FEDERAL PROSECUTORS on Wednesday afternoon charged George Torres, one of South Los Angeles’ largest property owners and the owner of the Numero Uno supermarket chain, with conspiracy to commit murder. Also charged on a variety of racketeering offenses, such as extortion and bribery, were several codefendants, including Torres’ brother Manuel, son Steven and former Los Angeles city planning commissioners Steve Carmona and George Luk.
The federal indictment was unsealed in federal court in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday. Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Searight, who filed the indictment, requested that the court unseal it. High-powered attorneys Brian Sun and Jeff Rawitz of the firm Jones Day were in court to represent Torres, and Sun called it “an unusual case,” adding, “Mr. Torres is a standup businessman. He built his business through hard work and community development.” Rawitz commented on the indictment, “It’s an incredible document.”
The indictment charges Torres with bribing then–city planning commissioner Steve Carmona to gain approval of an alcohol permit at one of his South L.A. markets. “Is there any bling-bling?” Carmona said in a voice-mail message for Torres on March 19, 2004, the indictment states.
The racketeering offenses date back to 1985 and include a series of allegations over the course of 20 years, among them possession of stolen goods, conspiracy to commit murder, harboring of undocumented aliens and conspiracy to engage in extortion and bribery. “Torres exploited his own workers through physical intimidation and hired drug dealers as muscle,” Searight said.
Humberto Diaz, attorney for former Los Angeles city planning commissioner Luk, had no comment. Mark Werksman, the attorney for Carmona, a former Los Angeles city Central Area planning commissioner, did not return calls at press time.
Agents with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program took Torres into custody at his home Tuesday in Arcadia and searched his business headquarters at 700 East Jefferson Boulevard, also arresting his brother, son and others in what figures to be a complex and riveting federal racketeering case against one of L.A.’s most mysterious businessmen.
Torres started out with a food cart on a street corner in the humble neighborhoods south of downtown Los Angeles, in the LAPD’s Newton Division, and amassed a small empire of grocery stores and real estate holdings stretching from industrial properties in South L.A. to a horse farm in Santa Barbara County.
But with his arrest Tuesday and the charges filed against him Wednesday afternoon, his rags-to-riches story will be tainted by the federal charges.
Torres is best known as a former business associate of Horacio “Carlos” Vignali, who in the late 1990s lobbied city officials, state legislators, U.S. congressmen, former U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas and Cardinal Roger Mahony to write letters urging President Bill Clinton to grant clemency to Vignali’s drug-dealer son, Carlos Vignali Jr., leading in part to a national scandal known as “Pardongate.”
However, Vignali is not named in the Torres indictment.
Torres is one of the largest, if not the largest, private landowners in South L.A., with his holdings starting at Washington Boulevard and extending south. His Numero Uno markets have flourished throughout the Los Angeles area, and he was estimated at one time to have a net worth of at least $300 million, according to Drug Enforcement Administration documents obtained by the L.A. Weekly.
In the past, he has been convicted of several gun-possession charges, including a probation violation for being a felon in possession of a gun, according to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. But DEA documents also state that the LAPD named him a suspect in two murders dating back to the 1990s. Those documents surfaced in 2002 as part of a congressional report resulting from Pardongate.
The Weekly explored Pardongate in detail in 2005, including the history of business and real estate transactions between Torres and Vignali. LAPD sources confirmed for the Weekly at the time that Torres was under investigation for the suspected murder of a former employee gone missing and presumed dead. At the time of his disappearance in the late 1990s, that employee, Ignacio Meza, was wanted for conspiracy to distribute cocaine by federal authorities in Alabama. The indictment alleges that Torres conspired with Meza to commit a pair of murders — and then had Meza himself murdered. His body has not been found.
Torres’ attorneys, Michael Adelson and Robert Eisfelder, confirmed for the Weekly at that time that detectives searched Torres’ Jefferson Boulevard warehouse, which sits adjacent to his flagship market, in late 2004, but insist police found nothing to implicate Torres in anything illegal. In a 2005 interview, Eisfelder denied strenuously that his client was involved with any illegal activity.
“As we look closely into his affairs, we find him to be a Horatio Alger–type figure, a self-made man whose story is an inspiration,” Eisfelder said at the time.
THE TORRES-VIGNALI CONNECTION is explored in detail in a congressional report that resulted from Pardongate, when revelations surfaced that President Clinton granted clemency for Carlos Vignali Jr. — convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 15 years in federal prison in 1995 — along with other convicted criminals and one-time international fugitive Marc Rich. The granting of clemency occurred after payments were made to Clinton’s brother-in-law, Hugh Rodham, the brother of former first lady, New York state senator and 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Released in March 2002 by the congressional Committee on Government Reform, “Justice Undone: Clemency Decisions in the Clinton White House” details Hugh Rodham’s involvement in the Vignali affair, as well as the long business history Vignali once shared with George Torres.
The report takes to task top L.A. elected officials, including county Supervisor Gloria Molina, then–state Senator Richard Polanco, then–state Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Representative Xavier Becerra, among others, for lobbying on behalf of Vignali Jr., in light of his drug conviction and the fact that DEA agents long suspected Vignali Sr. to be involved in drug trafficking — along with Torres. While a member of the California state Assembly, Villaraigosa wrote the first letter on Vignali’s behalf on May 24, 1996.
In particular, L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca and former U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas were heavily criticized for lobbying for Vignali Jr.’s clemency. The report found the input of Baca and Mayorkas to the White House to be “instrumental” in the decision to grant clemency to Vignali Jr., who at his drug-trafficking trial in 1994 confirmed a close family association with Torres. Attorneys for Torres told the Weekly in 2005 that the association between the Vignalis and Torres has long since ended.
It is unclear if any of the DEA documents incorporated in the congressional report form the basis of any of the charges filed Wednesday against Torres. However, the indictment states that associates of Torres distributed large quantities of cocaine and received cars and free grocery-store items in exchange for taking violent actions on behalf of Torres.
According to 1993 and 1997 DEA reports, Torres allegedly maintained a Jefferson Boulevard warehouse full of luxury vehicles, antique lowriders, and tractor-trailers used to move cocaine by concealing the drugs inside laundry detergent and jalapeño-chile cans. He and Vignali were identified as immediate targets of a drug-trafficking investigation, the reports state. The reports further state that the DEA had been informed that the Torres drug-trafficking outfit came into existence in the mid-1980s, distributing 1,800 kilos by the early 1990s.
A 1998 DEA report states that the elder Vignali was believed to be a financial partner in the Torres organization, allegedly setting up meetings between Torres and “individuals with extensive criminal backgrounds.” They were moving 100 kilos per month, the report states. In 1996, the report states, Torres’ grocery stores had sales of $50 million. Investigators believed he was laundering drug money through his stores and real estate transactions. Searight said the government lacks sufficient proof to file drug charges.
Public records show Torres and Vignali engaged in numerous multimillion-dollar property transactions, either as partners or on opposite sides of a deal. The elder Vignali was known as a well-heeled businessman who rubbed elbows with politicians. After his son was convicted, he contributed more than $160,000 to state and federal officeholders — as well as to many local officials, including Baca. Torres was described in DEA reports as a tattooed heavy who flaunted Mexican Mafia connections and liked to intimidate his adversaries.
The DEA reports are untrue, Adelson, an attorney for Torres, told the Weekly in 2005. “They are based on layers of hearsay by persons with something to gain and whom the government has not identified,” he said, emphasizing that Torres no longer had business or personal relationships with the Vignalis. “That is an unfortunate association,” said Torres’ attorney, Brian Sun, on Wednesday.