The Al Capone of Arcadia?
Grocery store owner George Torres faces trial for alleged tax evasion, bribery, harboring illegal immigrants and conspiracy to commit murder
By Jeffrey Anderson 04/02/2009
Only two days into the federal racketeering trial of George Torres and US District Judge Stephen Wilson was already bored.
For the past 25 years, prosecutors argued, Torres, owner of the popular Los Angeles grocery store chain Numero Uno, pulled money out of his stores for “personal use,” cheated on his payroll taxes, and built an empire off the backs of the illegal immigrants who worked for him. Pasadena City Councilman and former federal prosecutor Steve Madison, representing Torres, countered by trying to show that ex-employees of Numero Uno were coerced into or compensated by the government for testifying against Torres — who was arrested at his Arcadia home in June 2007 and charged with tax evasion, bribery, harboring illegal immigrants and conspiracy to commit murder.
Wilson, an easily irritated man who enjoys telling lawyers how to do their jobs, wanted to get to the good stuff.
“Let’s face it, this case is being tried on murder,” he said. “Nobody is going to jail forever for cheating on their taxes and hiring illegal immigrants. It’s all about these murders, so let’s get it on.”
Indeed, while lawyers began the trial by quibbling over Torres’ alleged white-collar offenses, the heart of the case of US v. George Torres-Ramos, which has drawn national attention, hinges on the unsolved drive-by shootings of South Los Angeles gang members Edward Carpel and Jose “Shorty” Maldonado, as well as the chilling disappearance, in 1998, of Torres’ right-hand man Ignacio Meza, who allegedly did the drive-bys at Torres’ request. Torres allegedly later had his protégé whacked for ripping him off. Meza’s body has never been found.
For the 10 women and six men of the jury, the trial, expected to last more than a month, will be a challenging one. Torres is a Mexican immigrant who took a fruit truck and turned it into an empire of profitable grocery stores in some of Los Angeles’ worst neighborhoods. He is also a family man, whose clean, orderly markets are extremely customer-friendly, even going so far as to shuttle elderly customers to and from the stores. At the same time, Torres hired and associated with violent drug traffickers, and cultivated a menacing aura that largely kept neighborhood gangs from targeting his businesses with graffiti and theft. When a security guard was killed in the parking lot of one of Torres’ stores in 1993, Torres, according to witnesses, told employees not to talk to anyone, including the police.
What kind of grocery store owner experiences such drama?
Failed drug-trafficking and money-laundering investigations targeting Torres go back to the late 1980s, when he associated with the notorious Reynoso Brothers International food distribution company — the subject of a major Mexican drug cartel prosecution in the mid-1990s. Torres also came under government suspicion when he got into the real estate business in the 1990s with LA billboard and parking lot magnate Horacio Vignali, whose drug dealer son, Carlos Vignali, received a last-minute grant of clemency from President Clinton in 2000, resulting in the White House scandal Pardongate.
When those investigations tanked, the government dug into unsolved murders near Torres’ Numero Uno market at 701 E. Jefferson Blvd. in Los Angeles. Investigators began talking to Torres’ employees after the grocery mogul’s empire expanded into El Monte and Cypress Park. Employees described a pattern of tax fraud by Torres, as well as his association with a host of unsavory characters in the LAPD’s violent Newton Division, also known as “Shootin’ Newton,” where more than 100 murders per year occurred in the 1990s.
Yet Assistant US Attorney Timothy Searight has avoided giving the jury too much historical context. Unlike a typical murder trial, where the character of the defendant is on display alongside his alleged misdeeds, George Torres has remained an enigma in this courtroom. On the one hand, he is an alleged tax cheat — a fairly mundane crime, in the eyes of the judge. On the other, he has ties to cartel operatives. He talks cryptically on the phone and instructs associates to meet him to talk in person. He associates with a violent, high-volume cocaine dealer by the name of Raul Del Real, whose phone was being tapped by federal agents.
In his opening statement, Searight cited a 2003 call, intercepted by the feds, in which Torres says to Del Real, “You tell me what’s up, because I want to know.”
Searight’s point: What information could a grocery store mogul possibly want so badly from a high-volume drug trafficker?
To understand the government’s motivation for pursuing Torres, one has to consider a phantom theory that seems to irk Judge Wilson. “It’s been pretty clear to me that the government’s strategy is to try a drugless drug case,” Wilson said during a recent hearing before the trial, which began on March 24. “Then you are going to use the bits and pieces from the wiretap to say Torres was the big drug guy.”
Searight denied that assertion, to which Wilson replied, “Even if you don’t argue it [that way], why wouldn’t a jury who is not deaf and dumb figure that out?”
For the past year-and-a-half, Wilson has been hearing about how the government, after spending more than a decade trying to build a drug-trafficking case against Torres, wants to define his grocery empire as a racketeering enterprise.
But evidence that purportedly shows how Torres generated millions of dollars in cash profits, paid family members and other key employees (including Meza, a violent drug trafficker) in cash, used his stores as a personal cash register and failed to report payroll taxes on illegal immigrant workers adds up to drug money-laundering charges that are oddly absent from this trial.
So last week, as employee after employee from the payroll and bookkeeping departments of Numero Uno testified against their boss and were hammered by the defense for being disgruntled ex-employees or for testifying under grants of immunity, Wilson had advice for both sides, almost as if he was concerned the government is trying Al Capone for tax evasion.
“Keep going like this for four or five weeks and you’ll give the jury reason to think about why they are here,” Wilson said to the defense. Then, to the prosecution, “Somewhere along the line you have to turn over your cards,” and expose key witnesses who are expected to testify that Torres ordered three separate murders. “If these guys hold up, [the defense] is dead in the water. Why do a mambo? If they convince the jury they are truthful, then Mr. Torres has a lot to worry about.”
But the murder allegations are clouded by the fact that the key witnesses are violent drug traffickers who are vulnerable to searing cross-examinations — which may be why the government tried so methodically to set up the tax case. But that didn’t seem to matter much to Wilson last week, as he made sure the government got right to the murders.
In 1993, the government alleges, Torres ordered Meza to commit a retaliatory murder against the Primera Flats gang for killing one of Torres’ security guards. He also allegedly ordered Meza to murder Playboys gang member Jose “Shorty” Maldonado, who tried to extort a gang tax from Numero Uno. Then, the government alleges, when Meza allegedly robbed Numero Uno of $550,000, Torres had him killed, according to the government.
Last Friday, Ignacio Meza’s brother, Jesus Meza, testified that he saw his brother kill Shorty Maldonado in 1994. Jesus Meza also said that when he visited Torres to ask about his brother’s disappearance, in 1998, Torres seemed indifferent: “He wanted to sound concerned, but his demeanor did not show it.”
On Tuesday, Derrick “Bo-Dee” Smith, a convicted drug trafficker and longtime associate of Meza, testified that he witnessed a conversation in which Torres directed Meza to “take care of” Maldonado, after Maldonado made extortion demands of Torres. Smith further testified that he assisted Meza in robbing Numero Uno market in March 1998, a little more than six months before Meza disappeared.
Time will tell what kind of family-oriented grocery store owner can be so aloof about a vanished friend — or whether the jury believes what they are hearing.
Though Madison declined to comment on the case, defense co-counsel Robert Eisfelder sees the case working out in Torres’ favor. “We believe Mr. Torres will be acquitted and the hard work of the Torres family in building a market chain for the people of South Los Angeles will be vindicated,” he said.
Read a previous story about the Torres case here: http://www.lacitybeat.com/cms/story/detail/the_trials_of_mexican_george/8022/