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A Hard Person to Get a Fix On

Joey Torres -- boxer, murderer, federal informant -- is a man of endless contradictions and complexities.

March 21, 2004|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The letters arrive every two weeks or so, a return address of North Kern State Prison.

The handwriting shows great care, serifs and small flourishes, even if some of the words are misspelled. There is a quote from John F. Kennedy:

"A man does what he must -- in spite of personal consequences, in spite of all obstacles and dangers and preasures -- and that is the basis of all human morality.... Each man must decide for himself the course he must follow.... For this each man must look into his own soul."

Then, in his own words, the writer concedes: "Regrettably, I Joey Torres did not."

These correspondences stretch five pages or more, sometimes angry, sometimes apologetic for a "profligated" life. Is it too late now? If Joey Torres looked into his soul, what would he see?

A promising young boxer. A murderer. A guy who pals around with millionaire athletes. An informant at the heart of a federal boxing investigation.

Torres has been all these things and more, too much for the 40-some years he has been on this planet, certainly too much for a dozen handwritten pages.

He sits in prison confined to his cell for all but an hour each day, serving a life sentence. He asks for more paper and envelopes.

"I would enjoy to visit with you," he writes.

The man has a story to tell.

*

First of all, his name isn't Joey Torres. He was born Kim Joseph Torrey, raised in a working-class Panorama City neighborhood.

"He looked like 'Leave It to Beaver' when he was a kid," his sister, Marcy Bautista, says.

That sweet exterior belied a toughness that led him to Frankie Goodman's Kid Gloves boxing program at age 9. "My father had the mentality that if you get in a fight and get [beaten], you get [beaten] twice as much at home," he said in a biography on a boxing website.

As a teenager, he fell in with a Latino gang and began calling himself Torres. Soon he earned the nickname "Boxer" and was accumulating tattoos that would eventually cover his arms and chest.

"I got lost," he told The Times in 2002. "I let the gangs and the neighborhood and the older gang members influence me. I was 'Boxer' from 18th Street. I was a gang leader and I was expected to hurt people."

Even as he shone in the ring, winning an Amateur Athletic Union championship in 1976, Torres drifted deeper into trouble, getting hooked on cocaine.

On a summer evening in 1979, he pulled into a Pico Rivera gas station, and what happened next depends on whose story you believe.

Torres has long insisted the attendant, Armando Jasso Cardenas, was also his boxing manager and owed him money. A fight broke out, Cardenas pulled a gun and a single shot went off.

Prosecutors tell a different version. They say Torres shot Cardenas in the chest and took $335 from a safe in the storage room. Their report makes no mention of the victim's being a boxing manager.

The 19-year-old Torres pleaded guilty to first-degree murder with an understanding that he would be sent to a California Youth Authority facility and serve no more than six years.

In his website biography, Torres says: "They came to me and said, 'Just plead guilty and you'll be out in two, three years.' Why take a chance on going to jail for life?"

But three years later, authorities intercepted a letter in which he told his girlfriend to buy a gun. He claimed it was for her protection. They said he wanted it smuggled to him.

A judge ordered him transferred to state prison to serve a life sentence.

*

Every good tale has twists and turns. The best characters are not entirely good or bad -- they have a bit of both in them.

Though Torres' parents supported their son, they also described him as "a very skillful fabricator of stories who can weave fantasy and fiction together in a most convincing fashion," according to court records.

By the fall of 1982, it might have been easy to write Torres off as a hard-core criminal and nothing more, locked away for life. But he has never been that simple or straightforward.

The first surprise came shortly after his arrival at the state penitentiary in Vacaville. Torres came upon an inmate attacking a female guard and pulled the man off. In doing so, he violated an unwritten jailhouse code: Never side with the law.

Worried about reprisals from other prisoners, authorities transferred him to a Nevada penitentiary where his tale took a new direction.

According to documents filed with the court, Torres spent as many as 10 hours a day on the telephone. No one is quite sure how, but he got hold of numbers for big-name athletes and called them collect, sometimes over and over, until they accepted.

He had a plan to help at-risk youths.

Boxer Carlos Palomino was intrigued enough to drive to Nevada to meet him. Eric Davis was on the road with the Cincinnati Reds when Torres called his hotel room.

"It was pretty amazing that he found me but he said he could track anybody down if he wanted," the retired baseball player said. "He told me how he wanted to help these kids and he wanted me to help him by signing [autographs] for them."

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