Supermarket mogul guilty of bribery, racketeering, soliciting murder
George Torres, a feisty entrepreneur who built a multimillion-dollar grocery store chain by catering to some of Los Angeles’ poorest communities, was convicted of racketeering, solicitation of murder, bribery and other crimes Monday by a federal court jury.
Torres, who faces potential life imprisonment as a result of the verdict, showed no emotion when it was read. Friends and family, however, burst into tears and embraced one another outside the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson.
The verdict represents a major victory for federal authorities who charged Torres last year with running a criminal enterprise, or so-called shadow organization, to ensure the success of his Numero Uno market chain.
Prosecutors’ portrayal of Torres differed starkly from the 52-year-old’s public persona as a successful businessman and influential political donor.
According to prosecutors, Torres hired undocumented workers at his stores, bribed a Los Angeles city planning commissioner and sought to have people killed.
In one such instance, jurors concluded that Torres arranged for the murder of a local gang member who tried to shake him down for protection money. Jose “Shorty” Maldonado was fatally shot and his pregnant girlfriend was wounded as they walked across the street from Torres’ main market on Jefferson Boulevard in 1994.
A former associate of Torres’ testified that he was present when Torres solicited the killing, and another witness admitted driving the car from which the shots were fired.
The jury acquitted Torres of arranging the killing of his onetime confidant Ignacio “Nacho” Meza, who mysteriously disappeared in 1998 after supposedly stealing half a million dollars from Torres. Another slaying charge Torres faced was dropped by the judge during the trial.
Steven G. Madison, Torres’ lead attorney, said he planned to argue that, despite the verdict, the government had not met its burden of proof and that the prosecution was tainted by the alleged misconduct of a Los Angeles Police Department detective involved in the case. A hearing was set for June 1.
As the three-week trial unfolded, jurors were presented with dueling images of Torres. The defense depicted him as a hard-working businessman who reached out to the inner-city residents who frequented his stores, sometimes giving their kids jobs to help keep them out of trouble. The allegations that he hired undocumented workers and failed to pay required taxes were attributed by Torres’ lawyers to his reliance on store managers and his preference to focus on day-to-day operations in the markets themselves, where he often greeted shoppers with a handshake at the front door.
Prosecutors said Torres was a micromanager who knew of virtually everything that was going on inside his stores and in the behind-the-scenes enterprise that kept them going. The organization was described as a loose affiliation of Numero Uno front office employees, drug-dealing gang members from the neighborhood where Torres grew up and the city planning commissioner, among others.
Referred to by some underlings as simply “G” or “boss,” Torres “pulled the strings of the criminal organization. . . . He had iron-clad control,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Mark Childs told jurors during closing arguments in the case.
The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of two former Torres associates, both convicted drug dealers serving lengthy federal prison sentences who were cooperating with authorities in hopes of having the sentences reduced.
Madison, the defense attorney, said the witnesses were enticed to give false testimony against Torres by the government’s deals of leniency. Madison also accused an LAPD detective who’d been dealing with the witnesses of failing to follow proper procedures for the handling of informants, such as keeping them apart and documenting all contacts. He played excerpts from recorded conversations between the detective and each of the witnesses, seemingly designed to raise questions about whether the detective was improperly influencing the witnesses.
“It’s always this way, man,” the detective tells one of the men in a tape-recording. “I always have to come up with the answers and tell you and then you just say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ ”
But the defense also had to contend with Torres’ own words, which were captured on tape-recordings of thousands of wiretapped telephone conversations, many of them with Raul Del Real, a gang member incarcerated on drug-dealing charges who was the prosecution’s star witness.
On the tapes, Torres comes across as a fast-talking, foul-mouthed hoodlum who appears to be discussing nefarious activities in coded language. At one point, he appears to tell Del Real to help him retrieve his son’s stolen car and to bring a gun. In another, he tells Planning Commissioner Steve Carmona, whom he’d plied with Lakers tickets and the use of a condo and pickup truck, to “pass my thing.” Carmona has not been charged.
The recordings, Assistant U.S. Atty. Timothy J. Searight told jurors just before they began deliberating, are the “500-pound gorilla” that can’t be ignored.
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