What came next was uncharted territory: Instead of a shank or some other crude weapon, the killer had used fists and feet to pummel a fellow prisoner to a pulp. Who had done it? And, more importantly, why? The silence felt calculated. It was as if, collectively, the men had decided how to handle the situation—or were following orders.
Law enforcement had to wonder: Maybe, improbably, a murder conspiracy had played out in the most secure facility in America.
Mountain Murders: Homicide in the Rockies
For the better part of the next decade, a rookie FBI agent would try to prove that it had. The matter was so sensitive, and the criminals involved so dangerous, that he asked me to safeguard his identity and that of his family. Jon grew up in the Bible Belt. In his hometown, Southern Baptist revivals were annual events. Jon, who is now in his forties and just this side of six feet tall, with close-cropped brown hair and a sleeve of tattoos on his left arm, likes to joke that the gatherings were just a bunch of guest speakers telling everyone that they were sinners. Still, he credits his religious upbringing with keeping him out of trouble.
That and the fact that law enforcement practically runs in his blood. One of his grandfathers was a captain in the local police department. He took Jon on visits to the station and the local courthouse, introducing his grandson to friends and colleagues. And he loved his job as much as people loved him. He investigated robberies, kidnappings, and homicides.
After a few years on the job, he started imagining what it would be like to work for the FBI. Jon liked the idea of operating with national jurisdiction and solving major crimes. He took the test with about 50 other FBI hopefuls, many of whom had brought along scientific calculators. Would there be math on a law-enforcement exam? There was, and it had been a long time since Jon had heard mention of the Pythagorean theorem, much less answered questions about it. When the results came in, only two people had passed: After some additional screenings, the FBI invited Jon to attend its training academy in Quantico, Virginia, a cross between college and boot camp.
That was by design. Once upon a time, Alcatraz was the only federal maximum-security prison. The storied facility in the San Francisco Bay began housing inmates in and operated for three decades, at which point someone crunched the numbers and realized that the expense of running the Rock, as it was called, was three times greater than the operating cost of any other prison in the country. It was pricey to stock it with supplies, for one thing, including the million gallons of fresh water that had to be shipped there every week. So the feds shuttered the prison in The next facility designated for high-risk prisoners was a penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, a small town five hours south of Chicago.
The bloody incident at Marion prompted the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to advocate a new approach: The result was ADX Florence. Jon learned that each general-population cell, constructed mostly from poured cement, contained a concrete-slab bed with a thin mattress, an unmovable stool, a writing surface, a toilet, and a sink.
To avoid guards having to escort prisoners to a shower block, where they would encounter fellow inmates, the cells were equipped with timed showerheads. Meals were delivered directly to prisoners three times a day. There was no reason for a man to leave his cell, save for limited rec time.
Civil rights groups had chastised the prison for its extensive use of solitary confinement, but government officials heralded the ADX as exactly what the penal system needed. After touring the facility, Cheri Nolan, then a U. A colleague explained that, as far as he could tell, the killing had everything to do with the Mexican Mafia. The group started in at a juvenile lockup about 60 miles east of San Francisco.
Luis Flores, a year-old kid from Los Angeles, hatched a plan to unite rival Mexican American crews into one supergang. About a dozen founding members started recruiting, with an eye toward inductees who were willing to attack on command. By , the nascent group had perpetrated enough violence at the juvenile institution that its members were transferred to an adult penitentiary, San Quentin State Prison.
San Quentin sat at the end of a small peninsula abutting the San Francisco Bay, not too far from Alcatraz. The Mexican Mafia quickly asserted its influence there, and by the end of the s, the gang had extended its tentacles beyond San Quentin into every correctional facility in the state. In the early s, a burst of brutality in California prisons attracted the attention of the FBI.
There were 36 murders in 12 months, and officials believed that the Mexican Mafia was to blame for as many as The FBI was also concerned that the gang might be infiltrating structures outside the correctional system.
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In one instance, they allegedly infiltrated a nonprofit center for disadvantaged youth. The gang developed an organizational structure not unlike that of a Fortune company, with ranking members and a voting board that weighed in on matters like which new associates to recognize and which hits to approve. Becoming a mafioso often took years. It required a current member to act as your sponsor and prove your willingness to kill. Once you were in, the rules of the gang were clear. No homosexuals, informants, or cowards would be tolerated. Joining the gang was a lifelong commitment. Dropouts would be killed, no questions asked.
Over the next two decades, la Eme continued its vicious reign. There were murders on the streets of California, stabbings in attorney visiting rooms, and violent feuds with other prison gangs. Reportedly, in the early s, the group considered assassinating California governor Pete Wilson over what it viewed as an anti-Latino proposition to bar undocumented immigrants from using certain public services.
The agency investigated the tips but found nothing. An assassination attempt never materialized. In , the federal government filed an page indictment against 22 alleged Mexican Mafia members and associates under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations RICO Act, the statute that designates penalties for offenses committed as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise.
Thirteen of those arrested were ultimately tried, and all but one were found guilty. At sentencing, prosecutors sought to cripple the gang by dispersing the convicted to various federal penitentiaries. Distance, they believed, would hamper communication and collusion. In fact, it helped the gang plant seeds across the entire country. A few years later, the government tried again to undercut la Eme. In the early-morning hours of February 2, , hundreds of law-enforcement officials suited up in tactical gear and fanned out across Los Angeles County.
Armed with search and arrest warrants, they raided homes and businesses, sweeping up hundreds of suspects believed to have gang ties.
Among them was Manuel Torrez. A married father of four, Torrez, nicknamed Tati, was in his fifties. I spoke with his son Andres, now 39, who told me that his father had tried to shield the family from the violence of the gang. Torrez took his two sons hiking in the hills outside Los Angeles, and he spoiled his two daughters, bringing home bags of candy and hiding the sweets from everyone except the girls. Occasionally, Torrez would throw a mattress in the back of his pickup and take the family to a drive-in movie.
It was impossible for him to separate his two lives completely. Andres saw his father get arrested once. On another occasion, the narcotics cops who kept close tabs on Torrez pulled him over while he was running errands with Andres. Torrez pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 13 years at Lompoc, a federal prison an hour north of Santa Barbara. He was senior enough in the Mexican Mafia that, at Lompoc, he was able to take charge of the yard—a coveted leadership role.
As a seasoned gang veteran, Torrez no longer had to do any dirty work, but he oversaw it all: When officials realized the power he wielded, they decided to put Torrez somewhere far from his connections in la Eme. The government transferred him to ADX Florence. Torrez was in his sixties by then, with four grandkids back home. At the ADX, he gained a reputation as one of the graying old guard. He moved slowly when officers escorted him down a hallway or up a flight of stairs. Andres told me that, at some point, his father had suffered a stroke. The morning of the rec-yard murder, after the commotion had settled, ADX staff realized that Torrez was the man missing from Echo Unit.
Fingerprints confirmed his identity. Jon began his investigation by reviewing what the prison staff knew. He was a short man with a thick build and intricate tattoos, including several Aztec figures, covering his arms and chest. When guards arrived at his cell, they found Santiago stripped to his boxers and bent over his toilet, dunking his clothes and shoes in the water.
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He looked right at them and kept going. Only when he was threatened with forceful extraction did he comply. The guards considered him polite and respectful, and it was unusual for him to ignore an order. When he committed the crime that put him away for life, he was already locked up. On the afternoon of January 25, , he stabbed another inmate to death while working his shift in the kitchen at Lompoc.
Mountain Murders : Homicide in the Rockies by Betty L. Alt and Sandra K. Wells (2009, Paperback)
DNA testing linked Santiago to the crime, and his cell mate testified at the trial that, a few weeks before the murder, Santiago had asked what it would take to get into a prison gang. Santiago was found guilty in of the murder that, in all likelihood, had secured his place in la Eme. The eerie, gruesome footage began at 8: Torrez was doing toe touches near a camera in one corner of the yard. Rivera swung his arms in a windmill motion, as if warming up for a workout. Then Santiago darted at him and threw a punch. The blow pushed Torrez backward, directly underneath the camera.
His position made it impossible for the lens to capture the attack. The only other camera in the yard was in the far corner, which also made it difficult for officers Guadian and Aragon to spot what happened next: Rivera and Santiago punching and kicking Torrez in the ribs and head for two minutes straight. The attackers then took breaks, walking away from their victim.
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At one point, Santiago sipped from a water bottle. Then he went back and delivered several more blows. Four minutes after the final phase of the assault, guards arrived at the yard. Later, when officers went to retrieve Rivera from his cell, he appeared to be shaking. The day after the murder, while moving through a special housing unit for disciplined inmates, Rivera spoke to the guards escorting him.
When Jon watched the security footage, he wondered what there was to investigate. This is ridiculous, he thought. Jon figured even the greenest of prosecutors could hit play on the tape and have a reasonable shot at extracting guilty pleas from the two inmates. Santiago was already serving life in prison; Rivera had another 15 years behind bars.
Mountain Murders: Homicide in the Rockies by Betty Sowers Alt
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