February 6, 2004

Joey Torres: Back Behind Bars

By Fiona Manning

Joey Torres wanted the world to believe he was a hard-luck guy wrongfully imprisoned in the prime of his boxing career for a murder he said he committed in self defense.

For 23 years Torres, real name Kim Joseph Torrey, telephoned famous sports celebrities who eventually got him liberated from his long stretch.

Last week, Joey Torres’ long and deceitful history received a new chapter when he fled to Mexico, then finally surrendered to authorities in Las Vegas, finally put behind bars for the cold-blooded murder he committed 25 years ago.

He might have stayed a free man had he not continually told lies about his crime, sparking one Los Angeles investigator’s curiosity to seek the truth.

Joey Torres with ex-Dallas Cowboy’s Emmit Smith

Last December after almost two years out of prison, Torres bargained with Federal investigators by offering evidence against Top Rank CEO Bob Arum.

Arum, who personally helped Torres with huge amounts of cash and professionally gave Torres a chance to resurrect his dormant boxing career, was rewarded with a raid on his Las Vegas offices last month.

That Torres was able to convince so many reputable people of a complete lie should be almost unbelievable – but it is all true.

Torres’ story begins and ends behind prison walls. A few years ago, he spent sometimes 10 hours each day, plying the prison payphones placing mostly collect calls to some of the biggest names in sports.

Today they are all scratching their heads that they were so easily duped by a conman.

When they did take his calls, the former amateur fighter cleverly blended his tale of being unjustly imprisoned with his pitch to keep kids off drugs. They wanted to help.

Torres contacted Hall of Famer Paul Molitor in a Chicago hotel, where he was on a road trip, beginning a friendship that would go on for years. They became so close that Molitor once credited Torres with helping get him through a hitting slump.

Former welterweight champion Carlos Palomino was at his Topanga Canyon, Calif., home when Torres first called his unlisted number in the late 1980s.

“He told me he was calling from prison and I asked how he got my number,” Palomino said. “He told me, ‘I got my ways.”’

Once he had their ear, the pudgy Torres would tell them how he had killed his abusive manager in self-defense and should have been released from prison years ago. He started an organization called Boxers Against Drugs, and got ballplayers to attend card shows to pay for it.

After 23 years, Torres was released on bail after winning the right to appeal his longer prison sentence on a legal technicality. Pending a court hearing on his appeal, he was finally free to do as he pleased, with his famous buddies at his side.

Molitor put up $100,000 bail for Torres, then bought him a car so he could get around.

Boxing promoter Arum gave him a place to hang out, and an improbable comeback fight at the age of 41 at the Anaheim Pond.

Former baseball star Eric Davis got him a place to stay and some new clothes.

“He was cool,” Davis said. “He never lied to me.”

Top Rank matchmaker and wannabe writer Bruce Trampler wrote a screenplay about Torres’ life, confident Hollywood would want the story of a fighter who served his time only to come out of prison and fight again. Former fighter turned movie producer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini wanted to make the film.

It all began to unravel when Pamela Frohreich, a hard-nosed prosecutor in Los Angeles looked into the story Torres told of the 1979 shooting that put him in prison.

What she found would put Torres back behind bars.

“A lot of prominent people believed Joey, but nobody bothered to check the facts,” said. Frohreich. “That includes Joey himself, because I believe he has convinced himself of his story. He used that story to talk himself into two years of freedom.”

Drivers pulling into the Texaco gas station on Florence Avenue in Downey, Calif., the night of June 18, 1979, couldn’t believe their good fortune. The attendant was nowhere to be seen, and people were gassing up and driving off without paying.

Police soon discovered why: In the back office, they found 21-year-old Armando Cardenas Jasso lying dead in a pool of blood next to an open safe.

It took homicide detectives several days of combing the neighborhood and running down tips to get their first break. They ended up at a nearby apartment, where the occupants said they sold a .25-caliber gun to a man living with them they called “Boxer.”

“Boxer,” it turned out, was 19-year-old Kim Joseph Torrey, also known as Joey Torres, who as an amateur fighter was good enough to win a 1976 AAU title. Torres fled to New Orleans after the shooting, but came back and was arrested two weeks later.

Torres pleaded guilty to murder with the understanding that he would serve time in a California Youth Authority until age 25. If he messed up there, he faced 25 years to life.

Joey messed up.

He was caught allegedly trying to get a girlfriend to smuggle a gun into his lockup. He was transferred to state prison to serve out the longer sentence.

Palomino was so moved by Torres’ story that he drove to a Nevada prison where Torres had been transferred to see him.

“I wanted to look in his eyes and see if I was hearing the truth or getting conned,” Palomino said. “We talked for a couple of hours and I felt like he was real.”

Torres introduced Palomino to the guards, and the former welterweight champion gave them autographs.

“It was almost like the guards were working for Joey,” he said. “They would come by and ask if we needed anything.”

Freedom brought a bonanza in free PR from the folks at Top Rank who peddled Torres as the great comeback kid.

They gave him more than a fighting chance by placing his first fight in 15 years on TV, live on K-Cal 9 from the Anaheim Pond.

On the night of April 27, 2002, Torres finally got the chance he’d dreamed of all those years in prison.

The former amateur star climbed into the ring at the Pond, wearing a robe reading “Thug Life.”

Working his corner were Molitor and Davis.

At 5-foot-6 and 199 pounds, Torres earned a lot of ringside laughter from the fans and the media when he disrobed.

Though Top Rank PR guys fed the public stories of Torres’ gym dedication, the truth was evident.

This guy didn’t look like a fighter. He didn’t fight like one either.

“He wasn’t really serious about it,” said former U.S. Olympic coach Kenny Adams, who trains the likes of ultra-professional former world champion Wayne Mc-Cullough.

“Joey only trained four or five days at the most. The only reason I worked with him during that time is he said he may be in a movie and that I could work with him in the movie.”

Matchmaker Trampler picked the worst opponent he could find, a light heavyweight named Perry Williams who had been knocked out in the first round of his only fight.

“I used Williams only because I hoped he would be bad enough for Torres to defeat,” Trampler told California boxing officials.

Williams may have been bad, but the flaccid, heavily tattooed Torres looked even worse. The first right hand Williams threw sent Torres down face first to the canvas.

Torres barely beat the count, but instead of going after a hurt fighter, Williams put his gloves in front of his face. Williams barely threw another punch the rest of the round before going down himself from a suspect left from Torres.

The enraged crowd went berserk, believing the fight was fixed. In the melee that followed, 16 people were arrested and Torres was hustled out of the arena protesting it was a clean fight.

Torres won by second round knockout, but both fighters were suspended for lack of ability.

Arum, who promoted the fight, was still eager to help Torres, and Torres became a fixture around Arum’s Top Rank offices in Las Vegas.

“I’m a believer in him,” Arum said at the time. “He comes out of prison with a burning desire to do things for others.”

What happened next however, wasn’t part of Torres’ big scheme.

An undercover detective who called himself “Big Frankie” was trying to infiltrate the boxing scene, and soon Torres was introducing him as his cousin. The two were inseparable, attending fights and scouting fighters for Arum.

Then came the raid on Arum’s offices.

“That’s all he was. He was a con artist,” said Bill Caplan, a longtime fight publicist and friend of Arum’s. “Bob just wanted to give the guy a break. He paid thousands in expenses for him, knowing he would never make anything. He was just trying to give him a chance at having a new life.”

That new life, though, wouldn’t last long. Pamela Frohreich made sure of that.

Torres’ lawyer offered a deal for a plea to manslaughter in exchange for his freedom. But Frohreich didn’t like the stories Torres kept telling about the killing.

“It’s tempting to think a guy has done 20 years and it’s time to let him go,” Frohreich said. “But the more I saw, the more I felt he wasn’t rehabilitated.”

Frohreich talked to investigators who worked the case, went over old reports, and interviewed witnesses.

She concluded Torres’ story of wrestling a gun away from his former manager and accidentally shooting him was just that - a good story.

In Torres’ version, the victim even had a different name - Jose Luis Ramirez.

The 12-page single spaced report written by detectives at the time makes no mention of the victim being a boxing manager. The victim’s brother said he was nothing more than a minimum-wage gas station attendant who lost his life for the $335 in the safe.

Frohreich also found a telling report from Torres’ probation officer, which quoted Torres’ parents as saying he was a “skillful fabricator of stories who can weave fantasy and fiction together in a most convincing fashion.”

She convinced a court to reject Torres’ bid for a trial, and he was ordered to return to prison last September.

Torres didn’t go easily. He fled to Mexico before finally being taken into custody in Las Vegas in December.

The friends he made at the other end of a phone line understood.

“Let’s say you’ve been locked up for 24 years, would you want to go back?” Davis asked.

For now, the calls have stopped. Torres is in the Los Angeles County Jail awaiting transfer to a state prison. He declined comment through his sister, Marcy Bautista.

Torres doesn’t have a lawyer now. His former attorney, Verna Wefald, said she believes Torres got a bad deal and should be freed. But Wefald also acknowledges the facts of the case are in question.

Bautista fears for her brother’s safety as a prison snitch. She believes federal agents dangled the possibility of freedom in front of Torres to get his cooperation.

“They just figured, let’s use the kid, he’s going back in anyway,” she said. “I’m sure they told him you work for us and you won’t have to go back. Does it take a rocket scientist to figure this out?”

Palomino is saddened by the fact Torres is back behind bars. Others feel duped.

Don’t feel sorry for Joey the Con, however.

He could have faced worse problems for fleeing to Mexico and evading arrest. Instead, Torres won’t face additional charges for failing to turn himself in.

“He’s already under a life sentence,” Frohreich said.

During which you can bet, he’ll let his fingers do the walking looking for a new set of sympathetic ears.

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