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."
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