By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It was, in short, a great week for a despicable act. Early on August 5, Smiley's dark-eyed former girlfriend, Sigreda Fernandez, mother of his toddler daughter, must have been worried when she saw Smiley and another gangster at the Pico-Aliso housing projects where she lived.
Nobody will ever know what was said between Smiley and Sigreda, or the rage and horror she endured when she realized he meant her harm. Police say Saenz and his accomplices abducted Fernandez, a Roosevelt High School graduate employed by the Santa Fe Railroad company, and drove her to Smiley's grandmother's house six miles away.
There, he told his grandmother to leave her own home. The older woman later claimed, according to a coroner's report, that she complied because Smiley said he and Fernandez had a lot of talking to do, and were trying to reconcile.
Three hours later, at 11 a.m., he called his grandmother and told her not to come home, authorities say, because he had just made a big mistake. But the elderly woman didn't obey this time. His grandmother returned to her cramped bungalow, where she discovered the slain Fernandez in the back bedroom, sprawled half-nude with a bullet wound to her temple. The only movement was a fan, eerily blowing near the body.
On a dresser at the foot of the bed, Sheriff's detectives found a pile of .357 magnum shells and a misspelled note that read: "the guys who drove me hear have nothing to do with this." On the living room wall, they found a message scrawled in pencil: Saenz asked his grandmother to take care of his child and told her he loved her.
Police quickly picked up one of Saenz's accomplices — none other than youngster Juan Pena. They ultimately charged Pena with the two homicides on Clarence Street after a tipster placed him at the scene with Saenz. Although not the shooter, he was convicted of murdering East L.A. 13 gang members Hernandez and Ponce and sent to the California Youth Authority, where he died at 17 of leukemia. But not before spilling his guts about Saenz's alleged premeditated murders of the two men who beat him up.
"I don't know why he decided to give up the whole story," Chavarria says. "Maybe part of it was because he knew he was going to die."
But Smiley fell off the face of the Earth, for 10 long years. Los Angeles authorities believe Saenz decided his best career move was to go south into Mexico, to learn the vicious drug trade on the other side of the border. There, Mexican authorities are in a losing war with the cartels, and the chances that they will find or keep tabs on Americans who have joined the dark side are poor.
"If you get to the level, you would probably have to be working for the cartel," Chavarria says. "You are the middleman at that point."
Garriola believes that Smiley is "involved in murder, as well as enforcement for the cartels. ... The money we found was earmarked for [Smiley]. Torres lost it and Torres was murdered." He says "squads" of Americans work here, enforcing Mexican cartels' deals. Cartels train Americans in outlaw camps in Mexico, where Smiley apparently was welcomed. According to the California Department of Justice, Mexican crime lords desire these recruits because they can easily cross the border and operate throughout California, using cartel training, including surveillance and ambush techniques.
Chavarria says the cross-border system of American and Mexican criminals "is huge. You can get a headache trying to take it all in."
In Mexico, Smiley hooked up with Rolando "Rolo" Ontiveros, the former private school and Cal State L.A. student turned Mexican Mafia soldier.
Described as a thinker and very ambitious, Ontiveros grew up on tattered Blanchard Street in East Los Angeles, the home turf of the Lott gang, joining it as a teenager along with his childhood friend Oscar Torres. Later on, the two were joined by a kid named Bogart Bello, who formed a clique inside the gang called the Lott Boys. Torres is dead, his demise captured on video at the alleged hands of Saenz, and Bello's bizarre disappearance and death, though ruled an accident, are widely assumed to be Saenz's work as well.
"[Rolo] was from a traditional Mexican family," says Sheriff's detective Gonzales. "They were hardworking. His parents had been married for numerous years. He had a typical father figure. His brothers and sisters are traditional, law-abiding citizens." In fact, his brother Mario is a Los Angeles Police Department Central Division traffic officer.
From the outside, it seemed that Ontiveros had escaped the streets by graduating from LAUSD's troubled Roosevelt High School and in 1991 enrolling in a business and economics course at Cal State L.A. on the heavily urbanized Eastside. But, in fact, police say, he was holding gang meetings at a campus library. Cal State L.A. officials acknowledge only that Ontiveros was a student from 1991 to 1997, but who didn't graduate.
"If you went to a gangster park, the cops would be there, so why not go to Cal State L.A., where nobody would suspect?" asks Detective Gonzales, who is probing the murders of Sigreda Fernandez and Oscar Torres. "This is not street-level drug sales or gangster crimes. This is hard-core drug trafficking."
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city