Killing for the Cartel

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

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.

Bullets delivered to the head would become Saenz’s signature. As Hernandez and Ponce lay bleeding, Smiley advised his young pal never to leave a crime scene until he was sure his targets were good and dead. “He said, ‘Sometimes they fake it or pretend they’re dead,’” Chavarria says Pena later described to police.

Early on Aug. 5, Smiley’s dark-eyed former girlfriend, Sigreta Fernandez, mother of his toddler daughter, must have been worried when she saw Smiley and another gangster at the Pico-Aliso housing projects where she lived.

Efrain Bello and his brother Bogart in happier times
Efrain Bello and his brother Bogart in happier times

Nobody will ever know what was said between Smiley and Sigreta or the rage and horror she endured when she realized he meant her harm. Police say Saenz and his accomplices abducted Fernandez, a Roosevelt High School graduate employed by the Santa Fe Railroad company, and drove her to Smiley’s grandmother’s house 6 miles away.

There, he told his grandmother to leave her home. The older woman later claimed, according to a coroner’s report, that she complied because Smiley said he and Fernandez had a lot of talking to do and were trying to reconcile.

Three hours later, at 11 a.m., he called his grandmother and told her not to come home, authorities say, because he had just made a big mistake. But the elderly woman didn’t obey. She returned to her cramped bungalow and discovered the slain Fernandez in the back bedroom, sprawled half-naked with a bullet wound to her temple. The only movement was a fan, eerily blowing near the body.

On a dresser at the foot of the bed, Sheriff’s detectives found a pile of .357 Magnum shells and a misspelled note that read, “the guys who drove me hear have nothing to do with this.” On the living-room wall, they found a message scrawled in pencil: Saenz asked his grandmother to take care of his child and told her he loved her.

Police quickly picked up one of Saenz’s accomplices—Pena. They ultimately charged him with the two homicides on Clarence Street after a tipster placed him at the scene with Saenz. Although not the shooter, he was convicted of murdering East LA 13 gang members Hernandez and Ponce and sent to the California Youth Authority, where he died at 17 of leukemia. But not before spilling his guts about Saenz’s alleged premeditated murders of the two men who beat him up.

“I don’t know why he decided to give up the whole story,” Chavarria says. “Maybe part of it was because he knew he was going to die.”

But Smiley fell off the face of the Earth for 10 long years. Los Angeles authorities believe Saenz decided his best career move was to go south to Mexico, to learn the vicious drug trade on the other side of the border. There, Mexican authorities are in a losing war with the cartels, and the chances they will find or keep tabs on Americans who have joined the dark side are poor.

“If you get to his level, you would probably have to be working for the cartel,” Chavarria says. “You are the middleman at that point.”

LAPD investigators say Smiley was recruited by the Arellano Felix cartel, trained in a military-style outlaw camp in Mexico and sent back to Southern California to work on a hit squad. According to the California Department of Justice, American recruits are desired by Mexican crime lords because they can easily cross the border and operate throughout California using cartel-provided skills including countersurveillance and ambush tactics.

The cross-border system of American and Mexican criminals “is huge,” Chavarria says. “You can get a headache trying to take it all in.”

In Mexico, Smiley hooked up with Rolando “Rolo” Ontiveros, the former private-school and Cal State LA student turned Mexican Mafia soldier.

Described as a thinker and very ambitious, Ontiveros grew up on tattered Blanchard Street in East LA, the home turf of the Lott gang, joining it as a teenager along with his childhood friend Torres. They were later joined by a kid named Bogart Bello, and the trio formed a clique inside the gang called the Lott Boys. Torres is dead, his demise captured on video, allegedly at the hands of Saenz; Bello’s bizarre disappearance and death, though ruled an accident, are widely assumed to be Saenz’s work as well.

“[Rolo] was from a traditional Mexican family,” says Sheriff’s detective Gonzales. “They were hardworking. His parents had been married for numerous years. He had a typical father figure. His brothers and sisters are traditional, law-abiding citizens.” In fact, his brother Mario is a Los Angeles Police Department Central Division traffic officer.

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