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
FEDERAL PROSECUTORS on Wednesday afternoon charged George Torres, one of South Los Angeles’ largest property owners and the owner of the Numero Uno supermarket chain, with conspiracy to commit murder. Also charged on a variety of racketeering offenses, such as extortion and bribery, were several codefendants, including Torres’ brother Manuel, son Steven and former Los Angeles city planning commissioners Steve Carmona and George Luk.
The federal indictment was unsealed in federal court in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday. Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Searight, who filed the indictment, requested that the court unseal it. High-powered attorneys Brian Sun and Jeff Rawitz of the firm Jones Day were in court to represent Torres, and Sun called it “an unusual case,” adding, “Mr. Torres is a standup businessman. He built his business through hard work and community development.” Rawitz commented on the indictment, “It’s an incredible document.”
The indictment charges Torres with bribing then–city planning commissioner Steve Carmona to gain approval of an alcohol permit at one of his South L.A. markets. “Is there any bling-bling?” Carmona said in a voice-mail message for Torres on March 19, 2004, the indictment states.
The racketeering offenses date back to 1985 and include a series of allegations over the course of 20 years, among them possession of stolen goods, conspiracy to commit murder, harboring of undocumented aliens and conspiracy to engage in extortion and bribery. “Torres exploited his own workers through physical intimidation and hired drug dealers as muscle,” Searight said.
Humberto Diaz, attorney for former Los Angeles city planning commissioner Luk, had no comment. Mark Werksman, the attorney for Carmona, a former Los Angeles city Central Area planning commissioner, did not return calls at press time.
Agents with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program took Torres into custody at his home Tuesday in Arcadia and searched his business headquarters at 700 East Jefferson Boulevard, also arresting his brother, son and others in what figures to be a complex and riveting federal racketeering case against one of L.A.’s most mysterious businessmen.
Torres started out with a food cart on a street corner in the humble neighborhoods south of downtown Los Angeles, in the LAPD’s Newton Division, and amassed a small empire of grocery stores and real estate holdings stretching from industrial properties in South L.A. to a horse farm in Santa Barbara County.
But with his arrest Tuesday and the charges filed against him Wednesday afternoon, his rags-to-riches story will be tainted by the federal charges.
Torres is best known as a former business associate of Horacio “Carlos” Vignali, who in the late 1990s lobbied city officials, state legislators, U.S. congressmen, former U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas and Cardinal Roger Mahony to write letters urging President Bill Clinton to grant clemency to Vignali’s drug-dealer son, Carlos Vignali Jr., leading in part to a national scandal known as “Pardongate.”
However, Vignali is not named in the Torres indictment.
Torres is one of the largest, if not the largest, private landowners in South L.A., with his holdings starting at Washington Boulevard and extending south. His Numero Uno markets have flourished throughout the Los Angeles area, and he was estimated at one time to have a net worth of at least $300 million, according to Drug Enforcement Administration documents obtained by the L.A. Weekly.
In the past, he has been convicted of several gun-possession charges, including a probation violation for being a felon in possession of a gun, according to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. But DEA documents also state that the LAPD named him a suspect in two murders dating back to the 1990s. Those documents surfaced in 2002 as part of a congressional report resulting from Pardongate.
The Weekly explored Pardongate in detail in 2005, including the history of business and real estate transactions between Torres and Vignali. LAPD sources confirmed for the Weekly at the time that Torres was under investigation for the suspected murder of a former employee gone missing and presumed dead. At the time of his disappearance in the late 1990s, that employee, Ignacio Meza, was wanted for conspiracy to distribute cocaine by federal authorities in Alabama. The indictment alleges that Torres conspired with Meza to commit a pair of murders — and then had Meza himself murdered. His body has not been found.
Torres’ attorneys, Michael Adelson and Robert Eisfelder, confirmed for the Weekly at that time that detectives searched Torres’ Jefferson Boulevard warehouse, which sits adjacent to his flagship market, in late 2004, but insist police found nothing to implicate Torres in anything illegal. In a 2005 interview, Eisfelder denied strenuously that his client was involved with any illegal activity.
“As we look closely into his affairs, we find him to be a Horatio Alger–type figure, a self-made man whose story is an inspiration,” Eisfelder said at the time.
THE TORRES-VIGNALI CONNECTION is explored in detail in a congressional report that resulted from Pardongate, when revelations surfaced that President Clinton granted clemency for Carlos Vignali Jr. — convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 15 years in federal prison in 1995 — along with other convicted criminals and one-time international fugitive Marc Rich. The granting of clemency occurred after payments were made to Clinton’s brother-in-law, Hugh Rodham, the brother of former first lady, New York state senator and 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.