The shooting last December was as mysterious as it was brazen: On a downtown stretch of the 101 Freeway, a storm of bullets riddled a $100,000 Bentley, showering the lanes with shell casings and glass, and leaving the driver mortally wounded.
And then, for month after month, there was nothing -- no arrests, no suspects publicly identified, no possible motive given.
But the speculation had been unavoidable. The audacity of the attack and the glaring mismatch between the ultra-luxury car and the young Latino victim of little apparent means suggested a Mexican-style narcotics hit, the type that has killed several thousand people in the drug wars south of the border.
Now, court records obtained by The Times show that police are investigating whether the predawn shooting was indeed tied to the Mexican dope trade. It would be an unusually bold display of cartel-related violence in the L.A. region.
One suspect was charged with murder Thursday.
A search warrant affidavit filed by a Los Angeles Police Department detective says investigators learned that the dead man, 25-year-old Jose Luis Macias, might have been selling drugs here for the notorious Arellano Felix cartel. The document says a friend of his since childhood may have had him gunned down to take over the local business.
The affidavit describes a Wild West pursuit of Macias that began with shots fired near the historic Olvera Street plaza, blocks from the Civic Center and LAPD headquarters, before it spilled onto the southbound 101. Like Macias, the suspects, identified as laborers, at one time or another drove cars beyond their outward pay levels -- a Hummer and a Cadillac Escalade, the affidavit says.
Earlier this week, the LAPD arrested Michael Angel Aleman, 34, who has been charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder and shooting into an occupied vehicle. Described in the affidavit as a former gang member, he is being held in lieu of $1.38-million bail.
The affidavit quotes an officer alleging that a second man, Eddie Escobedo, also known as Eddie Hernandez, wanted Macias killed.
"He said that Macias was dealing drugs" for the cartel, the document says. "He further stated that a power struggle erupted between the two because Eddie Escobedo wanted to be the 'shot caller.' "
Escobedo's whereabouts could not be determined.
Another man the affidavit names in connection with the case, Sabino Cabral, 26, is in custody on suspicion of lesser offenses and has not been charged in the killing.
Cabral, who was previously arrested in Arizona for allegedly transporting more than 200 kilos of marijuana and possessing a rifle, is believed to have had a 9-millimeter pistol that was used in the Olvera Street shooting, the affidavit says. The affidavit says it is the detective's "belief that Sabino Cabral was present, if not involved in the murder."
The document identifies two other men in connection with the investigation, describing them as bodyguards for Escobedo.
LAPD officials Thursday declined to discuss the probe. "There are people we need to talk to," said Robbery-Homicide Lt. Greg Strenk.
After The Times inquired about the case, the district attorney's office released a statement Thursday confirming that charges had been filed against Aleman. The statement called Macias a car salesman, but did not elaborate and made no reference to the cartel.
The court documents contain tipster accounts of two men with handguns first opening fire on the silver 2005 Bentley Continental GT near Olvera Street, about 3 a.m. Dec. 12, as Macias drove away from a celebration of the festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The assailants stepped in front of the car at Cesar Chavez Avenue and Alameda Street and started shooting. Macias sped off, made a frantic U-turn and headed toward the freeway, where he was shot minutes later, the affidavit says.
Macias suffered multiple head wounds, as rounds punctured the Bentley from back to front, according to the statement. He died in the hospital two days later.
The fact that investigators have remained mum since then -- tips had come in almost immediately -- is not unusual considering the life-and-death sensitivity of cases that could involve cartels or their partners in the United States, experts say. In Mexico, the drug organizations have routinely threatened and killed witnesses, authorities say.
In recent years, the death and imprisonment of key leaders have weakened the Arellano Felix cartel, but it remains a fierce combatant for drug smuggling routes from Tijuana into Southern California and across the United States, law enforcement officials say.
Orlando Lopez, a special agent in charge in California's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, said the cartel brings cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the state and acts as a wholesaler for drug-dealing street gangs. "They're very active," he said. "They have members on both sides of the border."
The documents in the Macias case do not refer specifically to any cartel chieftains. Nor do they state the cartel directly sanctioned the shooting.
But the detective's affidavit, citing an officer's account, says "Eddie placed a 'green light' on victim Macias," vernacular for approving a killing.
The Macias probe has stretched from a party supply store to a card club to Cabral's home on 2nd Street in Boyle Heights. Last week, the police seized a .45-caliber handgun, ammunition and several cellphones from the home, the affidavit says. Cabral was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and other traffic violations, police records show.
He has also been convicted of carrying a concealed weapon in a vehicle, according to court records.
In the 1990s, Aleman was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon, and later of voluntary manslaughter, and was sentenced to eight years in prison, prosecutors said.
According to the affidavit, Montebello police also have arrested Aleman on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, although the circumstances are not described. The document says the Montebello Police Department arrested Cabral as well, but no details were provided.