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East LA Murder Suspect Arrested in Joint U.S.-Mexican Operation

A man who had been on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list for more than two years was ordered Tuesday to remain jailed without bail while awaiting arraignment in connection with the slayings of three people in 1998.

Jose Luis Saenz was arrested in Guadalajara, Mexico. (Photo courtesy of the FBI)

Superior Court Judge Shelly Torrealba ordered Jose “Joe” Luis Saenz – who was arrested late Thursday in Guadalajara, Mexico – to return to the downtown courthouse for arraignment Dec. 17 on three counts of murder and one count each of kidnapping and forcible rape.

The murder charges stem from the July 25, 1998, killings of rival gang members Josue Hernandez and Leonardo Ponce in what authorities believe was payback for an attack on an associate, along with the Aug. 5, 1998, slaying of his girlfriend, Sigrieta Hernandez.

The kidnapping and rape charges also involve Hernandez, the mother of his child. She allegedly had threatened to turn him in for the Hernandez and Ponce killings.

Saenz is charged separately with a fourth murder – the Oct. 5, 2008, slaying of Oscar Torres.

Authorities said they have video of Saenz killing Torres in Whittier over a $600,000 drug debt. He is scheduled to be arraigned Jan. 8 on that charge.

Known by such aliases as “Zapp,” “Peanut Joe Smiley” and “Honeycutt,” Saenz arrived at Los Angeles International Airport under guard about 7 p.m. last Friday, according to Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Los Angeles.

“He was very difficult to find,” Eimiller said. “It took a lot of determination.”

At a news conference Monday at FBI headquarters in Westwood, Bill Lewis, the bureau’s Assistant Director in Charge in Los Angeles, said the arrest was carried out “without incident” and that Saenz “was surprised.”

“We do know that he took a couple of steps to mask his identity. He had some tattoos removed. He tried to alter his fingerprints and … had gained a significant amount of weight, which changed his appearance,” Lewis said.

Saenz, who allegedly worked for a Mexican drug cartel, had been under the surveillance of the FBI and Mexican law enforcement agents for weeks before he was arrested by Mexican agents as he left his apartment late Thursday, according to the FBI. The FBI agents involved in the surveillance did not directly take part in the bust.

“This was a very well-thought-out arrest plan,” Lewis said. “They brought in a tactical team to ensure the safety of the officers and the citizens around.”