For anyone wise to the socio-economic realities in blue-collar L.A., and for any of the hundreds of thousands of working-class folks who shopped at Numero Uno grocery stores over the past 20 years, the federal racketeering trial of George Torres in downtown Los Angeles was a chilling affair.
Here was a semiliterate man with seven children who embodied the immigrant success story: from produce route to grocery store magnate, with real estate holdings all over South L.A., not to mention a ranch in Santa Ynez. Charged with tax fraud, bribery and solicitation of murder in allegedly running his grocery store chain as a criminal enterprise, here also was a man who flew in private jets to gamble in Las Vegas with drug dealers, a man whose name was uttered in hushed tones in the barrios of L.A.’s violent Newton Division.
Seated each day between his expensive lawyers and dressed in fine clothes, the stocky 52-year-old grocer would have liked to have passed for a rough-around-the-edges CEO, or even an enigmatic working-class hero being targeted for his curious association with unsavory characters. But his lined face, rigid jaw and deep-set eyes projected a darker image that told observers — and perhaps jurors — to beware.
Despite Torres’ April 20 jury conviction on 55 of 56 RICO counts, the case was by no means a slam-dunk. For weeks, the case against Torres, a symbol of either the ethnic striver or the ingenious gangster — or both — seemed tenuous. Similarly, a lengthy federal prison sentence is not a foregone conclusion: Torres’ motion to set aside the verdict is scheduled for June 1.
For much of the trial, Torres’ children and his longtime companion Dolores Notti listened impassively to evidence that described a man they perhaps do not know. Interested observers, including members of the media, were unimpressed as mild-mannered Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Searight and his team of prosecutors laid out the case in a calm, orderly and sometimes tedious fashion. Irritable U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson admonished the prosecution for dwelling on intricacies about how Torres ran his multimillion-dollar grocery chain as if it were his personal cash register, while cheating on taxes and exploiting immigrant labor. Defense lawyer Steven G. Madison, a Pasadena City Councilman and former federal prosecutor, bashed the case’s lead detective and twisted the words of the hardened criminals who testified against Torres.
Stunning jury verdict aside, the most significant aspect of Torres’ storied existence was never explicit during the trial. Still, those familiar with the insinuations swirling around Torres [read Anderson’s LA Weekly coverage from the 2005 cover feature “L.A.’s Underground Power Broker” through the 2007 story “Numero Uno's George Torres Faces Murder Charges: Rags-to-Riches Story of L.A. Grocery King Goes Sour”], would have picked up on a series of troubling and seemingly disconnected allegations and associations brought up during the trial, including the degree to which the so-called legitimate businessman and community icon was able, for more than 20 years, to straddle the worlds of drug trafficking and big-city corruption.
The first time I ever heard the name George Torres I was walking through his swap meet, Los Amigos Mall, on East Jefferson Boulevard in South L.A. It was 2005, and I was with an L.A.P.D. officer named Peter Torres (no relation to George), who was running for City Council in the 9th District. I asked Peter who owned the swap meet, and he responded in a near whisper. I did not know that Peter had run a previous campaign out of the same swap meet, or that his name had surfaced in a criminal investigation of George Torres, or that a federal grand jury was already in session.
Law enforcers in Newton Division had been suspicious of George Torres since the mid-1980s. While his chain of Numero Uno markets had expanded as if on steroids, his name, according to documents filed in federal court, surfaced in connection with random unsolved homicides in 1983 and 1986. Numerous informants told detectives that Torres was fearsome and rumored to be the major supplier behind known drug traffickers. Eventually he was charged in three other murders and convicted of soliciting the murder of Playboys gang member Jose “Shorty” Maldonado, who made the grave mistake of attempting to extort a tax from Torres.
At the same time, Torres had been a target in at least three major drug task force investigations that linked him to operatives of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel and the Arellano-Felix Cartel in Tijuana.
However, Torres was also establishing himself as an entrepreneur and a community leader who reputedly stepped in to quell violence during the South L.A. riots of the mid-1990s, and who rubbed elbows with members of L.A.’s political establishment. L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca told a Congressional Committee investigating the Clinton Pardongate scandal involving L.A. businessman Horacio Vignali that Torres was a reputable businessman. A Torres associate told investigators he saw Torres hand stacks of money to then-councilman Mike Hernandez, and that former councilman Richard Alatorre appeared to be getting favors from Torres.
Many other allegations are found in investigative files that were unsealed in the two years since Torres was indicted, in June 2007. But some of the most damning information never saw the cold light of a public trial in Judge Wilson’s courtroom. Wilson excluded evidence that suggested Torres not only befriended drug dealers who committed crimes for him, but got high with them as well. Wilson also excluded evidence that Torres had purchased a Mac-10 gun for a drug-dealer associate who Torres then allegedly instructed to kill on his behalf, until Torres allegedly had that associate killed for stealing from him. (Torres was acquitted of having the associate, Ignacio Meza, killed. Meza’s body has never been found.)
Yet the jury heard enough to reach a speedy decision: Torres was convicted on almost every count, including his attempt to bribe former L.A. City planning commissioners Steven Carmona and George Luk to secure a zoning permit.
Still, the question remains, how many other public officials were influenced by Torres’ money? How many other L.A.P.D. officers got close enough to Torres to arouse suspicion? The indictment states that an L.A. City Councilman appeared to be waiting in the wings to receive bag money from Torres, via Carmona and Luk.
Who could that have been? Is that person still in office?
Downey Police Sergeant Gilbert Toledo is a veteran drug task force detective who pursued Torres for years, believing him to be a drug kingpin. (Other law enforcers maintain that if Torres ever dealt drugs, he stopped after a close call in the 1990s.) Toledo wasn’t involved in the recent investigation, but he has a strong sense of what kind of man he was chasing. In Toledo’s mind, Torres is “out there,”: as brash as he is dangerous and manipulative.
But Toledo also sees Torres as an example of a larger problem that exists right under the noses of citizens and elected leaders. “The majority of the crime we see is ultimately related to drugs,” Toledo says, noting that massive amounts of drug proceeds circulating in Southern California’s economy are a corrupting influence. “There’s so much money coming into this area. Money is power, and it controls people.”
In that sense, some might see little distinction between Torres the convicted racketeer and Torres the suspected drug trafficker. It’s just that one case could be proven, while the other could not. But that doesn’t mean the government should not be doing more to follow drug money as it ends up in legitimate businesses or the coffers of corrupt police and politicians. Corruption probes are above Toledo’s pay grade, though. He stays focused on the streets.
“George is a real piece of work,” says Toledo. “But there are other Georges out there, and they’re being looked at.”