By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
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Smiley should have finished his education at a high school on the east side. He didn't quite understand how the surveillance system worked. When L.A. County Sheriff detective Traci Gonzales saw that the DVD was missing, she took the security equipment to her tech guys, and they retrieved from its hard drive crystal-clear pictures of a Latino man cackling shortly before he blew away the doomed Torres. (Watch the video here.)
In a matter of days, LAPD Hollenbeck Division detectives viewing the tape recognized the executioner as former youthful tagger and LAUSD dropout Jose Saenz.
With that videotape in hand, the Los Angeles FBI office jumped into a hard-fought nationwide contest in 2009: They proposed Saenz for the government's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List, and Special Agent Scott Garriola submitted a detailed five-page application to compete against 55 other FBI offices that insisted their fugitives were the baddest.
Garriola had a major edge. For nine years, he and his Fugitive Apprehension Team had been tracking a guy on the Top Ten, a man who had shot and seriously hurt an L.A. County Sheriff's deputy. That fugitive was caught in a rural town in Mexico last year, meaning Garriola was among the first to know that a spot on the Top Ten was about to open.
"The early bird catches the worm," laughs the 22-year-veteran agent, who, at any given time, tracks 40 to 50 rapists, murderers, dope dealers, and gangsters. "Who else knew there was going to be an opening but me?"
Smiley won the nationwide beauty contest. Last October, the FBI's deputy director announced on CNN that Saenz; Ukrainian-born Semion Mogilevich, wanted for his involvement in a multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud thousands of investors; and Eduardo Ravelo, a captain in the Juarez, Mexico-based Barrio Azteca criminal enterprise, would join the Ten Most Wanted list of international terrorists, cyber criminals, serial killers, and organized-crime figures, ranging from Osama bin Laden to Boston mobster James J. "Whitey" Bulger.
"You don't celebrate with drinks and a DJ," Garriola says. "It's not like we were high-fiving in the bullpen."
Now, the feds and local police hope that, with the extra funding and attention that automatically flow to any case on the famed list, the killer of his own daughter's mother will finally be hunted down. (The feds are offering $100,000 for tips leading to his conviction, and can be contacted at 310-477-6565.)
But even if authorities catch up to Smiley, one question may be unanswerable: How did a screwed-up teen raised in a rough American barrio rise to become one of the most vicious criminals in America, in all probability trained by cartels in Mexico, then sent back to represent the worst of both nations?
Smiley was the only child of a Marravia gang-member father and a mother with substance-abuse problems. He lived with his grandmother in a small backyard bungalow on rundown, historic Ferris Avenue just two blocks from the East Los Angeles Sheriff's Station. He spent much of his time with his cousins at the 29-acre Pico-Aliso projects, a five-minute drive from Los Angeles City Hall and the largest — some say the most dangerous — public-housing development west of the Mississippi.
Saenz was not one of those tortured kids who saw beyond the grimy walls and corruption inside Pico-Aliso and dreamed of escape. Even as a sly youngster, he was mired in it. Families lived in fear at the projects, which were controlled by several gangs, including the Cuatro Flats. In fact, the Cuatro Flats crime organization arose in 1942 soon after the projects — a disastrous social experiment that urban planners had insisted would lift up the poor — were erected.
In 1999, after years of pressure, the city of Los Angeles started tearing down Pico-Aliso's two-story buildings, grouped around yards that were entered through breezeways. In their place, developers constructed a complex of attractive detached and semi-detached single-family houses called Pueblo del Sol — which urban planners believed could transform L.A.'s inner-city areas. On the day demolition began, a pastor marched down the street, carrying a replica of the Virgin of Guadalupe — to bless Pico-Aliso's destruction.
On these streets in 1998, Smiley decided to return the insult done to his youthful gangster friend, 14-year-old Juan Pena, who'd been attacked by East L.A. 13 gangbangers Hernandez and Ponce. Seven days after that beating, LAPD Detective Chavarria says, as Pena looked on, the smiling Saenz casually approached the two young men as if to buy drugs, then shot Ponce in the chest, thigh, and back and Hernandez three times in the head.
Bullets delivered to the head would become Saenz's signature. As Hernandez and Ponce lay bleeding, Smiley advised his young pal never to leave a crime scene until he was sure his targets were dead. "He said, 'Sometimes they fake it or pretend they're dead,' " Chavarria says Pena told police.
For the next several days after those killings, Southern California was caught in a blistering heat wave. The sun-baked San Fernando Valley saw record temperatures of 107 degrees in Chatsworth; Los Angeles and Orange County authorities received more than 100 calls per minute from motorists stranded in overheated cars, and air-conditioning repair businesses helped people with busted coolers and boiling tempers.