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Despite suspicion, suspect avoided major convictions

George Torres was named in serious crimes but found guilty only of weapons and probation violations.

June 14, 2007|Ted Rohrlich | Times Staff Writer

South Los Angeles grocer George Torres largely avoided negative publicity, and serious trouble with the law, for decades despite voluminous civil court files and law enforcement reports that portrayed him as a vicious thug.

The reports named him as a suspect in murders, beatings and drug trafficking. But he was never convicted of anything more serious than possessing a loaded weapon. Then he was mentioned in news accounts about a controversial presidential pardon, sparking the investigation that led to Wednesday's indictment, a federal source said.

Criminal informants had been telling law enforcement for years that Torres was a drug kingpin but, as one former narcotics investigator put it, officers were never able to get close enough to penetrate his organization to confirm it.

In a late-1990s report by the Drug Enforcement Administration, a federal investigator claimed that Torres was transporting cocaine in bulk in tractor-trailer loads of grocery products from Mexico.

The memo identified one of his financial partners as Horacio Vignali. Vignali, with the help of many officials in Los Angeles, including current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, persuaded President Clinton to commute the 15-year drug-dealing sentence of Vignali's son to five years.

The pardon, issued the day before Clinton left office, also came with the help of Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, then-U.S. Atty. Alejandro Mayorkas, Reps. Xavier Becerra and Esteban Torres, L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, then-state Sen. Richard Polanco and others who wrote letters on the Vignalis' behalf.

The elder Vignali had been Torres' partner in a number of legitimate business deals. After a congressional committee in 2002 criticized the younger Vignali's pardon, investigators decided to take "a serious look" at Torres, the federal source said. No narcotics turned up, but they said they found evidence of racketeering, murders, thefts, bribery and extortion.

Street informants were telling police as early as 1989 that Torres, a high school dropout who began his grocery business with a fruit truck, was hijacking grocery trucks and smuggling and abusing illegal immigrants whom he employed, according to police reports.

In an incident cited in the indictment, two illegal immigrant employees sued the brothers for allegedly beating them in 1988. They said Torres ordered them to stay late on Christmas 1988, then beat and chased them through the streets to a nearby apartment that he rented to them. While Torres' brother Manuel held them at gunpoint, George Torres and others continued to beat them, they said.

Another incident mentioned in the indictment that was also the subject of a civil suit occurred in 1995, when George Torres allegedly pulled a ski mask over his face while leading a group of at least 10 men who intimidated employees of another grocer in a lease dispute.

By then, Torres was on probation for his one criminal conviction: a 1992 offense of carrying a concealed weapon.

He was arrested again in 1995 and charged with a probation violation for carrying a concealed weapon again. But he was again placed on probation.

The next year, Long Beach police arrested him for reckless driving, and he gave them a phony name and identification, court records show.

One of his passengers at the time was Raul del Real, who was cited in the indictment as dealing in "multi-kilogram quantities" of marijuana and cocaine.

Torres was accused in the indictment of providing "valuable assets" to Del Real in return for Del Real's taking unspecified "violent actions on behalf of George Torres."

Torres, the indictment said, warned Del Real in 2004 when authorities were staking out Del Real's drug hideaway.

Torres appeared to have sources in law enforcement. A 1999 raid on his businesses turned up a confidential DEA report in which an informant named him as a drug trafficker.

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ted.rohrlich@latimes.com

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