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Two portraits of supermarket magnate emerge at L.A. trial

Defense attorneys hail George Torres of the Numero Uno chain as a self-made man who brought fresh food to tough neighborhoods. But prosecutors say he ran the markets as a criminal enterprise.

March 26, 2009|Scott Glover

For a man who built his grocery empire store by store in some of Los Angeles County's most crime-ridden and graffiti-scarred neighborhoods, George Torres seemed to fare remarkably well with local gangbangers and taggers.

His Numero Uno supermarkets, for the most part, remained as pristine on the outside as they were sparkling on the inside. And, after a rough beginning, he had relatively few run-ins with local toughs.

Just how Torres, 52, was able to achieve this apparent status promises to be an underlying theme in his racketeering trial, which got underway this week in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom of U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson.

Torres' defense attorneys portray him as a self-made entrepreneur who earned the respect of neighborhood mothers -- and, by extension, their sons -- by bringing fresh meat and produce to their neighborhoods at a fair price. He was a man who treated customers with respect and gave at-risk youths jobs to help steer them from gangs and drugs.

Federal prosecutors, on the other hand, contend that Torres is a ruthless businessman who cultivated an aura of danger. He ran his highly profitable supermarkets as a criminal enterprise in which he hired illegal workers, bribed a public official and -- when people crossed him -- arranged to have them killed, prosecutors say.

The case relies heavily on the testimony of current and former Torres employees as well as allegedly incriminating statements by Torres caught on wiretapped phone calls. Torres' brother, Manuel, who worked as a manager and "right-hand man" for Torres at the markets, is a co-defendant.

Steven G. Madison, Torres' lead attorney, suggested to jurors in his opening statement Tuesday that the government's case was the result of an overzealous LAPD detective who had a vendetta against George Torres. Madison also said the case was being held together by convicted felons hoping to win early release by cooperating with prosecutors.

By far the most sensational allegations revolve around three murders that prosecutors say Torres solicited, beginning in the early 1990s.

According to Assistant U.S. Atty. Timothy J. Searight, Torres' campaign of violence began in 1993, shortly after he bought a small store that he then closed and began remodeling to open as his second market.

Soon after Torres bought the store, Searight told jurors, some Primera Flats gang members who hung out across the street began hassling his security guards. A few weeks later, one of the guards was shot in the back of the head and killed.

Searight said Torres became convinced that one of the gang members was responsible. He turned to a trusted employee and protege, Ignacio "Nacho" Meza, to retaliate, the prosecutor said. Three weeks later, Searight said, Meza leaned out of the window of a car driven by another man and sprayed a group of Primera Flats members with gunfire. Four people were hit and one, Edward Carpel, was killed.

Torres turned to Meza again later that year when a gang member called "Shorty," whom he had hired to provide security after the L.A. riots, tried to extort money from Torres as a "tax" for operating one of his stores in gang territory.

"You need to take care of Shorty," Searight quoted Torres as saying.

A few weeks later, Jose "Shorty" Maldonado was fatally shot after walking out of a barbershop across the street from the main Numero Uno market on Jefferson Boulevard south of downtown L.A. Searight said Meza pulled the trigger.

Four years later, the prosecutor said, Meza was himself the victim of Torres' vengeance.

Searight said Meza, who was also a major drug dealer, was in debt after having some drugs and money seized by authorities. He stole $500,000 from Torres and used the money to repay the debt.

Searight said Torres suspected Meza immediately but pretended he did not. Though Meza had stopped working at the stores, Torres lured him back with a job offer. The prosecutor said Meza disappeared his first day back at work, Oct. 5, 1998.

"Precisely how he died is not known," Searight told jurors. "His body was never found."

Madison, a former federal prosecutor, told the jury that the government's case relied almost entirely on the testimony of two convicted drug dealers, both of whom are serving lengthy sentences in federal prison and hope to have the terms reduced by helping convict Torres.

One of the convicts, who is caught in dozens of wiretapped phone conversations with Torres in which the two appear to be talking in conspiratorial tones, is expected to testify that Torres asked him to kill Meza but that he refused.

Madison said that despite about 125,000 wiretapped telephone conversations and searches of Torres' home, business and even his garbage, "there is not a single piece of evidence that relates in any way to solicitation to do murder."

"These two witnesses are all they have," he said.

He said the case against Torres was initiated by a detective from the Los Angeles Police Department's Newton Division who appeared fixated on the supermarket magnate. He said the detective ignored compelling evidence that Carpel and Maldonado were the victims of gang-related shootings, and the possibility that Meza fled the country because he was under indictment in a major drug case.

Madison said the detective also appeared to violate protocol for dealing with informants, such as the practice of keeping them apart so they don't have the opportunity to concoct a story together. Madison said the detective in the Torres case actually arranged for two informants to share a cell and is heard on tape asking: "Have you guys talked yet? You got it straight?"

The trial, which is expected to last a month to eight weeks, resumes today.

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scott.glover@latimes.com

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