Killing for the Cartel

Police believe East LA high-school dropout Jose Saenz has killed a good friend and the mother of his daughter

In summer 2008, as Torres drove through Missouri heading to LA, fresh from an East Coast coke deal, two small-town sheriff’s deputies in St. Charles County pulled him over for tailgating and speeding. He and his passenger seemed extremely nervous, so the cops searched the car. They found $610,000 in hidden packets of cash—but, incredibly, the deputies let Torres go without trying to figure out who he was or what he was up to.

The cash, however, stayed in Missouri. And some of that was Smiley’s money.

Two of Torres’ Southern California homes were in horsy Pellissier Village in Whittier, where he often slept in his rundown two-bedroom crash pad, tricked out with a sauna and nine surveillance cameras. Three months after he lost the $610,000 in Missouri, Torres heard knocking on his door before dawn and opened it to find Smiley, grinning like a madman.

Jose "Smiley" Saenz is on the lam
Jose "Smiley" Saenz is on the lam
Sigreta Fernandez, who police say was assassinated by Smiley to keep her quiet, holds their baby
Sigreta Fernandez, who police say was assassinated by Smiley to keep her quiet, holds their baby

Smiley, police say, executed his friend with four shots to the face. Then he carefully removed from Torres’ surveillance system the DVD disc he knew had captured it all—from several unflattering angles.

But Smiley didn’t quite understand how the surveillance system worked. When LA County Sheriff’s detective Traci Gonzales saw that the DVD was missing, she took the security equipment to her tech guys, and they retrieved from its hard drive crystal-clear pictures of a Latino man cackling shortly before he blew away the doomed Torres. (Watch the video here.)

In a matter of days, LAPD Hollenbeck Division detectives viewing the tape recognized the executioner as former youthful tagger and high-school dropout Jose Saenz.

With that videotape in hand, in 2009 the Los Angeles FBI office jumped into a hard-fought nationwide contest: They proposed Saenz for the government’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List, and Special Agent Scott Garriola submitted a detailed five-page application to compete against 55 other FBI offices that insisted its fugitives were the baddest.

Garriola had a major edge. He and his Fugitive Apprehension Team had for years been tracking a guy on the Top Ten who had shot and seriously hurt an LA County Sheriff’s deputy. That fugitive was caught in a rural town in Mexico last year, meaning Garriola was among the first to know a spot on the Top Ten was about to open.

“The early bird catches the worm,” says the laughing 22-year-veteran agent, who, at any given time, tracks 40 to 50 rapists, murderers, dope dealers and gangsters. “Who else knew there was going to be an opening but me?”

Smiley won the nationwide beauty contest. Last October, the FBI’s deputy director announced on CNN that Saenz; Ukrainian-born Semion Mogilevich, who is wanted for his involvement in a multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud thousands of investors; and Eduardo Ravelo, a captain in the Juarez, Mexico-based Barrio Azteca criminal enterprise would join the Ten Most Wanted list of international terrorists, cybercriminals, serial killers and organized-crime figures, ranging from Osama bin Laden to Boston mobster James J. “Whitey” Bulger.

“You don’t celebrate with drinks and a DJ,” Garriola says. “It’s not like we were high-fiving in the bullpen.”

Now, the feds and local police hope that with the extra funding and attention that automatically flow to any case on the famed list, this wanted killer of his own daughter’s mother will finally be hunted down. (The feds are offering $100,000 for tips leading to his conviction and can be contacted at 310-477-6565.)

But even if authorities catch up to Smiley, one question may be unanswerable: How did a screwed-up teen raised in a rough American barrio rise to become one of the most vicious criminals in America, in all probability trained by cartels in Mexico, then sent back to represent the worst of both nations?

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Smiley was the only child of a Marravia gang-member father and a mother with substance-abuse problems. He lived with his grandmother in a small backyard bungalow on rundown, historic Ferris Avenue just two blocks from the East LA Station Sheriff’s Department. He spent much of his time with his cousins at the 29-acre Pico-Aliso projects, a five-minute drive from Los Angeles City Hall and the largest—some also say the most dangerous—public-housing development west of the Mississippi.

Saenz was not one of those tortured kids who saw beyond the grimy walls and corruption inside Pico-Aliso and dreamed of escape. Even as a youngster, he was mired in it. Families lived in fear at the projects, controlled by several gangs, including the Cuatro Flats. In fact, the Cuatro Flats crime organization arose in 1942 soon after the projects—a disastrous social experiment that urban planners insisted would lift up the poor—were erected.

After years of pressure, in 1999, the city of Los Angeles started tearing down Pico-Aliso’s two-story buildings, grouped around yards that were entered through breezeways. In their place, developers constructed a complex of attractive, detached and semi-detached single-family houses called Pueblo del Sol. On the day demolition began, a pastor marched down the street, carrying a replica of the Virgin of Guadalupe—to bless Pico-Aliso’s destruction.

On these streets in 1998, Smiley decided to return the insult done to his youthful gangster friend, 14-year-old Juan Pena, who’d been attacked by East LA 13 gangbangers Hernandez and Ponce. Seven days after that beating, LAPD detective Chavarria says, as Pena looked on, the smiling Saenz casually approached the two young men as if to buy drugs, then shot Ponce in the chest, thigh and back and Hernandez three times in the head.

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