Federal jury gets case against market mogul


The government’s racketeering case against supermarket mogul George Torres went to a federal court jury Wednesday, with jurors essentially being asked to decide whether Torres is a legitimate businessman who surrounded himself with criminals -- or is a criminal himself.

During a three-week trial before U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson, prosecutors sought to portray Torres as a ruthless entrepreneur who made millions in the grocery business by hiring illegal workers, failing to pay taxes, bribing a public official and arranging to have people killed when they crossed him.

“George Torres didn’t let anyone or anything stand between him and success,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Evan Davis told jurors, “certainly not the law.”


Defense attorneys, on the other hand, cast Torres as a hard-working businessman who was targeted by an overzealous Los Angeles Police Department detective and lying informants who were enticed with promises of cash and early release from prison in exchange for their testimony.

By some measures, the trial has not been going well for the prosecution. After the government presented its case, Judge Wilson dismissed the charges against Torres’ brother, Manuel, who had been a co-defendant.

The judge also ordered the jury not to consider testimony regarding one of three killings Torres is accused of orchestrating because there was insufficient evidence linking him to the crime.

The remaining killings are the most sensational allegations against Torres, whom prosecutors charged with racketeering under the theory that he ran a “shadow organization” to promote the success of his supermarket chain.

For instance, when a local gang member claiming to have ties to the Mexican Mafia tried to shake him down, Torres turned to Ignacio “Nacho” Meza, a member of his criminal enterprise, to take care of the problem, prosecutors allege.

Prosecutors say Meza carried out the killing Feb. 2, 1994, gunning down Jose “Shorty” Maldonado and wounding his pregnant girlfriend as they crossed the street near the main Numero Uno supermarket on Jefferson Boulevard south of downtown Los Angeles.


Years later, after Meza became deeply involved in the drug trade, and allegedly stole $500,000 from a safe in one of Torres’ stores, Torres arranged to have Meza killed, prosecutors say. Meza was last seen Oct. 5, 1998, after being lured to one of Torres’ markets on the promise that he could resume working there, they say.

The allegations rely heavily on the testimony of two witnesses, Raul Del Real and Derrick Smith. Both men were associates of Torres, and both are serving lengthy prison sentences for distributing cocaine.

Smith, who grew up with Meza and dealt drugs with him, testified that he was present when Torres told Meza that “Shorty needed to be taken care of.”

Del Real, a major drug trafficker who admitted importing 2 tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States, testified that Torres twice asked him to kill Meza as punishment for stealing the money but that he refused.

He said Torres later implied that he had Meza taken care of without Del Real’s help.

But neither Smith nor Del Real fared well under cross-examination by Torres’ lead attorney, Steven G. Madison.

Madison, a former federal prosecutor, got both to admit that they had been promised reduced sentences, cash payments and other favors in exchange for their testimony, despite having earlier testified before a federal grand jury that no such promises were made.


Madison also played tape recordings of Smith talking with Los Angeles Police Det. Greg Kading, whom defense attorneys accuse of improperly manipulating both Smith and Del Real into implicating Torres.

“It’s always this way, man,” Kading says, according to one recording that was made where Smith was in custody and subpoenaed by the defense. “I always have to come up with the answers and tell you and then you just say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ ”

Kading could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

During his final comments to the jury, lead prosecutor Tim Searight seemed to acknowledge that Del Real and Smith had credibility problems. But he reminded jurors of what he called “the 500-pound gorilla” in the case: wiretapped phone conversations in which a foul-mouthed, fast-talking Torres appears to be up to no good with Del Real and others.

At one point, Torres asks for Del Real’s help when Torres’ son’s car is stolen from a Numero Uno store in El Monte. Torres tells Del Real to check with his street sources to see who may have committed the crime.

And he appears to tell Del Real to bring a gun.

“You got one on you,” Torres says. “Bring one.”