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
Not all the dealings within the cartel were so fraternal. In March, a robbery occurred at one of the houses where Castro collected drug proceeds. All that was missing were a gold chain, a Rolex watch and $10,000 -- far less than a single day‘s collections. But Castro heard from one of his cohorts that the likely suspects were Veronica and Gabriella, two of the women he employed to procure new stash houses.
Castro placed a call to Robocop. With agents from the task force listening in, Castro asked Robocop if he had a relationship with Gabriella. Robocop said no. Castro then told Robocop he believed it was Gabriella who committed the robbery, and Robocop agreed it ”must have been.“ Castro said both of them were going to ”get fucked.“ Any ambiguity in that statement was cleared up when ”Robocop asked Castro if they were going to have to kill both of them. Castro answered that ’If they both showed up, they would both be fucked.‘“
Castro then went into some detail, telling Robocop to question Gabriella to find out who else was involved before he killed her. Castro ”instructed Robocop to take her out to the desert [Palmdale] under the pretense of going to see a friend, and make sure the body was never discovered.“ He would not be satisfied, Castro said, until he knew who was involved in the robbery. According to the monitoring agent, Castro then told Robocop that if he’d never killed anyone before, he should go ahead and ”do it“ to see how it felt. Robocop said okay.
There‘s no record of whether Robocop carried out the plan, but the woman was never seen again. Skip Ensley only learned of the ominous phone call later, while reading through court papers on the case. He views the whole affair with disgust. The task force could have intervened, Ensley said -- after all, they already had identified Robocop, and they had all the evidence they needed to make an arrest. But that would compromise the wiretaps, and end the escalating string of seizures. ”They actually let those women get killed so they could protect their stats,“ Ensley said bitterly.
They were also, of course, seeking to land a crippling blow to the trafficking network. And though the smugglers seemed increasingly ubiquitous as the investigation went on, the task-force agents finally settled on an end game. They would move against Jorge Castro the next time he came to California.
Castro maintained homes on both sides of the border, and had stayed in Mexico since the task-force strikes of early January. He slipped back into the country in June, and wiretap monitors promptly picked up his trail. On June 26, 1998, Pomona officers assigned to the task force arrested Castro together with Layo, his primary money handler. Also picked up that week were Robocop, Castro’s enforcer, and Juan Carlos Perez Lopez, who delivered cocaine to customers for Valenzuela.
They were significant figures in the drug trade, but far short of the ”entire organization“ the task force had vowed to dismantle. In fact, the June arrests represented less than half the number of traffickers named in the indictment against Castro and his organization. No Luis Valenzuela. No Bunes. None of the seven other cell leaders to whom Castro supplied drugs. Asked how such viable targets had escaped the dragnet, Gene Johns said, ”Let‘s put it this way. There were a lot of fugitives because the takedown date was real close to World Cup soccer.“ The games that year were being held in France. Mexico advanced as far as the quarterfinals, and the task-force agents say Valenzuela and others had flown to Europe to attend a match.
Even as Operation Rio Blanco wound down, Ensley had one more shot at Luis Valenzuela. The incident is not recorded in court papers -- the paper trail runs cold on the occasion of the Castro arrest. But to Ensley it epitomizes his experience with the task force and his bitter disappointment in his personal quest to put his brother-in-law in jail.
According to Ensley, he received a call from Valenzuela himself the same day as the Castro arrest, warning him that police were moving and he should be careful. Two days later, Ensley spoke with Casiano, who asked Ensley to check if a warrant was out for Luis. They agreed to meet in Upland the next day. Ensley then called the FBI, and wore a wire to the sit-down with Casiano.
There, according to Ensley, Casiano explained that operations had been put on hold due to the Castro arrest, but that shipments would resume shortly. Luis needed to be on hand -- he would test the border in the following week, and would meet with Ensley once he was back in California.
Ensley saw the news as a reprieve -- Luis still trusted him despite the Castro arrest. George Eliot and the DEA planned to station officers at the border to monitor Valenzuela’s entry, but Ensley said he extracted a promise that the agents would stay back until the planned meeting with Luis. ”I wanted to put the cuffs on him myself,“ Ensley said.