‘Most Wanted,’ but not by parole officials

Bill Lewis, right, of the FBI's Los Angeles office speaks at a news conference about the arrest of Jose Luis Saenz.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

SACRAMENTO — Jose Luis Saenz had been on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list since 2009, with a $100,000 bounty and his face in post offices across the United States before he was captured last week.

But amid the international hunt for Saenz — also known as “Peanut Joe Smiley,” among other aliases, authorities say — California parole officials dropped their warrant for his arrest and dismissed the alleged killer and Mexican drug cartel associate from parole.


California “no longer had jurisdiction over Saenz,” agency spokesman Luis Patino said Wednesday. He cited a 2009 state law, meant to reduce prison crowding, requiring nonviolent felons to be placed on unsupervised parole and not returned to jail unless convicted of a new crime.

The law says the Board of Parole Hearings should reserve such discharges for those who are unlikely to re-offend, are not proven members of a prison gang and have not refused to sign papers agreeing to police searches. Saenz was wanted for four gang- and drug-related killings and believed by the FBI to be working for a Mexican drug cartel.

The state already faces scrutiny of its ongoing effort to purge thousands more parole warrants as part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s program to ease state prison crowding and cut spending. The corrections agency has been reviewing the cases of more than 9,200 parolees who long ago disappeared.

The FBI announced last week that Saenz had been captured in Mexico, living in an apartment above a beauty salon. He was taken to Los Angeles, where he is being held pending arraignment on charges of the killings as well as rape and kidnapping.

The agent who signed the original arrest warrant against Saenz for a parole violation said the state had bungled the matter. “There’s no rhyme or reason for them to discharge him.… I knew he was dangerous,” said the agent, Caroline Aguirre, who is now retired.

Aguirre said she had supervised Saenz for several months in early 1998, when he stopped meeting with her and she could not find him. In July of that year, authorities allege, he killed two rival gang members and, two weeks later, kidnapped, raped and executed his girlfriend out of fear that she would go to police. Prosecutors say it is Saenz who appears in an October 2008 surveillance video executing a Whittier man over a $500,000 drug debt.

Saenz was believed to be on the run in Mexico in mid-August when, according to case records obtained by The Times, the state Board of Parole Hearings discharged him. The documents include a notation that he remained at large and that he had been placed under “high control” supervision.

Asked if the FBI was concerned that the parole warrant for Saenz had been dropped, FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller suggested it didn’t really matter. “The murder warrant was good,” she said.

Saenz had only been convicted of a minor narcotics charge. Patino said that “a careful legal review” left no choice but to consider him a low-level offender, regardless of the murder allegations.

Parole agents had participated in an international task force searching for the fugitive. Nevertheless, he was discharged from parole Aug. 17.

An official of the state parole officers’ union said agents don’t typically look for pending warrants.

“Normally we run a criminal rap sheet, but we don’t do a warrant check,” said Todd Gillam, a parole officer and vice president of the Parole Agent Assn. of California.

The state’s reliance on criminal history checks, which are incomplete, was the subject of a critical report by the office of inspector general last year. Based on such checks, more than 1,450 violence- and drug-prone inmates had been mistakenly released as unsupervised parolees, the inspector general found.

Corrections officials blamed a computer glitch and said they would fix the program but would make no effort to return any of the released offenders to prison or put them on supervised parole.

Prison officials said California’s 9,200 outstanding parole warrants clog court files and obscure the most serious cases. But agents said those warrants are valuable, allowing a prosecutor to hold a violator without bail while buying time to develop a case and press other charges.

The warrants are “a very effective criminal justice tool,” Gillam said.