Killing for the Cartel

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

Killing for the Cartel

Twelve years ago, Jose Saenz was a high-school dropout and run-of-the-mill tagger known on the Eastside of Los Angeles as Smiley, a nod to the way he flashed his trademark brilliant grin. At age 22, he sidled up to two young men peddling dope on North Clarence Street in Boyle Heights, pretending to be friend not foe. When Smiley got really close, he yanked out a hidden gun and killed Josue Hernandez and Leonardo Ponce, two members of the East LA 13 gang.

Worried about a Prizzi’s Honor-style scenario, police believe, Smiley feared that those close to him knew too much about the double murder—honor killings, in his mind, required after his two victims beat up his teenage buddy, Juan Pena. So 11 days after the Clarence Street murders, on a hot August afternoon in 1998, police say, Smiley raped and executed the woman who had intimate knowledge of him: his dark-haired estranged girlfriend, Sigreta Fernandez, 21, mother of his 2-year-old daughter.

He left Fernandez’s ravaged body sprawled in his grandmother’s bedroom in East Los Angeles, with an eerie, apologetic note scrawled on her wall.

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

For years, nobody has had a death wish strong enough to rat out Smiley for these killings—save for young Juan Pena. Dying several years ago of childhood leukemia, he fingered his blood brother Saenz for the executions on North Clarence Street.

But Smiley, with his intense black eyes and his quick, deviant mind, vanished from the local cops’ radar for 10 years—to Mexico for some of that time, the FBI says, where he morphed from East LA tagger to a connected, Mexican-cartel drug “soldier,” a high-level executioner, and then trafficker, operating on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.

Long periods of Saenz’s time in Mexico remain a mystery. But U.S. authorities believe Saenz hooked up in Northern Mexico with former Cal State Los Angeles business student Rolando Ontiveros, a nattily dressed former private-school student with a sharp brain who used his college education to ill ends south of the border.

Like Ontiveros, Smiley rose to operate in high-end, international drug-smuggling circles, where million-dollar coke transactions went down. He sometimes used Tijuana bars as a base, crossing to the U.S. regularly with a bogus Mexican passport to do business with dealers in Los Angeles and Orange counties, as well as in other states.

This phenomenon is not confined to the border and big-city gang hubs such as East LA. Last year, Operation Xcellerator—a massive sweep of 755 alleged dealers and other criminals—snagged 13 Orange County residents whom federal officials say were connected to the Sinaloa and other Mexican cartels and were hiding out in Irvine, Fullerton, Garden Grove and Santa Ana. Moreover, narcotics-related seizures of huge amounts of cash have exploded in Orange County, from $12 million between 1999 and 2003 to $60 million between 2003 and 2008. Then, last year, during mass arrests of 300 alleged members and associates of the La Familia cartel by a multi-agency group of law-enforcement agencies nationwide, the cops grabbed four suspected La Familia members in OC.

Bruce Bagley, a cartel expert at the University of Miami, says the “Arellano Felix cartel has been using gangs in Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange County” to distribute drugs “at the street level and to mid-level dealers. They are the suppliers. It’s a lucrative trade and they have been recruiting gangs to operate in this fashion for a long time.”

The key operators move easily between Southern California and Mexico, according to Rene Enriquez, a former Mexican Mafia leader, and are principally Mexican-American men drawn from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties.

“It’s like coming to East Los Angeles” when they arrive in Mexico, surrounded by other Southern California Latino gang members and former convicts, many of whom met in California prisons, Enriquez says. “He’s walking right in the loop again, from one geographic location to another. . . . It’s the California gang world in Mexico.”

According to Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective Ron Chavarria, who is investigating the 1998 Clarence Street murders attributed to Smiley, “[Saenz] was pretty much on the run when he left here. He didn’t have a car or anything. Then, years later, he is an established drug dealer.”

In the intervening years, “he did something to get himself to that level. People are deathly afraid of this guy. You mention this guy’s name, and [potential informants] are done. They don’t want to talk about him.”

It is now known that during that “missing” time, Smiley, today 34, partied under the noses of LAPD and city and county police agencies throughout Southern California with his drug-dealer pals, frequenting nice, suburban Long Beach-area bars such as Lakewood’s Elephant Club, Hollywood Boulevard hot spots and other chic Southern California watering holes.

Life was fine. At one point, Smiley was ferried by a chauffeur employed by his gangster buddy Oscar Torres, a Los Angeles Hummer-limo-service owner, and wore upscale clothes, lived as “Sam” in a quiet, suburban equestrian community in Whittier—and sold prodigious quantities of coke to feed Southern California’s habit.

But Torres ended up on his friend Smiley’s execution list in 2008, after a careless screwup that for an average person would have resulted in a traffic ticket.

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.

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?

*    *    *

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.

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.

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.

From the outside, it seemed that Ontiveros had escaped the streets by graduating from LA’s troubled Roosevelt High School and, in 1991, enrolling in a business and economics course at Cal State LA on the Eastside. But, police say, he was in fact holding gang meetings and drug sales at a campus library. Cal State LA officials acknowledge only that Ontiveros was a student from 1991 to 1997, but didn’t graduate.

“If you went to a gangster park, the cops would be there, so why not go to Cal State LA, where nobody would suspect?” asks Gonzales, who is probing the murders of Sigreta Fernandez and Oscar Torres. “This is not street-level drug sales or gangster crimes. This is hardcore drug trafficking.”

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.

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.

“None of the cars were registered in his [real] name,” says detective Gonzales. “He had no ties to anything. We talked to many of the neighbors, and they had no idea. They just knew him as Sam. There were multiple people who said, ‘Nice guy; we never would have known.’”

Detectives also found a high-tech system of monitors that would later provide chilling video evidence pointing directly to Torres’ friend Smiley as his killer.

Anthony Limon, the victim found shot in the back, told detectives he’d agreed as a favor to limo-service owner “Sam” to ferry around four guys in his Hummer limo that night, picking up the first three and taking them to the upscale Elephant Bar Restaurant in suburban Lakewood, where they picked up Smiley. Then it was on to El Parral Club in working-class South Gate, then several hours cruising in Hollywood, then back to Lakewood.

But one of the guys, whom police later determined was Saenz, was restless. He ordered Limon to drive to Montebello, then, at 5 a.m., ordered him to drive to the limo-owner’s home in Whittier.

Later, at a meeting between LA Sheriff’s detective Traci Gonzales and FBI Special Agent Garriola, she showed him the video retrieved from that night. Like a scene out of The Ring, the video flickers with shadowy, ethereal black-and-white images of Saenz smiling and rubbing his hands together gleefully while knocking repeatedly on Torres’ door. At one point, Saenz reaches into his pants pocket to check on something.

Torres is seen in his underwear opening the door, and the men barge in. Limon told police that, once inside, Smiley pulled a gun on Torres, so Limon jumped in front of Torres and pleaded with Smiley to calm down. Instead, Limon was hit on the head, and as he fell, he heard one of the men he’d driven around all night bark out, “Dome him!”—street lingo for a bullet to the head. Before the shot slammed into his back, he recalled to cops, Limon heard someone giggle.

It was all about that vast amount of cash sitting back in Missouri, confiscated three months earlier by the St. Charles County cops. “There was some money owed and a time table,” Garriola says. “Oscar didn’t meet it.”

Torres had already been forced, either by the local Mexican Mafia or the cartels in Mexico, to prove that the money had really been confiscated by the St. Charles deputies, Gonzales says. “We heard through informants he took the letter [a receipt provided by the Missouri cops] and showed it to his people.”

A month after Torres’ murder, Smiley’s cousin Johnny Prado, who can be clearly seen in the video, was arrested for murder and attempted murder; last November, he went to prison for 26 years. His friends told police he was an industrious construction worker, but, Chavarria says, he couldn’t get away from the East LA gangs. “When they get older, they still have an allegiance,” he says. “If they are called upon, they have to step up.”

Smiley is still out there, crossing back and forth between Mexico and California, cashing in and spreading mayhem. “It is like chasing a ghost,” Chavarria notes.

*     *     *

Bogart Bello’s gravesite at the Calvary Mortuary in East LA is on a hill that overlooks the Guadalupe Church on Third Street and gang territory where he grew up with his childhood friends Torres and Ontiveros. His tombstone reads, “Forever Living On the Top,” an homage to his Lott gang. Most of those buried nearby are long dead, and visitors are few. But Efrain Bello tends his brother’s site religiously.

“The police don’t care,” says Bello of his brother’s death. “It’s like, ‘another drug dealer dead.’ I don’t think my life can continue until there is justice for my brother. To me, it was the worst thing that could ever happen.”

Efrain says Bogart Bello and Rolo Ontiveros became big-time dealers because they and their families “were dirt-poor.” He admits that Bogart earned his first $1 million by age 19 and, by 2008, was reaping $25,000 monthly thanks to cocaine funneled from Mexico. Among Bogart’s best coke customers were downtown LA’s lawyer population.

But, Efrain says, his brother tried to go into a legit business by founding Lott Records and producing a number of rap songs, the lyrics of which were often about the Lott gang.

In 2008, Bogart was found dead in the back seat of his Audi Q7 on Chamberlain Street in Mission Hills, a stone’s throw from the 118 freeway. After police turned up few clues, a detective hired by Efrain discovered that Bogart and Smiley had just been involved in a drug deal in which Smiley disliked the quality of the coke and “took it as a great disrespect.”

Chavarria and Gonzales believe Smiley kidnapped and probably killed Bogart, but, LAPD Foothills Division homicide supervisor Jim Freund says, “We can’t prove that he was kidnapped. That came from the brother. . . . Obviously, someone dropped him off in the position” in which he was found, lying in the back seat with a bag pulled over his head.

But when it comes to murders and kidnappings in Southern California linked to Jose Saenz, detective Gonzales says, “People aren’t willing to cooperate and talk about what is going on and what is happening.”

Short of a confession from Smiley, Bogart’s death will go down as accidental, a reminder that the cross-border drug carnage in America’s cities—fueled by Smiley and young boys who grow up to be like him, as well as their willing customers—is never fully measured.

cpelisek@laweekly.com

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