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The Hunt for Jose Smiley Saenz 

Linda Muse spent years tracking FBI's Most Wanted

Thursday, Dec 13 2012
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Linda Muse spent many holidays staking out the far-flung homes of Smiley Saenz's relatives.

PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

Linda Muse spent many holidays staking out the far-flung homes of Smiley Saenz's relatives.

Linda Muse's ringing cellphone interrupted Thanksgiving dinner.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's homicide detective excused herself, abandoning a warm table of friends, relatives, turkey and cranberry sauce — and stepped back into a world of blood and horror. It would be the 32-year veteran's last interrupted holiday. Her retirement was just weeks away.

"Muse," she answered gruffly.

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"Guess who we have?" her longtime partner, sheriff's detective Traci Healy, asked. Muse moved away from the table so the revelers couldn't hear. "I don't want to play guessing games," Muse growled. "This is a holiday. Get to the point."

"We have Saenz," Healy said.

"Jose Saenz?" Muse said.

In truth, suspected multiple murderer and rumored Mexican drug cartel hit man Jose Luis "Smiley" Saenz was the only Saenz in her caseload. She just couldn't believe he'd actually been caught. He had eluded local and national authorities for 14 years — Muse herself for four. She set up stakeouts and raids all over Los Angeles to catch "Smiley." She returned empty-handed from manhunts in El Paso, Texas, and Lafayette, La.

Muse and other detectives were so desperate for a break that they'd tracked down Saenz's distant relatives, flown across the United States and staked out their homes over the holidays in 2008 and 2009, hoping the elusive killer would show up.

He never did.

On New Year's Eve 2010, an informant told Muse that Saenz was partying at a nightclub in Pico Rivera. She and a surveillance team swarmed the place. He wasn't there. She heard rumors he was in Canada, Mexico, Los Angeles. But he was nowhere.

Could it be that Saenz, one of the most chilling criminals on FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, had finally been caught? "Yes," Healy told Muse.

L.A. Weekly was the first newspaper to shine a light on Saenz, an Eastside boy who some police believe was trained to kill south of the border by Mexican cartels. On June 17, 2010, the Weekly published an in-depth investigation and a graphic, disturbing, grainy home-security video, apparently of Smiley, taken on Oct. 5, 2008, in Whittier.

In the security tape, a man identified by police as Saenz rocks from side to side, grinning, as he waits on a porch for his friend, drug dealer Oscar Torres, to open his front door. Torres lets Smiley and two other men inside, the video shows, but minutes later Torres, now wearing only boxer shorts, flees out his front door. The man ID'd as Saenz chases Torres into the front yard, and when Torres falls down, holding up his arms pleadingly, the smiling madman empties his gun into Torres at point-blank range.

Police believe that Saenz was livid that Torres, while doing a cash run between L.A. and New York with $600,000 earmarked for Saenz, got pulled over by Missouri state troopers — who confiscated the suspicious fortune. That cash, police believe, was Smiley's.

The front-yard execution, one of four murders Saenz, 37, is officially suspected of, put Detective Muse on his tail and earned Smiley a Most Wanted spot.

"Once we learned who it was, that he was responsible for three murders prior to ours, it was evident that he's a serial killer," Muse says. "He's probably really good for more than the four murders we're aware of."

Authorities say Smiley began young, with the double execution of two gang members, Leonardo Ponce, 18, and Josue Hernandez, 25, on July 25, 1998. Less than two weeks later, Saenz horrified even hardened gangsters by brutally killing his girlfriend, Sigreda Fernandez — the pretty mother of his young daughter.

Police say Saenz and another gangster kidnapped Fernandez, 21, at gunpoint in front of her mother, took her to the home Saenz shared with his grandmother and told his grandmother to leave. Hours later, Saenz's grandmother returned to find Fernandez face-up in a pool of blood on Saenz's bed. She'd been raped and shot in the temple. Muse says it appeared that the cold-blooded Saenz wanted to be sure his girlfriend could never tell authorities about the killing of Ponce and Hernandez.

After that, for a decade, the heartless killer from East L.A. was little more than a rumor. 

As a teen, Linda Muse loved true-crime magazines, with their stories of monstrous murderers and the heroic detectives who brought them down. Years later, she worked her way up in the Sheriff's Department, spending a decade investigating child abusers and molesters. She joined Homicide 12 years ago, and has since led or helped probe more than 1,000 homicides.

Muse, in her 50s with curly black hair, who feverishly follows the adventures of author Michael Connelly's fictional LAPD detective, Harry Bosch, could make a fine protagonist: A grizzled and blunt detective, she visits the gym as religiously as she attends church, and she doesn't drink — her drink is a Shirley Temple. But she drives like a bat out of hell.

Just two weeks away from the end of her career, she's haunted by Smiley and how he eluded them. "He's running amok, but we couldn't pin him down," Muse explains.

After Torres' execution, Saenz's name took on an almost mythic quality. Even with a $100,000 reward on his head, no witnesses came forward. Word was that this L.A. kid had become an assassin and kidnapper for the drug lords. Nobody knew what was true.

Muse and Healy joined forces with LAPD Detective Ron Chavarria and worked the Saenz case — hard — for years.

"He's here, there, he's right under your nose," recalls Chavarria, who started tracking Saenz after the 1998 double gang slayings. It was maddening, years later, to have to take on Saenz as a now-unsolved, "cold" case. "It's like chasing a ghost all those years. ... All of our leads were really blind leads. We were really just following anything," Chavarria recalls.

So when a shadowy tip recently came to the feds that Smiley was living above a beauty salon in Guadalajara, Muse, Healy and Chavarria saw no reason to get worked up. Somebody was checking it out.

As they enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner with their families, they were stunned to get official word that a Mexican police SWAT team had captured the wily, feared fugitive — living in a nothing apartment in Mexico.

"I don't think we actually believed we had him — until we interviewed him that Sunday," Healy says.

Muse, Healy and Chavarria finally met Saenz three days after Thanksgiving, in a spartan interrogation room in Men's Central Jail.

"You think (Saenz) is going to be an asshole or stupid," Muse tells the Weekly. But he was charming and polite. He maintained eye contact, and he said a lot — but danced around the questions about his alleged crimes. "Someone who can run for 14 years, you've gotta have some kind of brain," Muse says.

The three detectives couldn't detail their nearly four-hour interview of Saenz. But Saenz bragged to them that he'd been stopped by police multiple times over the years, and slid away, protected in part by a good fake ID. But, he told them, he had screwed up and gotten sloppy. Stayed in his current apartment too long, used the phone too many times.

Chavarria believes he may have detected a hint of relief in Saenz. The chase was over.

"So much closure," Chavarria says. "You don't know whether to celebrate, or just sit down and sigh in relief. We're just so happy it's over."

Muse will attend Saenz's trial, but not as a homicide detective. She leaves her job Dec. 30. She and Healy, who together made up the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's very first female-female, on-scene homicide team, will no longer be partners.

A poster on the Homicide bureau's wall, announcing her retirement, shows Muse's cartoon likeness wearing a beret and hauling Neiman Marcus bags. She has dreamed of traveling to Paris and shopping without interruption.

Some ex-detectives keep a hand in, by helping probe the cold-case files. But Muse shakes her head. She can't worry any longer about the violent suspects who slipped through the net. There's victory in seeing the one who got caught.

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