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Twelve years ago, Jose Saenz was a Los Angeles Unified School District dropout and run-of-the-mill tagger known on the east side 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 east-side 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 Honorstyle 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, 21-year-old Sigreda Fernandez, mother of his two-year-old baby girl.
He left Fernandez's ravaged body sprawled in his grandmother's bedroom in East Los Angeles, with an eerie, apologetic note scrawled on the wall.
For years, nobody has had a death wish strong enough to rat out Smiley for the 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 to a connected, Mexican-cartel drug "soldier" simply put, a high-level executioner and trafficker, operating on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.
Many facts are unknown, and his long periods of time in 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 smart, nattily dressed former private school student who used his college 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 United States 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; they are principally Mexican-American men drawn from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Diego counties.
"It's like coming to East Los Angeles," when they arrive in Mexico, surrounded by other Southern California Latino gang members and former convicts, many of whom met in California prisons, Enrique says. "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, now 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.
But Oscar Torres ended up on his friend Smiley's execution list in 2008, after a careless screw-up 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 some of it was Smiley's money.
Two of Torres's Southern California homes were in 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, Torres heard pre-dawn 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's surveillance system the DVD disc he knew had captured it all from several unflattering angles.