Numero Uno Versus LAPD

Veteran LAPD cop Greg Kading had since his days as a rookie cop in Newton Division 21 years ago been intensely interested in George Torres, whom he watched rise from lowly food-cart operator to founder of a grocery empire. Kading once said, in court, of Numero Uno supermarket magnate Torres, “He doesn’t recognize the law. ... I’ve never seen a sense of fear that’s evoked in people the way they are when you mention Mr. Torres.”

But in front-page headlines this month, U.S. prosecutors made the stunning admission that their racketeering case against Torres had unraveled, as had the wealthy enterpreneur’s conviction for soliciting the murder of gangster Jose “Shorty” Maldonado. After his May conviction, Torres was facing life behind bars. Instead, just weeks later, a colossal embarrassment played out, reminding some of the federal prosecutorial debacle involving former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.

Now, attention shifts to Kading’s controversial taped conversations with jailhouse snitches, and newly discovered jailhouse tapes that the defense team did not know existed. Although the new tapes are not believed to include Kading, previous tapes heard by the jury contained “numerous and repeated promises of leniency and providing numerous benefits,” made by Kading in exchange for the two men’s testimony against Torres, according to defense attorney Steven G. Madison. Madison says that in one conversation, Kading says, “It’s always this way, man. I have to come up with the answers and tell you — and then you just say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”

A team of four assistant U.S. prosecutors reporting to Acting U.S. Attorney George Cardona asked U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson to dismiss the racketeering convictions against Torres, including solicitation for murder, after prosecutors obtained previously unknown audio tapes made at the Santa Ana City Jail — where federal inmates are sometimes housed — involving jailhouse informant Raul Del Real, a former Torres associate. Torres, one of the biggest landowners in South Los Angeles, also regained control of $110 million in assets, and his lawyer is seeking dismissal of his remaining convictions.

In an interview three days after that June 9 bombshell, Madison told L.A. Weekly that some of the newly unearthed tapes have not been reviewed, so it is not known if they are different “in kind” from the hundreds of jailhouse conversations Torres’ defense had subpoenaed, and in some instances had played for the jury.

Madison says Wilson’s dismissals of the key counts were prompted by the emergence of the new tapes, together with arguments by the defense during trial, that Detective Kading had threatened, as well as promised leniency and money to, Raul Del Real and Derrick Smith, who are serving long sentences for cocaine distribution.

Judge Wilson, who during trial had openly questioned Kading’s credibility and chastised him for making misstatements on a search affidavit, said that the crumbling of the case was “not totally unforeseen,” that he’d been skeptical of the veracity of some witnesses and “was concerned about this police officer Kading.”

Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and Loyola Law School professor, last week moderated a panel discussion between Cardona, a defense attorney and a federal judge about the government’s bungling of “discovery” evidence that must be provided to the defense, such as the secret tapes in the Torres case — missteps that have played a major role in the self-destruction of six high-profile federal cases this year. Of the Torres debacle, Levenson says, “In some ways it’s more important than Stevens; Stevens wasn’t looking at a life sentence.” (Cardona declined to comment following the discussion.)

Torres, 52, spent two years in jail, even as the judge questioned the credibility of lead detective Kading, who was part of a federal multiagency task force. So how did Torres, convicted of two RICO (racketeering) counts and 53 other felonies, including bribery, harboring undocumented workers and failing to pay some withholding taxes, get sprung almost immediately amidst the wreckage of a fumbled prosecution?

Alluding to the Stevens case, in which a judge in April voided the former senator’s felony ethics convictions due to alleged misconduct by federal prosecutors, Madison claims that “the dismissal of the most serious charges is a direct result of the conduct we proved and alleged. The Ted Stevens case is an analogy Judge Wilson used himself. It’s not about winning at all costs.” He says the original tapes obtained by the defense revealed several occasions on which Kading promised leniency or benefits to cocaine distributors Del Real and Smith, also a former Torres associate.

Del Real and Smith told a federal grand jury they weren’t promised leniency or money, but on cross-examination admitted such offers were made by Kading, Madison says.

Sources familiar with the new jailhouse tapes said they seem similar to those obtained earlier, and that they do not seem to provide a “smoking gun” against anyone. Those sources said the prosecutor’s decision to dismiss the most serious charges could be a preemptive move to stop the defense from obtaining even more embarrassing material. The Office of the U.S. Attorney did not return calls for this story.

Wilson in November chastised Kading for making “certain inaccurate statements intentionally or with reckless disregard for the truth” on an affidavit seeking to search eight Numero Uno markets. The judge cited instances in which Kading misstated conversations or omitted others in justifying the need for investigators to search the supermarkets.

At one hearing, Wilson said a conversation with Torres’ brother, Manuel Torres, would have “negatively affected the magistrate’s finding of probable cause,” which determined the scope of the search — but that conversation was left off the affidavit by Kading.

And Wilson said he was “suspicious” about other Kading statements that differed from wiretapped transcriptions. “Each one of the inaccurate statements had the effect of altering the meaning of the statement to fit the purposes of the investigating police,” the judge said.

LAPD Deputy Chief Charles Beck says LAPD is reviewing the case and testimony, and is talking to federal prosecutors. “We’re looking into all of it. It’s too early to make a judgment,” he says, noting that the questions surrounding Kading’s work were aired before the jury reached its guilty verdict against Torres. Kading did not testify at the trial, and numerous attempts by the Weekly to reach Kading, including through Beck, were unsuccessful.

But Madison, in court documents filed in February, declared that, “The entire case brought by the government against Mr. Torres is based primarily on Detective Kading, who spent 20 years investigating Mr. Torres, including interviewing nearly every government witness. Detective Kading has also remained in almost constant communication with key cooperating witnesses and he testified before the grand jury.”

In court documents, Kading said Torres was known in the criminal realm as “El Diablo,” and that as Kading probed Torres’ dealings, he “became aware of all the criminal activity that began to occur around his stores.” At a May 2008 hearing at which bail was denied to Torres, his then-attorney Brian A. Sun argued that Kading was making “wholly unsupported and inaccurate representations on the topics of danger and risk of flight,” and that the detective was “too close to the case.”

Kading responded that freeing Torres on bail would be “awfully risky” and would jeopardize lives — and he alleged that Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley had been prepared to prosecute Torres for four murders. Cooley spokeswoman Jane Robison said the office could make no comment during an ongoing federal case.

The vulnerabilities of the case received far less attention than the more salacious aspects of Torres’ rags-to-riches story. Much of the media focus was on his rise from street-corner vendor to mastermind of an alleged criminal enterprise, maintained by intimidating employees and others using thugs and drug dealers, and including alleged illegal dealings with former public officials.

Levenson says the recent developments may taint the U.S. Attorney’s Office, even though the office acted properly in turning over the previously unreported batch of tapes, by affecting “the credibility of prosecutors” in future cases.

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