George Torres began selling produce out of a truck in Los Angeles before he opened a grocery at Jefferson Boulevard and San Pedro Street in 1983. From there, he quickly built a thriving chain of Numero Uno grocery stores and became one of the largest property owners in South Los Angeles.

That rags-to-riches tale will be told in court beginning March 10 but federal prosecutors will put a decidedly different spin on the story. They claim Torres expanded his grocery empire through murder, bribery and fraud.

The details of Torres' alleged criminal activity fill the pages of a 59-count indictment, which was unsealed in 2007, more than 20 years after the federal government began investigating him. The government's case paints Torres as a mob boss who controlled his grocery stores and the neighborhoods they serviced by threatening Numero Uno employees, competitors and even its patrons.

Federal prosecutors have filed the case under the statute for racketeer-influenced and corrupt organizations, or Rico. Rico sentences are stricter, but legal insiders said this is an aggressive move because Rico cases are complicated and tend to be hard to prove. It also may seem inappropriate to jurors.

"When an ordinary person hears Rico, they might think of a Mafia prosecution or some longstanding criminal unit," said David Willingham, a Los Angeles white-collar criminal defense litigator who is not involved in the case. "Here, it might be difficult for the government to equate Mr. Torres and Numero Uno with that kind of criminal unit. It's a unique challenge the government will face."

Torres' lawyers, former federal prosecutors Steve Madison and David Grable, declined to comment on the case.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, also declined to comment.

However, in a last ditch effort to prevent the case from reaching a jury, Torres' lawyers are asking a federal judge to dismiss the case based on newly uncovered evidence. According to court documents, that evidence alleges that a Los Angeles police detective interfered with the defense's access to one key witness and attempted to influence testimony from another.

It may be a reach for Torres' lawyers to get the entire indictment dismissed, but Loyola Law professor Laurie Levenson said Torres will be able to use the motion to challenge the investigation.

"Even if he loses the motion, strategically there is much to be gained," said Levenson, a former federal prosecutor. "There will be more discovery and insight as to how the investigation took place, and it will put the officers under a cloud of suspicion."

Criminal enterprise?

Torres, 51, was born in Tijuana to Mexican farm workers, and began his Numero Uno grocery store chain in the gang-infested streets of South Los Angeles. A large Numero Uno warehouse emblazoned with G & R;, which stands for George and his estranged wife, Roberta, still sits on East Jefferson Boulevard. In all, there were 11 groceries in South and East Los Angeles.

For more than 20 years, he grew Numero Uno into a Mexican grocery empire, and amassed commercial property and houses throughout Los Angeles and a ranch in the Santa Barbara town of Santa Ynez. When Torres was indicted, the government seized at least 14 of his properties.

According to Steven Soto, president of the Mexican American Grocers Association in Los Angeles, and Morrie Notrica, founder of a Latino grocery chain, the Numero Uno chain was purchased by Breco Holdings Inc. last month. Repeated calls to Breco were not returned.

Breco is an investment company for the Brener family of Mexico, which controls the AeroMexico airline and Blockbuster Mexico. Houston-based Breco formerly owned Boy's Supermarkets in Los Angeles, an American chain, but sold it in 1989 for $375 million to Yucaipa Cos., the holding company of billionaire Ron Burkle.

Torres' success, according to court documents, is the result of a well-run criminal enterprise that operated under the guise of a grocery chain.

Prosecutors claim that Torres hired illegal aliens to work at his stores, provided them with housing and attempted to hide them from immigration officials. Torres allegedly paid the illegal workers cash, in turn avoiding payroll taxes and defrauding the government.

But that was hardly the worst of it, the prosecutors claim. According to court documents:

- Torres allegedly paid bribes in an effort to obtain alcohol permits for his Alvarado Street Numero Uno store.

- Torres and his employees allegedly extorted money from people suspected of shoplifting from Numero Uno supermarkets.

- Torres allegedly ordered several of his workers to assault an employee from a competing grocery store, Superior, who was reviewing the prices of Numero Uno's products.

- Torres is accused of soliciting the murder of members of the Primera Flats street gang in retaliation for the death of a Numero Uno security guard whom he believed was killed by one of its members.

- Torres allegedly ordered the murders of other gang members and drug runners who were killed from 1985 to 2006.

Also, court documents make reference to the disappearance of Ignacio Meza, a former Torres confidante who allegedly stole $500,000 from one of Torres' stores to pay off a drug debt. Meza has been missing since 1998 and is believed to have been killed.

The prosecution's claims that Torres was connected to the L.A. drug scene are now being brought under fire by the defense. In their move to dismiss the indictment, Torres' lawyers claim the government did not reveal that two witnesses in the case, convicted drug dealers Raul del Real and Derrick Smith, were promised early release from prison in exchange for their testimony against Torres. A hearing on the matter is scheduled to take place Wednesday.

To obtain a conviction, the prosecution will have to show that Torres ran a criminal enterprise with the help of drug runners and gang members. The case hinges on evidence that Torres had subordinates commit crimes on his orders.

"The prosecution's theory is that George Torres acts like a Mafia boss," Levenson said. "He doesn't have to get his hands dirty, others do it for him."

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