Twelve years ago, Jose Saenz was a LAUSD dropout and run-of-the-mill tagger known on the Eastside of Los Angeles as Smiley, a nod to the way he flashed his trademark brilliant grin. At age 22, he sidled up to two young Eastside men peddling dope on North Clarence Street in Boyle Heights, pretending to be friend not foe. When Smiley got real close, he yanked out a hidden gun and killed Josue Hernandez and Leonardo Ponce, two members of the East L.A. 13 gang.
Worried about a Prizzi's Honor–style scenario, police believe, Smiley feared that those close to him knew too much about the double murder — honor killings, in his mind, required after his two victims beat up his teenage buddy, Juan Pena. So 11 days after the Clarence Street murders, on a hot August afternoon in 1998, police say, Smiley raped and executed the woman who had intimate knowledge of him: his pretty, dark-haired, estranged girlfriend, Sigreda Fernandez, 21, mother of his 2-year-old baby girl.
He left Fernandez's ravaged body sprawled in a bedroom in his grandmother's house, with an eerie, apologetic note scrawled on her wall.
For years, nobody has had a death wish strong enough to rat out Smiley for these killings, save for young Juan Pena. Dying several years ago of childhood leukemia, he fingered his blood brother Saenz for the executions on North Clarence Street.
But Smiley, with his intense black eyes and his quick, deviant mind, vanished from the local cops' radar for 10 years — to Mexico for some of that time, the FBI says, where he morphed from East L.A. tagger and Cuatro Flats gang member to a connected, Mexican-cartel drug "soldier" — simply put, a high-level executioner, and then trafficker, operating on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.
Many facts are unknown and long periods of time inside Mexico remain a mystery. But U.S. authorities believe Saenz hooked up in northern Mexico with former Cal State Los Angeles business student Rolando Ontiveros, a nattily dressed product of private schools with a sharp brain, who used his education to ill ends south of the border.
Like Rolo, Smiley rose to operate in high-end international drug smuggling circles, where million-dollar coke transactions went down. He sometimes used Tijuana bars as a base, crossing to the U.S. regularly with a bogus Mexican passport to do business with dealers in L.A. and Orange counties, and in other states.
According to Rene Enriquez, a former Mexican Mafia leader, the key operators move easily between Southern California and Mexico, principally Mexican-American men heavily drawn from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.
"It's like coming to East Los Angeles," when they arrive in Mexico, surrounded by other Southern Californina Latino gang members and former convicts, many of whom met in California prisons. "He's walking right in the loop again, from one geographic location to another. ... It's the California gang world in Mexico."
"[Saenz] was pretty much on the run when he left here," says Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective Ron Chavarria, investigating the 1998 Clarence Street murders attributed to Smiley. "He didn't have a car or anything. Then, years later, he is an established drug dealer."
In the intervening years, "He did something to get himself to that level. People are deathly afraid of this guy. You mention this guy's name and [potential informants] are done. They don't want to talk about him."
It is now known that during that time Smiley, today 34, partied under the noses of LAPD and city and county police agencies throughout Southern California with his drug-dealer pals, frequenting nice, suburban Long Beach–area bars like Lakewood's Elephant Club, Hollywood Boulevard hot spots, and chic Southern California watering holes.
Life was fine. At one point Smiley was ferried around by a chauffeur employed by his gangster buddy Oscar Torres, a Los Angeles Hummer limo–service owner, who wore upscale clothes, lived as "Sam" in a quiet, suburban equestrian community in Whittier — and sold prodigious quantities of coke to feed Southern California's habit.
But Oscar Torres ended up on his friend Smiley's execution list in 2008, after a careless screwup that for an average person would have resulted in a traffic ticket but for Torres had mortal consequences.
In summer 2008, as Torres drove through Missouri heading to L.A., fresh from an East Coast coke deal, two small-town sheriff's deputies in St. Charles County pulled him over for tailgating and speeding. He and his passenger seemed extremely nervous, so the cops searched the car. They found $610,000 in hidden packets of cash — but, incredibly, the deputies let Torres go without trying to figure out who he was or what he was up to.
The cash, however, stayed in Missouri. And that cash? Well, some of that was Smiley's money.
Two of Torres' Southern California homes were in horsey Pellissier Village, where he often slept in his rundown two-bedroom crash pad, tricked out with a sauna and nine surveillance cameras. Three months after he lost the $610,000 in Missouri, before dawn one day, Torres heard knocking on his door and opened it to find Smiley, grinning like a madman.
Smiley, police say, executed his friend with four shots to the face. Then, he carefully removed from Torres' surveillance system the DVD disc he knew had captured it all — from several unflattering angles.
Smiley should have finished his high school education on the Eastside. He didn't quite understand how the surveillance system worked. When L.A. County Sheriff detective Traci Gonzales saw that the DVD was missing, she took the security equipment to her tech guys, and they retrieved from its hard drive crystal-clear pictures of a Latino man cackling shortly before he blew away the doomed Torres. (Watch the video.)
In a matter of days, LAPD Hollenbeck Division detectives viewing the tape recognized the executioner as former youthful tagger and LAUSD dropout Jose Saenz.
With that videotape in hand, in 2009 the Los Angeles FBI office jumped into a hard-fought nationwide contest: They proposed Saenz for the government's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List, and Special Agent Scott Garriola submitted a detailed five-page application to compete against 55 other FBI offices that insisted their fugitives were the baddest.