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
It was not until he spoke with Agent Freitag that George Eliot learned just whose phone he was listening in on -- that of Luis Valenzuela, a trafficker wanted by the government since 1991. The phone numbers provided by Ensley showed it was Valenzuela who had coordinated the 300-kilo delivery in Los Angeles. Valenzuela’s number also turned up as a key supplier to another midlevel dealer the task force had been monitoring for months. In the drug scene in Southern California, Ensley said, ”You couldn‘t swing a dead cat without hitting someone connected to Luis.“
Not only was Valenzuela central, but he was stable. ”While the majority of the other telephones were eventually discarded, Valenzuela’s telephone remained active,“ agents said in court papers. ”This target telephone became an anchor in the investigation.“
Freitag also told Eliot about Ensley -- that he‘d conducted a heroin buy with Valenzuela, and that Ensley was continuing to negotiate possible shipments of ”multikilogram quantities of heroin and cocaine to an out-of-town buyer.“ On the strength of what he learned from Freitag, Eliot made Valenzuela the primary subject of his investigation, and obtained court permission to monitor his phones and trace incoming and outgoing calls.
From that point forward, the investigation proceeded on two parallel tracks. Eliot and L.A. Sheriff’s Deputy Gene Johns fielded a team of agents who specialized in wiretaps and surveillance, while Ensley worked undercover, setting up deals and capturing incriminating conversations on tape. And like the smugglers they stalked, the federal agents kept the two operations compartmentalized: Ensley was rarely informed how the task force was progressing.
At occasional family functions in the Inland Empire, at lunches in their old stomping grounds of Upland and Montclair, and in phone calls monitored by the FBI, Ensley rekindled with Valenzuela the idea of a pipeline to the Midwest. Ensley brought it up, he said, because he‘d heard from an old friend, somebody he’d met in high school. A native of Mexico, as it happened, whose father had made his fortune in pharmaceuticals. This friend, Ensley told Luis, was the black sheep of his family.
The story, of course, was fiction. In truth, Ensley was laying the groundwork to introduce Valenzuela to Victor Guerrero, a veteran undercover agent running the FBI end of the task force.
Negotiations over substantial shipments began in June and continued through the summer. A face-to-face meeting was set for August 28. Guerrero had a friend with a yacht anchored in Long Beach, a 60-foot Bertram cabin cruiser. It was neutral ground. They could meet there.
Task-force agents prepared the ship by installing hidden microphones and video cameras. Each of the parties arrived separately: Valenzuela with a bodyguard; Guerrero with a Mexican ”associate“ from Sinaloa, also undercover; and Ensley. Everyone carried a gun.
It was a lovely day, with sunlight glinting off the sea, and as host, Guerrero kept his assistant busy serving fresh lobster and giant shrimp, salsa and cold beer. Luis was wary, according to Ensley, but ”Victor was good. He looked the part, he knew the language, and he knew the moves. First they were feeling each other out, but then they got chummy. They were laughing, high-fiving, talking about how much product they were going to move.“
The crowning moment for Ensley came later that afternoon when Luis called for attention and made an announcement: Up to that point he‘d been sizing Skip up, Luis said, wondering what to make of this Anglo brother-in-law, but now he was satisfied. He reached over and grabbed Ensley ”in a big Sinaloa hug.“
It may have been an awkward embrace -- the bum-legged Mexican could barely get his arms around the barrel-chested cop -- but it certainly was heartfelt. After all, each had something to celebrate: Luis was excited at the prospect of opening up new territories, while Skip was animated by the confidence that, at long last, his quest to capture Valenzuela was bearing fruit. ”Nobody’d ever been able to get that close to the cartel before,“ Ensley said later. ”We‘d already made the heroin deal; now we’d finally be able to do some large shipments, and we‘d be able to put a substantial dent in the cartel.“
Over the next two months, with Ensley serving as intermediary, Valenzuela held three more meetings with Guerrero, the last on October 27, in Chicago. During that period, Ensley was collecting regular payments from the task force, for his expenses and also for his services as an informant. He began to voice concerns that no deal had yet been consummated, but Guerrero reassured him. ”’Don‘t worry,’ he told me,“ Ensley said. ”‘We know what we’re doing.‘“
What Ensley didn’t realize was that the task force was making progress on its own. Working with the Valenzuela phone numbers and addresses Ensley had supplied, the surveillance crews were piecing together a sketchy picture of the larger operation.
Within weeks of the first wiretap, agents had identified Valenzuela‘s right-hand man as ”Bunes,“ later identified as Osmand Israel Perez. Bunes had replaced Raul Valenzuela in the cartel hierarchy after he married the slain trafficker’s widow. As with Ensley, Luis was keeping the business inside the family.