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
Ensley was treated to warm hospitality during his stay in Sinaloa, embraced as a member of the family. Through it all, Ensley played the role of newfound friend, the man who helped wrest Raul’s remains from hostile authorities in the U.S. But on his first day back in the United States, Ensley went straight to the Riverside office of the FBI.
If Ensley had any qualms about his hazardous new venture, it was over his wife‘s misgivings -- he’d promised her that his law-enforcement days were over. But Karen Ensley felt violated as well by her sudden proximity to the drug trade, and quietly accepted Skip‘s decision to join the drug war. Referring to her sister, Karen said, ”She didn’t know she was marrying a drug dealer, and I didn‘t know being an ex-cop means now and forever.“
The supervisor of the FBI office in Riverside was Doug Aukland, a veteran agent nearing the end of his career. Aukland was wary when Skip Ensley explained how the unlikely combination of his second marriage and a police shooting had brought him to a Mexican trafficker’s funeral. Aukland warned Ensley of the dangers involved, and of the strain an undercover investigation would put on his family. But Aukland didn‘t know Ensley’s story -- the father he idolized, the department he‘d been cast out from -- and he finally gave in to Ensley’s gung-ho attitude. According to Ensley‘s longtime friend, ”Skip thought they would button up the whole [Valenzuela] family and they’d be in jail and he‘d be the good guy.“
For the next four years, Ensley worked closely with Aukland to bring Luis Valenzuela to justice. Ensley let Valenzuela set the pace, never pressing Luis to divulge his business dealings. ”You can’t ever ask them anything before they tell you,“ Ensley explained. ”But then when I started doing minor things for the family, we developed a friendship and trust that you don‘t get out of the clear blue sky.“
When his brother Tony was arrested for smuggling heroin, Luis called on Skip to help arrange bail. When Luis was thinking about investing in property, he’d ask Skip to assess the deal. Along the way, Ensley provided the FBI with Valenzuela‘s address and phone numbers -- he a maintained a modest home in Ontario, and owned restaurants in Upland and Montclair -- and identified several of his associates.
Progress was slow. ”He was too damn slick,“ Ensley grumbled. ”They would surveil him for weeks and come up with nothing.“ The investigation came to a head in October 1991, when a local police department caught a girlfriend of Valenzuela’s with several kilos of cocaine. The bust triggered a search of all the homes and businesses law enforcement had tied to Valenzuela. Luis himself was arrested for possession of a kilo of cocaine, but he denied any connection to the stuff, and the officers couldn‘t make the charge stick.
It was the end of the line. ”Aukland spelled it out for me,“ Ensley said. ”They were going to move on to easier cases. He said there were other agencies working on Luis, and that somewhere down the line he was going to screw up, but they couldn’t put any more time in.“ The decision left Ensley frustrated and angry. ”All they‘re looking for is their stats,“ he said of the federal agents on the task force. ”Seizures and money is what they’re all about. They‘re not interested in the tough cases.“ It was the beginning of Ensley’s growing disdain for the government.
Aukland, however, was an exception. ”He was the most honest, straightforward man I ever dealt with,“ Ensley said. For his part, Aukland admired Ensley‘s skill in cultivating Valenzuela, and the agent came to regard Skip as a personal friend.
It proved a valuable connection. The early 1990s were a time of rapid expansion in the nation’s war on drugs, and hundreds of new task forces had been established across the country. Staffed by federal agents, local authorities and freelancers who specialized in working undercover, the task forces were virtually autonomous, funded largely through the drug profits they seized.
It was the perfect opening for Ensley to return to the law-enforcement fold. ”I always felt bad about leaving the department“ in Brookings, Ensley said. Being a cop remained his life‘s ambition. ”That’s what I was put on this earth to do.“
After canvassing federal outposts throughout the West, Ensley settled on South Dakota, where a task force was taking on new agents. Crucial to Ensley‘s application was a letter of recommendation from Aukland. ”Since 1986 we have become close friends, and I can comment quite favorably on his character, loyalty and abilities,“ Aukland wrote in 1993. He said Ensley was especially suited to handling sensitive interviews and complex cases. ”His demeanor is perfect. I would consider him an excellent partner in situations of arrest, interview and case preparation.“
Ensley moved with his wife to South Dakota and worked with the DEA task force for more than a year, specializing in infiltrating motorcycle gangs.