By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Skip Ensley could not have looked more conspicuous standing outside a small stone church on the outskirts of Culiacan in central Mexico one August afternoon in 1987. Ruddy-faced behind a full, wiry beard, the beefy 6-foot-4 Ensley dwarfed the mourners who crowded around him, there to bury Raul Valenzuela, slain at the age of 23, another casualty of the drug war.
He watched with a mixture of fear and fascination as the casket passed by, borne by Raul’s brothers and cousins, each with revolvers stuffed in their belts. Ensley had come as a friend of the family -- a brother-in-law, in fact -- but the Valenzuela clan could not guarantee his safety at the cemetery, where the funeral procession would present an easy target for rival traffickers. Ensley and his wife, Karen, chose to stay behind.
Still, Ensley felt a growing excitement, even a sense of mission, as the smugglers‘ caravan made its way onto the rutted dirt road that led past the church. Several years before, he’d been forced out of his first job, as a police officer in Oregon, and had reluctantly left behind the ambitions of a lifetime. Now, in the rugged highlands of Sinaloa, the coastal state that is home to the most enterprising and ruthless smugglers in the Mexican drug trade, Ensley had stumbled onto a case that could resurrect his career.
For the next 11 years, Ensley built his life around the pursuit of Luis Valenzuela, the head of the family trafficking business and a ranking lieutenant in the notorious Arellano-Felix drug cartel. Working primarily with the FBI but also with the DEA and local authorities, Ensley socialized with Valenzuela at family functions and enticed him into partnership schemes, serving as a steady conduit for information on Valenzuela‘s movements as he imported and distributed thousands of kilos of cocaine. Over the course of his collaboration with the Southwest Border Task Force, the FBI paid Ensley more than $30,000 in fees and expenses.
It was a bargain for the government. Tracking Valenzuela opened a window on the single largest cartel moving drugs across America’s border with Mexico. In 1997, a decade after the funeral for Raul Valenzuela, the investigation moved into high gear. The task force monitored Luis and his organization through extensive wiretaps, a phone bank of interpreters, and a team of more than 10 officers and agents. Over the next 18 months, agents confiscated nearly 4 tons of cocaine and more than $15 million in cash. As the totals mounted, Ensley looked forward to a personal windfall, based on government assurances that he would collect a bounty of 10 percent of all the seized currency.
Operation Rio Blanco culminated in June 1998 with the arrest of Jorge Castro, a Valenzuela associate identified by the U.S. Attorney‘s Office as ”one of the highest-level narcotraffickers ever arrested in the United States.“ But just as Ensley prepared to celebrate, he found himself abandoned. Luis Valenzuela and most of his associates escaped the government dragnet, and Ensley’s cover as an informant was blown.
Rather than collect the $1 million--plus he figured should be his reward, Ensley was advised by the FBI to lease a recreational vehicle and go into hiding. The government initially sent him monthly checks of $5,000, but the funds soon dwindled, to $2,000, then to zero. Ensley has been on the lam ever since. The agents he worked with stopped returning his phone calls, and his wife‘s family shunned him. Most galling to Ensley, Luis Valenzuela himself continued to ply his trade.
This summer, Ensley filed a lawsuit against the FBI, claiming the government bilked him out of his just rewards. His work for the task force is documented in sworn statements made by federal agents to support wiretap applications, but the lawsuit stands on shaky ground, as federal agencies enjoy extensive legal privileges. Still, Ensley said he sued as a means to express his umbrage, at how he was treated personally, and over the government’s failure to arrest Luis Valenzuela. ”Not only did they not do what they said they would do for us, but they didn‘t work hard enough on this case,“ Ensley said during one of several interviews with the Weekly.
Ensley may also simply have trouble accepting defeat. Almost from the moment he met him, Ensley considered Luis Valenzuela his ticket to personal and professional redemption. Ensley invested his time, his standing within his family, much of his energy and all of his aspirations into what he terms the case of a lifetime. But the high-stakes world of the drug trade proved a tough place to find salvation. Ensley tried to play the game by his own rules, only to wind up frustrated, alienated and alone. Said a close friend who watched the whole affair transpire, ”If I was Skip, I’d go find a hole and crawl into it.“
Skip Ensley keeps a photo of his father hanging on the wall in the jumbled office in the suburban home he shares with his wife, Karen, three dogs and a cat. The photo dates from the 1950s, when Ensley‘s dad was an officer with the Corona, California, Police Department. Avery D. Ensley is pictured in a drab olive uniform, slim and almost boyish, his hat cocked, his face lit by a wry smile.