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Grocer faces charges of racketeering

Owner of the Numero Uno market chain is accused of orchestrating murders and bribing city officials, among other crimes.

June 14, 2007|Joe Mozingo and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

A Los Angeles grocery chain entrepreneur ran a lucrative criminal enterprise, orchestrating murders, bribing city officials, extorting customers and exploiting illegal immigrants, according to a federal racketeering indictment unsealed Wednesday.

George Torres, 50, who owns the Numero Uno grocery stores scattered throughout low-income parts of Los Angeles County, was arrested Tuesday driving away from his home in Arcadia and appeared in federal court Wednesday.

Parts of the 59-count indictment against him read like a Mario Puzo novel: Torres, huddled in a meat locker in a warehouse south of downtown Los Angeles, ordered a hit on a drug dealer who had crossed him. He had his security guards shake down suspected shoplifters for cash. He trafficked in stolen produce and meat -- and a load of Tang, the space-age drink powder.

"He used the drug traffickers as muscle," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Timothy J. Searight. "He would have them do his dirty work."

Torres is charged with racketeering, violence in aid of racketeering, conspiracy to harbor illegal immigrants and tax, wire and mail fraud as part of a criminal scheme that netted an estimated $109 million.

Seven others are named in the conspiracy: his brother Manuel, 53; his son Steven, 26; and two former Los Angeles city area planning commissioners, George Luk, 58, of Beverly Hills, and Steve Carmona, 39, of Pico Rivera.

Authorities seized $1.25 million in bank accounts and 60 cars from Torres' collection at a Los Angeles warehouse. U.S. marshals took over 11 Numero Uno stores in South Los Angeles, San Pedro, Monterey Park and El Monte. Arraignment for the eight is set for next week.

"Mr. Torres will be vigorously contesting these charges," said his criminal defense attorney, Brian Sun. "His grocery store chain has and will continue to provide an important service for the community."

The Numero Uno stores have been commended for serving poor communities, particularly in South Los Angeles, which suffered from businesses fleeing after the 1992 riots. A UC Davis center on nutrition and social marketing issued a report highlighting the chain as a model of an inner-city market, bringing fresh produce to underserved areas by offering shoppers free rides home.

But federal prosecutors say Torres extorted customers and underpaid, intimidated and even beat employees, many of whom were undocumented immigrants.

"All of these stores are in difficult parts of the city," said Searight. "They used violence and threats of violence to protect the stores. And they used it against their employees too, so they wouldn't come forward."

Torres was a onetime business partner of Horacio Vignali, who attracted national attention in 2001 when he enlisted a host of local law enforcement and elected officials -- including then-Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and Sheriff Lee Baca -- to persuade President Clinton to pardon his convicted cocaine-dealing son.

A subsequent congressional probe of Clinton's pardons turned up statements by confidential informants -- mostly drug dealers who already had been caught -- to the Drug Enforcement Administration that the elder Vignali was a financial partner in an enterprise run by Torres that distributed 100 kilograms of cocaine per month.

The DEA launched an investigation several years ago, suspecting that Torres was using his produce trucks to transport cocaine from Mexico, a source close to the inquiry said. But drug agents did not find evidence to support this.

Instead, they found that Torres was using drug dealers to make threats and commit violence on his behalf, the indictment alleges. He was also accused of tipping off a drug dealer. Vignali was not implicated.

Among the other allegations:

* Torres had his employees extort suspected shoplifters for cash and assets.

* He beat one of his store managers in El Monte.

* He paid his employees under the table, without withdrawing taxes.

And he met violence with violence.

When a security guard was murdered in 1993 at Torres' La Estrella market in South Los Angeles, Torres allegedly told his employees not to talk to police. Instead he went to a drug dealer named Ignacio Meza and told him to retaliate against the Primera Flats street gang, which he held responsible for the killing, according to the indictment.

In May 1993, Meza fired a .45-caliber firearm out of his car window, killing a member of the gang, the indictment said.

In 1994, Torres allegedly tasked Meza again, this time to kill a man who claimed to be an associate of the Mexican Mafia demanding a "tax" to leave Numero Uno alone, the indictment said. Meza shot him to death on a sidewalk outside the Jefferson Street market, prosecutors allege.

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