Deploying my covert surveillance team around a Catholic church seemed somehow sacrilegious. However, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Prison Gang Surveillance Team together with a tactical unit from LAPD's Hollenbeck Division set a perimeter and exercised their best alert police senses around the East Los Angeles church on a September day in 1998.

Sigrieta Fernandez lay in repose in the church while her family and friends mourned her untimely demise. Sigrieta was the mother of her boyfriend's baby. He had vowed to return and kill that infant boy. This was no idle threat.

Her boyfriend was Jose Luis "Smiley" Saenz, a Fourth (cuatro in Spanish) Street Flats gang member. Killing was nothing new to Smiley. About one and one half years earlier Smiley was suspected in a gang murder, but was never arrested. Saenz brazenly boasted about his gang exploits and dared anyone to challenge him.

On July 25, 1998 Saenz and a 14-year-old accomplice, ambushed, shot, and killed two rival gang members from North Clarence Street. When Smiley Saenz returned to the Pico Aliso Village Projects, the home of the Cuatro Flats gang, word spread quickly about the ruthless murders. Cuatro gang members praised his violence and said that Saenz was mas loco (more crazy) than any other of the craziest vato locos in East L.A. 

When his girlfriend Sigrieta heard about the heartless gang killings, she was not pleased. She liked to believe that the father of her son was a good man and that he wanted to leave gang life behind. Her mistake was to think that Smiley Saenz cared about her or her son. She expressed her displeasure to Smiley.

According to police reports, on Aug. 5, Smiley Saenz allegedly kidnapped Sigrieta from her Aliso Village apartment and took her to the East Los Angeles home of Saenz's grandmother. He raped her and then shot her to death. Some speculate that he feared that she knew too much about the murders and would report him to the LAPD's Hollenbeck division. For whatever reason, he also threatened to return and kill his own child.

Saenz was later alleged to have stood across the street from the Pico Aliso Village Project police station and taunted officers. Some of the gang members said that Smiley had actually fired shots at the station. He openly bragged that he would not be taken alive and would shoot any cop who tried to take him.

At the church, cops in surveillance vans and plain-wrapped detective cars hid and watched at full alert. Smiley Saenz was the kind of suspect who would walk up and confront and shoot at any police vehicle he might recognize. A huge black tank-like Lincoln Town Car was what Saenz liked to drive. We waited in anticipation for it to drive into the church parking lot. One group of cops close to the services was deployed to protect the family and Saenz's baby boy, and my team was on the outer perimeter set to spring a trap and close in to take the mad dog called Smiley. But that day he failed to show up.

Saenz continued to be seen in the Pico Aliso Village and he cowardly taunted his victim's family with telephone threats. Several days later the LASD surveillance team set up around a bank of public telephones the suspect had used to call from. Again we prepared to take down the gang member who vowed not to be taken alive. Once again with no luck.

Because Smiley had murdered victims in LAPD and LASD jurisdictions, both LAPD Hollenbeck homicide detectives and Los Angeles Sheriff's Homicide Detectives Johnny Brown and his partner Robert Carr worked together to apprehend Smiley Saenz. Over the years, the LASD surveillance team has set up in numerous cities in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

The Cuatro Flats gang has been very active in the Inland Empire, Ontario, Fontana, and Moreno Valley areas. However, Jose Luis Saenz remains an outstanding wanted murder suspect.

Saenz and his Cuatro Flats clique are examples of the de-evolution of street gangs. Gone are the days of fair fights and any pretence of any code of conduct. Smiley Saenz is no soldier for his barrio. He has brought no glory to his gang, only shame. His brutal murders were cowardly acts of wild uncontrolled violence and his victims are as likely to be women, children, or random citizens as they are gang rivals. Saenz has more in common with fanatic al-Qaeda suicide bombers than he has with any neighborhood street soldiers or ancient Aztec warriors.

Saenz was born on Dec. 31, 1975. He's 5-foot-11-inches tall and weighs 180 pounds. He has brown eyes with a shaved head. He is heavily tattooed and has "Cuatro" tattooed on his left arm and "Flats" on his right arm.


Richard Valdemar
Richard Valdemar

Sergeant (Ret.)

Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

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Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

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