For five sunny days in May, in a blue garage 10 houses down from a popular preschool on Pico Rivera's clean, middle-class Clarinda Avenue, police say, unspeakable torture was being carried out as neighborhood kids cycled by and neighbors claim they heard nothing.
The unnamed torture victim, 32, allegedly was taped to a chair in the garage by George Steven Karavolos, a purported higher-up in the violent Rivera 13 gang that takes its orders from the Mexican Mafia, known as La Eme.
Karavolos and two associates, now jailed on bails of $4 million to $5 million, starved the victim, cut off part of his ear, smashed his hand with a gun and branded his entire torso with a four-letter word using a scalding-hot knife, authorities say. Karavolos' defense attorney, Evan L. Ginsburg, who says Karavolos will plead not guilty, tells L.A. Weekly the word burned into the victim is "LAME."
As the torture wore on, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies say, Karavolos and his associates abducted the man's terrified wife and brought her to the garage, painted the same Dodger blue that Rivera 13 claims as its color. There, says Lt. Erik Ruble of the sheriff's Operation Safe Streets bureau, Karavolos threatened to kill them both. The wife was ordered to withdraw $6,000 from the bank and sign over the family's truck.
If she refused, "they would dispose of her husband," Ruble says.
All because the victim was overdue on a loan of just $200, he told authorities.
Sheriff's investigators have relocated the couple under a witness-protection program.
But Ginsburg says there's more to the story. "As far as I know, [the victim] was living with my client. All his clothes were there," he says, "and he ate and showered there." When further facts come out, he says, "this is really going to be one of the strangest stories. When the story comes out [at the preliminary hearing], it will be strange. And when the truth comes out, it will be even stranger."
The case is bizarre even by Southern California standards. Photos provided to Ginsburg by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office show that the branded word, "LAME," is made up of huge block letters that stretch from the victim's pubic bone to his pectorals. The man will live with them forever.
"They look pretty bad," says Ginsburg, whom Karavolos hired immediately after being jailed. "They look like fresh wounds."
In addition, the Weekly has determined that Karavolos is the same man who just five months ago was feted in the Whittier Daily News for helping to save two women from a house fire on Clarinda Avenue — and who claims to have saved his grandparents from a fire on that street in 2011.
But now, Karavolos and two alleged sidekicks are charged with torture, kidnapping for ransom, extortion and aggravated mayhem — all with a gang enhancement. Deputy District Attorney Brock Lunsford says the suspects "did these crimes for a criminal street gang. ... They are all looking at life in prison."
One week after the arrests, neighbors on pleasant Clarinda Avenue are petrified to open their doors, much less talk to the press. Their blinds are shut tight, their porch swings vacant.
One man who lives not far from the blue garage would talk through his screen door only on condition of anonymity, now that he knows "what kind of people they are." He says Karavolos had a "little daughter and a teenage son," and he "loved to talk." Karavolos told neighbors that the many cars and people who visited his house were due to the fact that he ran a home auto-repair business.
"We just figured he was a mechanic," says a young mom living nearby.
However, according to Lt. Ruble, Karavolos' home in the 8800 block of Clarinda Avenue was "being used for a number of criminal activities" and was "a residence where a lot of gang members were meeting and congregating."
Authorities say the abducted couple's nightmare ended when the kidnappers brazenly took the male captor out in public — and ordered him to steal items from a car as a final payback for the $200 debt. But police caught him breaking into the car, at which point the abductee pulled up his shirt and flashed his crude brand to prove he was a victim, not a thief.
When investigators raided Karavolos' garage, they say, they found torture weapons and other "forensic evidence."
Rivera 13, founded in the early 1960s, is the oldest of a few street gangs who operate in suburban, heavily Latino Pico Rivera, and its members have been known to lead a more middle-class lifestyle than some gangs.
"That part of Pico Rivera is like the Beverly Hills of East Los Angeles," says former sheriff's detective and widely known gang expert Richard Valdemar. "These kids are educated. They're not deprived like [some] kids in Boyle Heights, living with nothing in a shanty on the side of a hill."
According to Valdemar, it's common for better-off gangsters and Mexican Mafia members to promote a good samaritan image to the public — "all the while ordering murders, pushing dope, etc."
In 2011, the Rivera 13 gang made headlines in a case involving yet another tattoo that became evidence: One of its younger members, Anthony Garcia, murdered a rival Pico Nuevo gangster in 2004, then had details from the crime inked on his own chest. That evidence led to Garcia's conviction.
Sheriff's Detective Kevin Lloyd, the Rivera 13 expert who cracked the tattoo murder, tells the Weekly that Karavolos "is someone who is known to us. He has been arrested before, sometimes for gang-related crimes."
He notes that much of Rivera 13's criminal activity is ordered from above: "They're subservient to the Mexican Mafia. Their loyalty is to the Mafia, they pay taxes to Mafia, and they take orders from the Mafia."
The depiction by law enforcement of Karavolos as a member of a gang who takes his orders from La Eme makes his actions last January, when he made local headlines for saving two women from a house fire, all the more intriguing.
At the time, the Whittier Daily News reported that Karavolos was cruising down Clarinda Avenue, "only concerned with his first cup of coffee of the day, after sleeping in during his vacation." But when he saw flames, the 6-foot-tall, 317-pound Karavolos reportedly pulled his shirt over his head, dashed into a house next to the Small World Pre-School and pulled out 58-year-old Brenda McClendon, whose wheelchair was stuck in a doorway.
"Thank God for good people," McClendon's brother told the paper. "They saved my family."
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In a photo that accompanies the good samaritan story, Karavolos poses alongside two other men who helped, including Pico Rivera Public Works employee Dave Valdapena. The photograph shows Karavolos in a business suit, shiny black shoes and a Dodger-blue shirt and tie — Rivera 13's hue.
Looking back, city employee Valdapena says, "He was dressed nicely, and he seemed to be pretty courteous. It looked like he was going to work."
But Detective Lloyd says of Karavolos' clothing: "Maybe he watched Scarface too many times."
Pico Rivera City Councilman David Armenta, remembering how residents hailed Karavolos as a hero in January, now says: "He's a menace to society and should be put away for life. ... He should be locked up and the key thrown away."