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But unsettling news about Saenz kept dribbling in. A woman in Boyle Heights had been kidnapped for money, a crime rarely seen in Los Angeles, yet harrowingly similar to the crisis in Mexico, where thousands of kidnappings have occurred. She was released unharmed after a large, undisclosed amount was paid to her abductors. Chavarria heard about it all later, and street rumors pointed to Saenz.
It's not hard to hide in plain sight in massive, diverse, messy Los Angeles and its eastern suburbs. At the entrance to Pellissier Village in Whittier, signs warn that horses use the same roads. In fact, they and their riders amble freely down the middle of the streets. Roosters cock-a-doodle-do. About 80 percent of the 200 residences include horses in stables behind modest, plain-Jane houses. Others have miniature donkeys or a cow or two. People ride along the nearby San Gabriel River, just up from the treasured wetland ecosystem of the Whittier Narrows. Though only 20 minutes from L.A., the area, designated as a equestrian district in 1972, has a small-town feel.
Its peace was shaken early on October 5, 2008, when shots rang out. Responding police found the bullet-ridden body of Oscar Torres on the front lawn of his two-bedroom house on Mardel Avenue. One neighbor, awakened by nearby knocking and gunfire, recalls, "My daughter told me to stay down."
Neighbors knew Oscar Torres as Sam, a "nice guy who never bothered anyone" and who operated a party-equipment rental business and a stretch Hummer-limo service. But close friends say he went by the street name EZ and was a martial arts practitioner who routinely frisked even his friends.
"If he met you, he would shake you down," says Efrain Bello, whose late brother, Bogart, was close to Torres and Ontiveros before his own bizarre death. Torres "didn't trust anybody. But he was extremely loyal. When my brother disappeared, he was the first person there. He wasn't afraid of anybody. He was well-respected on the streets."
Inside the home where Torres was slain, detectives found a man barely alive, who'd been shot in the back. Inside a sauna in Torres' bedroom, they found two duffel bags crammed with 40 handguns and assault rifles. Wedged between his mattress and box spring was a short rifle. Over his bedroom door a sign read EZ Street.
"None of the cars were registered in his [real] name," says Detective Gonzales. "He had no ties to anything. We talked to many of the neighbors and they had no idea. They just knew him as Sam. There were multiple people who said, 'Nice guy, we never would have known.' "
Detectives also found a high-tech system of monitors that would later provide chilling video evidence pointing directly to his friend Smiley as Torres' killer.
Anthony Limon, the victim found shot in the back, told detectives that he'd agreed as a favor to limo-service owner "Sam" to ferry around four guys in his Hummer limo that night, picking up the first three and taking them to a spot in the Long Beach area — the upscale Elephant Bar Restaurant in suburban Lakewood — where they picked up Smiley. Then it was on to El Parral Club in working-class South Gate, then several hours cruising in Hollywood, then back to Lakewood.
But one of the guys, who police later determined was Saenz, was restless. He ordered Limon to drive to Montebello, then at 5 a.m. ordered him to drive to the limo owner's home in Whittier.
Later, at a dramatic meeting between Traci Gonzales and FBI special agent Garriola, she showed him the video retrieved from that night. Like a scene out of The Ring, the video flickers with shadowy, ethereal black-and-white images of Saenz smiling and rubbing his hands together gleefully while knocking repeatedly on Torres' door. At one point, Saenz reaches into his pants pocket to check on something.
Torres is seen opening the door in his underwear, and the men barge in. Limon told police that inside, Smiley pulled a gun on Torres, so Limon jumped in front of Torres and pleaded with Smiley to calm down. Instead, Limon was hit on the head, and as he fell he heard one of the men he'd driven around all night bark out: "Dome him!" — street lingo for a bullet to the head. Before the shot slammed into his back, he recalled to cops, Limon heard someone giggle.
It was all about that vast amount of cash sitting back in Missouri, confiscated three months earlier by the St. Charles County cops, who pulled Torres over. "There was some money owed and a timetable," Garriola says. "Oscar didn't meet it."
Gonzales says Torres had already been forced, either by the local Mexican Mafia or the cartels in Mexico, to prove that the money had really been confiscated by the St. Charles deputies. "We heard through informants he took the letter [a receipt provided by the Missouri cops] and showed it to his people," she says.