”

The detective began investigating Torres in connection with suspected drug activity in the 1980s, but is not involved in the current RICO case. We circled the block and parked across from a warehouse that stands behind a 20-foot wall with an automatic metal gate adjacent to Numero Uno on East Jefferson Boulevard. The walls of the warehouse, like the market, are turquoise with pink trim. The letters “G & R” – George and Roberta – are separated by an ampersand resembling a gun.

Rolling down the alley behind the 700 block of East Jefferson we stopped behind an auto yard covered with a tarp and surrounded by a graffiti-covered wall. Nacho Meza ran a hydraulic shop and stored dope here, according to court records. A couple blocks away, we stopped in front of the former home of Derrick “Bo-D” Smith, the drug runner turned government informant who says he and Nacho ripped off Numero Uno for half a million dollars.

In a case built around the Latino community, Smith is a rarity – an African American. He was convicted of drug trafficking in Alabama in 1999 and sentenced to 24 years in federal prison. But his criminal record dates back to the early 1980s, and includes rape, robbery and attempted murder. He’s an informant in the RICO case against Torres. According to recently unsealed investigative reports, Smith contends Meza carried out at least three killings for Torres.

In one, in 1993, a security guard who worked at Torres’ La Estrella Market on San Pedro Street was murdered. Primera Flats gang member Manuel Velasco confessed to the crime, telling detectives he shot the guard over a monetary dispute between he and Torres. (Velasco remains in prison, though he changed his story in 2004, claiming he took the rap for someone else, and that the killing had nothing to do with a monetary dispute between him and Torres.)

After the murder, the government’s case states, Torres and Meza told store employees not to speak to the police. Smith has told investigators that Nacho admitted to killing Primera Flats member Edward Carpel and injuring three others a month later, in a retaliatory drive-by shooting on East 23rd Street, around the corner from La Estrella.

Later that year, Playboys gang member Jose “Shorty” Maldonado came to Numero Uno and made extortion demands of Torres. Smith says he was at a hamburger stand outside Numero Uno with Meza and Torres when Torres turned to Meza and told him to “take care” of Shorty. Meza’s brother Jesus Meza testified before a federal grand jury on March 1, 2005, that Nacho did indeed kill Shorty, in February 1994, as Shorty was leaving a barbershop – located on property owned by Torres. Jesus testified that he drove the getaway car.

According to the government, ballistics show the same gun was used to kill Carpel and Shorty Maldonado. According to police affidavits, Smith further claims that Nacho Meza killed a third man at Torres’ behest, Roderick Chapman, in 1996.

Smith’s statements to police begin to illuminate the government’s charge that Torres eventually had Nacho murdered: Smith contends that in March 1998 he and Nacho robbed Numero Uno of $550,000 so that Nacho could pay a drug debt to former Numero Uno security guard Jose Angulo, who was dealing drugs directly for Torres. In the upside-down world of the case against George Torres, it seems Angulo knew the drug debt, which was ultimately payable to Torres, was settled with cash stolen from Torres – but he kept the money anyway.

Government documents suggest Torres smelled a rat: Interviewed after the robbery, he told detectives he suspected a former employee and that he and his associates “would take care of it themselves,” according to police reports of the interview.

A year later, on May 25, 1999, the FBI interviewed Angulo, who admitted he was Nacho Meza’s drug supplier, and confirmed that Nacho settled his drug debt shortly after the Numero Uno robbery occurred. Angulo told the FBI he never returned the money to Torres, even though he knew it belonged to him. Angulo disappeared on August 31, 1999, and has not been seen since.

Searight has yet to show his full hand, but the indictment also accuses Torres of major tax fraud—alleges he skimmed $500,000 a year from his own stores’ cash registers, and extorted money from illegal immigrants who worked for him or whom he thought stole from him. The indictment also states that Torres attempted to bribe public officials—in one case attempting to bribe former L.A. City planning commissioners Steven Carmona and George Luk into securing approval for a beer and wine permit at his Alvarado Street store. In addition to a $15,000 check, the indictment states, Torres gave Carmona a GMC pickup truck and free use of his downtown condo on West 6th Street so that Carmona could qualify as a resident of that district to become a planning commissioner. In a 2004 conversation, recorded on a wiretap, Carmona and Luk agreed to ask Torres for an additional $10,000. The government claims the pair would give that money to an “unidentified official in the Los Angeles City Council” in return for support of Torres’ alcohol permit.

A 2007 Los Angeles Times story also reported that a career prosecutor in the office of City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo received pressure from Delgadillo, in 2001, to drop criminal charges against Torres for an improper demolition of low-income apartments. The prosecutor wrote in a memo, “Rocky said he was getting a lot of pressure about this case.” Torres ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in the demolition case.

When a friend chides Torres about seeking favors from public officials, a wiretap transcript shows him responding: “Hey, pimp! What the fuck? Let me tell you something. If I did it the right way, I’d be broke, you know? You know what’s up, pimp?”

Torres’ talk appears to be more than just idle boasting. According to recently unsealed investigative reports, Albert Del Real, a convicted drug dealer, former Numero Uno employee and brother of Raul Del Real, says he saw former L.A. City Councilman Mike Hernandez receive “stacks of money” from Torres in the 1990s. Then-City Councilman Richard Alatorre brought his vehicle to Torres’ warehouse to get serviced, leading Del Real to tell investigators he believed that Torres, who did not provide automotive services, was doing favors for Alatorre.

Alatorre and Hernandez, neither of whom returned calls for this story, have never been charged with wrongdoing in connection with Torres. They remain City Hall fixtures. Alatorre, who pleaded guilty to felony tax evasion in 2001, is an influential lobbyist and board member of L.A.’s Best, a nonprofit that operates out of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office. Hernandez is assistant chief of staff for Councilman Bernard Parks and Councilwoman Jan Perry.

Such allegations hearken to a highly publicized national scandal involving Horacio Vignali, Torres’ former real estate partner. They also raise questions about how far Torres’ political reach was, and whether that reach helped keep him out of trouble.

Torres and Vignali, formerly two of three principles in a real estate company called Tovicep, Inc., were exposed as longtime targets of federal drug investigations in a 2002 congressional report on Pardongate, the White House scandal arising from President Bill Clinton’s grant of clemency for Vignali’s son, convicted drug trafficker Carlos Vignali Jr. The report examined revelations that, in the 1990s, Vignali was a big financial contributor who enlisted numerous politicians, including L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca, then U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (then a California assemblyman) to lobby Clinton for the clemency. Hernandez and Alatorre were among those who lobbied for Vignali Jr.’s release.

DEA documents surfaced in the report that portrayed Torres, Vignali Jr. and Vignali, a billboard and parking lot magnate, as part of a drug trafficking ring from the 1980s and 1990s. Vignali has never been charged with a crime. But according to recently unsealed informants’ statements, he is responsible for introducing Torres to such politicians as Hernandez and Baca, who told Pardongate investigators that he knew Torres “to be a legitimate businessman.”

Baca is not the only law enforcer Torres is alleged to have befriended. According to two sources familiar with the matter and DEA investigative reports, L.A.P.D. Sergeant Peter Torres (no confirmed relation to George Torres) ran his 2001 campaign for city council out of an office in George Torres’ swap meet. DEA reports of informant interviews also state that Sergeant Torres associated with Raul and Albert Del Real, both convicted drug traffickers with ties to George Torres.

A wiretapped conversation from December 2003 shows Raul Del Real telling his brother Albert that he saved him from getting arrested – by getting Sergeant Torres to vouch for him. In 2005, Albert Del Real told investigators he once saw his brother Raul hand money to Peter Torres at the Real Deal Carwash. Peter Torres declined to be interviewed for this story. L.A.P.D. officials said he is assigned to West Los Angeles, but is not on active duty.

In July 2007, shortly after Torres was indicted, a former Numero Uno employee contacted me and offered to describe his old boss, known to fellow workers as “El Diablo.” The employee said he worked as a butcher for four years at various Numero Uno stores from the mid- to late-’90s. He produced documentation to prove his employment and his identity, and asked that his name not be published.

During a two-hour, taped interview, he spoke candidly through an interpreter. He said he has never talked to law enforcers about George Torres.

Like the employees expected to testify at Torres’ trial, the butcher felt that Torres was tinkering with the store’s payroll – often at employee expense. “They would congratulate me on getting a raise, but then my paycheck would be the same,” said the butcher, a short man with a large head and large hands. “They’d push for more work, but the pay stayed the same.”

A 58-year-old journeyman who spent time in a Mexican jail for marijuana possession, and who since has been deported, the butcher has unsettling memories of Torres. “George, he was a real act,” the butcher said, recalling days when Torres would berate employees over the store PA system.

Yet unlike younger employees who cowered before Torres, the butcher said he displayed an irreverent streak when talking to the boss. Torres, he says, took his back talk in stride. “Not everyone saw him as a good boss. He was not like a homie. There would be 15 people ready to work, and he’d say, don’t punch in, go straight to work. Then, two hours later he’d let you punch in. I’d punch in when I arrived, no matter what he said. He’d say, ‘What’s up with you, old man?’ I’d say, ‘What’s up with you, you bastard? You’re getting rich off us.’ He’d just pat me on the back and laugh.”

For a time, the butcher lived in a house across the street from Numero Uno with a number of other employees. He described the house as a crash pad, with people coming and going amid minor drug use. Employees also hung out in a trailer next door, the butcher said. He recalls having a brush with the law and Torres insisting he take a drug test. When the butcher passed his drug test, Torres insisted he cheated and that he take another. “I said ‘You’re crazier than I am. Why don’t you get tested first and I’ll pay for them both?’”

The butcher also noticed that Raul Del Real and Nacho Meza had access to parts of Torres’ warehouse off-limits to other employees. Because the butcher could not discern any real management experience in either man – and because Del Real wasn’t an actual employee – this made him suspicious. “I thought, what’s wrong with George? He had all these kids as managers and they didn’t know anything.”

Del Real in particular, the butcher said, was too pushy and inexperienced to be taken seriously. “He was bad blood,” the butcher said. “He was cut from the same mold as George. Everybody knew what was the story there. We all did.”

One day in 1998, after police visited the market and asked Torres some questions, the butcher said to him, “Look, I know how you do your stuff. And if it’s not you, it’s your people. You cannot fool everybody.” Torres was unfazed, the butcher said, and replied, “How do you know, you

old fart?”

The disappearance of Nacho Meza is what sticks with the butcher the most. He recalled seeing Nacho return to work for the last time in October 1998. “Then two days later, people were asking about him. His mother was coming to the store asking about him. People at the store would go, ‘We haven’t seen him either.’ Nacho’s mom was crying on the street, asking if anyone had seen her son.”

The butcher said that Del Real’s reaction to the disappearance did not make sense. “Raul was so nonchalant. Come on, Nacho disappears, and Raul doesn’t say anything? They were buddies.”

Theories about Nacho’s disappearance abound. Recently unsealed documents suggest that Del Real and Meza had a falling out. Torres’ lawyers contend that Del Real, a key witness for the prosecution in the upcoming RICO trial, most likely killed Nacho.

Police affidavits identify Manuel Reynoso, the brother-in-law of Rene Cruz Reynoso, as a guy who might know something. On October 13, 2004, police put up a reward notice on the porch of Torres’ house in Downey, where Nacho used to live. Manuel Reynoso, owner of Rey & Rey Produce, was living there at the time. Within hours, according to a police affidavit, Reynoso called Torres and asked if there were problems. Torres advised Reynoso to say nothing if questioned by the police, and to never call him on the phone again. “I think it’s about that friend,” Reynoso said. Torres replied: “I think … who else?”

The butcher’s favorite theory is that an excavation at Numero Uno to make room for a new meat locker was not merely coincidental to Nacho’s disappearance. He and a colleague would talk about the concrete removal that was underway as they came to work each day. Though they have no detailed knowledge, they wonder.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Searight gets impatient with such talk. “I’ve heard all the theories,” he told me last April, declining to talk about the case in detail. “Meza was burned. He went into a meat grinder. He’s buried in cement .…”

If nothing else, the fate of Nacho Meza is a cautionary tale. Given the twisted, violent history swirling around Numero Uno in the rough barrios of South L.A., it is inevitable that, guilty or innocent, a cloud will hover over George Torres, the longtime target of failed drug investigations. Now that Searight has built an adventurous RICO case against Torres, Torres’ freedom and fortune will rest in the hands of a jury in the coming weeks.

Some might have a hard time buying it.

Not the butcher, however. “We have a saying in Mexico,” he said at the end of our interview back in 2007. “If the river is making noise, it’s because there’s water in it.”

Los Angeles City Beat

reprinted with permission