As I was pursuing Torres, so were the feds. The chase had been going on for about 25 years, and in 2007, he was indicted on RICO charges, including conspiracy to commit murder, bribery of a public official, tax evasion, harboring illegal aliens. Torres is a multimillionaire and an immigrant success story, a once-in-a-generation figure shrouded in menacing barrio lore. He is best known as the former real estate partner of Horacio Vignali, whose drug dealer son received a last minute grant of clemency from President Clinton in 2000.
Along with other journalists and L.A. crime enthusiasts, I waited impatiently for Torres’ day in court. Several months after the indictment, however, I left the area and the L.A. Weekly to move back east, where I took a job with the Baltimore City Paper, which proceeded to lay me off in February 2009.
Torres’ trial started March 24, and I wasn’t going to miss it. I flew out to Los Angeles on frequent flyer miles donated by my mother to cover this trial.
Los Angeles City Beat, razor thin at less than 30 pages, recently published a lengthy feature by me previewing the trial and delving into the background of the case, including the theory that Torres, in addition to his other alleged sins, is a drug kingpin.
On fumes in a horrific media meltdown, City Beat had agreed to pay me a modest fee for trial coverage. I was out there on assignment crashing on a friend’s couch, hoping to break even.
The case was receiving national attention. The Wall Street Journal wrote a curtain opener after my feature story appeared. A Los Angeles Times reporter showed up in court on the first day, clutching a copy of my article that he was reading in an effort to figure out what was going on. The Associated Press was sitting next to me in court. I had the edge on these guys.
Then it happened.
On the third day of trial, March 27, the text message came from my editor and friend at the City Beat. “Call me as soon as you get this.” I knew something was wrong, and my hunch proved correct, as he informed me the paper was folding. Not next week, or soon thereafter, but that day. Stunned, I got off the phone and got back into the courtroom. Witnesses were describing how Torres ran millions of dollars in cash through his popular Numero Uno grocery stores and paid his illegal immigrant employees in cash, while surrounding himself with violent thugs and drug traffickers. I finished out the day and got drunk that night. In the morning I got up and wrote this story, which the City Beat graciously agreed to pay me for, and which the Pasadena Weekly, a sister publication, graciously agreed to publish.
I’m home now, back in D.C. The trial is still going on. Before I left I told the guy from the Los Angeles Times a few things about the case. I hope they let him come back to court to cover it.