East Los Angeles Hit Man Trained by Mexican Cartels 

A cunning American boy grows up to execute his friends and family

Thursday, Jun 17 2010
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On these streets in 1998, Smiley decided to return the insult done to his youthful gangster friend, 14-year-old Pena, who'd been attacked by East L.A. 13 gangbangers Hernandez and Ponce. LAPD Detective Chavarria says that as Pena looked on, the smiling Saenz casually approached the two young men as if to buy drugs, then shot Ponce in the chest, thigh and back and Hernandez three times in the head.

Bullets delivered to the head would become Saenz's signature. As Hernandez and Ponce lay bleeding, Smiley advised his young pal never to leave a crime scene until he was sure his targets were good and dead. "He said, 'Sometimes they fake it, or pretend they're dead,'  " Chavarria says Pena told police.

For the next several days after those killings, Southern California was caught in a blistering heat wave. The sun-baked San Fernando Valley saw record temperatures of 107 degrees in Chatsworth; Los Angeles and Orange County authorities received more than 100 calls per minute from motorists stranded in overheated cars, and air-conditioning repair businesses helped people with busted coolers and boiling tempers.

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It was, in short, a great week for a despicable act. Early on August 5, Smiley's dark-eyed former girlfriend, Sigreda Fernandez, mother of his toddler daughter, must have been worried when she saw Smiley and another gangster at the Pico-Aliso housing projects where she lived.

Nobody will ever know what was said between Smiley and Sigreda, or the rage and horror she endured when she realized he meant her harm. Police say Saenz and his accomplices abducted Fernandez, a Roosevelt High School graduate employed by the Santa Fe Railroad company, and drove her to Smiley's grandmother's house six miles away.

There, he told his grandmother to leave her own home. The older woman later claimed, according to a coroner's report, that she complied because Smiley said he and Fernandez had a lot of talking to do, and were trying to reconcile.

Three hours later, at 11 a.m., he called his grandmother and told her not to come home, authorities say, because he had just made a big mistake. But the elderly woman didn't obey this time. His grandmother returned to her cramped bungalow, where she discovered the slain Fernandez in the back bedroom, sprawled half-nude with a bullet wound to her temple. The only movement was a fan, eerily blowing near the body.

On a dresser at the foot of the bed, Sheriff's detectives found a pile of .357 magnum shells and a misspelled note that read: "the guys who drove me hear have nothing to do with this." On the living room wall, they found a message scrawled in pencil: Saenz asked his grandmother to take care of his child and told her he loved her.

Police quickly picked up one of Saenz's accomplices — none other than youngster Juan Pena. They ultimately charged Pena with the two homicides on Clarence Street after a tipster placed him at the scene with Saenz. Although not the shooter, he was convicted of murdering East L.A. 13 gang members Hernandez and Ponce and sent to the California Youth Authority, where he died at 17 of leukemia. But not before spilling his guts about Saenz's alleged premeditated murders of the two men who beat him up.

"I don't know why he decided to give up the whole story," Chavarria says. "Maybe part of it was because he knew he was going to die."

But Smiley fell off the face of the Earth, for 10 long years. Los Angeles authorities believe Saenz decided his best career move was to go south into Mexico, to learn the vicious drug trade on the other side of the border. There, Mexican authorities are in a losing war with the cartels, and the chances that they will find or keep tabs on Americans who have joined the dark side are poor.

"If you get to the level, you would probably have to be working for the cartel," Chavarria says. "You are the middleman at that point."

Garriola believes that Smiley is "involved in murder, as well as enforcement for the cartels. ... The money we found was earmarked for [Smiley]. Torres lost it and Torres was murdered." He says "squads" of Americans work here, enforcing Mexican cartels' deals. Cartels train Americans in outlaw camps in Mexico, where Smiley apparently was welcomed. According to the California Department of Justice, Mexican crime lords desire these recruits because they can easily cross the border and operate throughout California, using cartel training, including surveillance and ambush techniques.

Chavarria says the cross-border system of American and Mexican criminals "is huge. You can get a headache trying to take it all in."

In Mexico, Smiley hooked up with Rolando "Rolo" Ontiveros, the former private school and Cal State L.A. student turned Mexican Mafia soldier.

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