Killing for the Cartel

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

Ontiveros lived as a downtown-LA hipster, renting a posh unit in the classy Bunker Hill Towers on West First Street, sharing the building with other judges, lawyers and downtown professionals.

He was one of 43 reputed Mexican Mafia members and associates indicted in 1999 by a Los Angeles County grand jury for racketeering, murder, assault with a dangerous weapon and drug trafficking. Federal authorities believe Ontiveros helped to plot the killing of drug dealer Richard Serrano at his Montebello auto-body shop in 1998—details that poured from the mouth of former Cal State LA student and Mexican Mafia associate Max Torvisco, who cut a plea deal and is now in federal prison.

Last October, federal and local authorities finally caught up to Ontiveros, who was blending into well-kept, middle-class Rowland Heights—in the midst of turning the home into an indoor marijuana grow. Police say $1 million in pot, retail, was confiscated. He goes on trial on July 27 on federal RICO charges.

Brian Stauffer
Saenz shoots the fallen Oscar Torres in the face at close range in Torres' front yard
Saenz shoots the fallen Oscar Torres in the face at close range in Torres' front yard

Assistant United States Attorney Bob Dugdale, who is pursuing the RICO charges, says, “[Ontiveros] worked his way through the Lott gang to become a leader and eventually a soldier.”

There is one deeply troubling hint that Ontiveros may have had friends in high places. In 1999, the cops nearly closed in on Ontiveros, according to an anonymous law-enforcement source who cannot be named because he fears department reprisal. But when the LAPD’s Eme Task Force—named for La Eme, or the Mexican Mafia—showed up at his apartment in Bunker Hill Towers, Ontiveros was gone, a fact that left cops unnerved and jumpy. “Someone tipped him off,” says the source. Yet only a handful of people inside LAPD knew about the raid. LAPD internal affairs reportedly began an investigation, the outcome of which will probably remain secret.

Police believe Ontiveros fled to Mexico, and rumors drifted back that he had opened up restaurants there while keeping his hand in the drug trade in Southern California, along with his Cuatro Flats gang pal Saenz and his Lott gang pals, Torres and Bello.

“They were all in it deep,” says Gonzales, a small woman who sounds tough—and is. “These guys are intelligent. They are not dumbasses. They didn’t look like your typical shave-your-head baggy-pants gangster. They went to high-dollar clubs. They were trendy. That was the image they were looking for. They know what the laws are. What police can and cannot do. How to avoid detection.”

Homicide detective Chavarria began hearing rumors that Smiley was in Los Angeles and had brazenly walked into LAPD’s Hollenbeck station and used the ATM, set up inside so residents of tough Hollenbeck, with its small stucco homes and numerous gangs, could feel safe while getting cash.

Another informant says Saenz had plastic surgery to change his face. Chavarria heard that Saenz was killed in Mexico by drug cartels. Smiley was becoming a legend who moved silently between the First and Third Worlds, an elusive go-between supplying the U.S. drug appetite and negotiating Mexico’s violent drug wars.

“His homeboys put that out,” Chavarria scoffs. “They would say he was shot and killed in a shoot-out in Mexico. It was all bullshit.”

But unsettling news about Saenz kept dribbling in. A woman in Boyle Heights had been kidnapped for money, a crime rarely seen in LA yet harrowingly similar to the crisis in Mexico, where thousands of kidnappings have occurred. She was released unharmed after a large, undisclosed amount was paid to her abductors. Chavarria heard about it all later, and street rumors pointed to Saenz.

*     *     *

It’s not hard to hide in plain sight in massive, diverse, messy LA and its eastern suburbs. At the entrance to Pellissier Village, signs warn that horses use the same roads. In fact, they and their riders amble freely down the middle of the streets. Roosters cock-a-doodle-doo. About 80 percent of the 200 residences include horses in stables behind modest, plain-Jane houses. Others have miniature donkeys or a cow or two.

People ride along the nearby San Gabriel River, just up from the treasured wetland ecosystem of the Whittier Narrows. Though only 20 minutes from LA, the area, designated as an equestrian district in 1972, has a small-town feel.

Its peace was shaken early on Oct. 5, 2008, when shots rang out. Responding police found the bullet-ridden body of Oscar Torres on the front lawn of his two-bedroom house on Mardel Avenue. One neighbor, awakened by nearby knocking and gunfire, recalls, “My daughter told me to stay down.”

Neighbors knew Torres as Sam, a “nice guy who never bothered anyone” who operated a party-equipment rental business and a black-stretch Hummer-limo service. But close friends say he went by the street name EZ and was a martial-arts practitioner who routinely frisked even his friends.

“If he met you, he would shake you down,” says Efrain Bello, whose late brother, Bogart, was close to Torres and Ontiveros before his own bizarre death. Torres “didn’t trust anybody. But he was extremely loyal. When my brother disappeared, he was the first person there. He wasn’t afraid of anybody. He was well-respected on the streets.”

Inside the home where Torres was slain, detectives found a man, barely alive, who’d been shot in the back. Inside a sauna in Torres’ bedroom, they found two duffel bags crammed with 40 handguns and assault rifles. Wedged between his mattress and box spring was a short rifle. Over his bedroom door a sign read, EZ Street.

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