George Torres' future looked pretty bleak: The supermarket mogul had been stripped of his riches by government prosecutors, convicted in a massive racketeering case and was awaiting a potential life sentence in federal prison.
But in a stunning reversal of fortune Tuesday, the government released its grip on Torres' assets, a judge tossed out the most serious convictions against him, and he was ordered set free -- at least for now.
The turnaround came after prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles turned over tape-recorded conversations that contained information that was potentially beneficial to Torres' defense regarding at least one key informant who testified against him.
The taped conversations took place before Torres' trial in April but were only recently discovered by prosecutors, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.
"Once we discovered the existence of the tapes and made a cursory review, they were immediately turned over to the defense," Mrozek said.
In light of the tapes, prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson that some of the convictions against Torres should be voided and that those charges would not be refiled. Moments later, Wilson dismissed the centerpiece of the government's case against Torres -- a pair of racketeering convictions that included solicitation of murder.
The overturned convictions were an embarrassing setback for the U.S. attorney's office. During the three-week trial, prosecutors portrayed Torres as a ruthless entrepreneur who had made millions in the grocery business by hiring illegal workers, failing to pay taxes, bribing a public official and even arranging to have people killed when they crossed him. Torres' attorneys argued that the government's case was the result of an overzealous LAPD detective who had a vendetta against Torres. They said the case was held together by convicted felons who were hoping to win early release by cooperating with prosecutors.
Steven G. Madison, Torres' lead attorney, said he and his colleagues suspected that there were missing tapes based on testimony and evidence that came out in the trial. He filed a government misconduct motion and asked that prosecutors search for and turn over any additional recordings. Prosecutors opposed the motion, Madison said, but Wilson ordered them to conduct the search, Madison said.
Madison, who said he was still reviewing the tapes, declined to discuss their contents in detail. He suggested that they contained conversations involving two government informants who made comments potentially helpful to the defense.
Madison said Torres was "elated and gratified" by Wilson's ruling, as were members of his family and supporters.
"There were tears when the verdict came in, and there were tears today," he said. "But today they were tears of a different kind -- tears of joy, and tears of a restored faith in the justice system."
Torres, 52, still faces sentencing on tax, immigration and bribery convictions, but his lawyers have said that they would seek to have those charges dismissed as well because they had been tainted by testimony related to the case's racketeering element.
Either way, Wilson seemed to indicate that Torres' potential time behind bars has been dramatically reduced.
Though he had once been held without bond as a flight risk, the judge released him Tuesday on the promise that he would appear at future hearings in the case. Saying that Torres had already spent two years in federal custody, Wilson said that whatever sentence Torres did receive, it "probably won't be in the range where a rational person would give up an established lifestyle" and flee the jurisdiction.
Neither the prosecution nor the defense would say how much time Torres faces, but representatives from both sides speculated that he was unlikely to be sentenced to much more time than he has already served.
Wilson, a former assistant U.S. attorney, commended prosecutors for "taking the high road" by disclosing the tapes. But he told Chief Assistant U.S. Atty. George Cardona that he had been skeptical of the informants used in the case, as well as their police handler, and that such a development was not "totally unforeseen." He said that if prosecutors had been more careful, "perhaps some of these matters might have come to light earlier."
The convictions thrown out Tuesday stemmed from allegations that Torres had engaged in racketeering by running a so-called "shadow organization" to ensure the success of his Numero Uno supermarket chain.
Prosecutors accused him of orchestrating three murders as part of the enterprise. Jurors convicted him of one, that of gang member Jose "Shorty" Maldonado, who allegedly tried to shake him down for protection money, supposedly on behalf of the Mexican Mafia. Maldonado was fatally shot and his pregnant girlfriend wounded as they walked across the street near Torres' main market on Jefferson Boulevard in 1994.