At 3:39 a.m. on January 7, 2007, Columbia Street was almost deserted. Little Italy had been plagued with car burglaries — “It got where you couldn’t drive too many of the streets down there without seeing broken glass in the morning,” said San Diego police officer Joel Schmid, so Schmid parked his patrol car and approached on foot when he noticed a pearl white Escalade stopped in the driveway of a condominium.
One door was slightly ajar, triggering the interior lights. Schmid could see shadows moving inside.
Schmid requested assistance from other officers and stepped quietly to the driver’s-side door, where he confronted a Hispanic man in his 30s and two women, one of whom was sitting on the man’s lap.
The man benignly handed Schmid a Mexican passport with what Schmid called a “real blurry photo.” The name on the passport and on the U.S. visa tucked inside was “Rubén Flores.” A search of the Escalade produced a loaded Colt Mustang, seven cell phones, a blue Viagra pill, the business card of a Chula Vista gun store, a permit for the American Shooting Center, and a folded sheet of white paper that resembled a faded receipt.
“On one side of the paper,” Schmid testified, “was a kiss in lipstick, as if somebody with lipstick had kissed the paper itself and folded it up, and inside of that receipt, underneath the kiss, I found a crystalline controlled substance I believed to be methamphetamine.”
The paper sealed with a kiss contained, in fact, .07 grams of crystal meth, but that and the gun weren’t enough to keep the man in the white Escalade for long. Five months later, he was busy in Chula Vista and Paradise Hills, executing plans that involved three assault rifles, six handguns, two Tasers, two duffel bags of Mexican and American police uniforms, five cars, a length of heavy chain, four padlocks, a blindfold, muriatic acid in quantities sufficient to dissolve grown men, and the belief that a rich Mexican family with businesses on both sides of the border would not call the FBI if a family member disappeared.
He was mistaken.
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One Friday in May of 2007, a security camera mounted on a house in the gated neighborhood of Belmonte recorded a man in a polo shirt and jeans approaching the front door from a white Volkswagen Beetle. The man was thin and unremarkable except for the sharp point his receding hair made on his forehead and the equally sharp features of his face. He looked more Anglo than Hispanic.
He peered through the glass of the front door and walked away several times, waiting or looking for someone. After 12 minutes, he left a note on the front step.
The $1.5 million house he visited on Mansiones Lane belonged to 32-year-old Eduardo González Tostado, called Eddy by his cousin Sergio and sometimes “Mandilón,” which comes from the Spanish word for apron — el mandil — and means “whipped.”
Eddy found the note when he returned with his wife Ivette and their six-year-old daughter from their regular weekend trip to Mexico, where he owned a house, a bar in Ensenada called El Blue Martini Lounge, and a restaurant in Tijuana called Mariscos del Pacífico. On the American side, Eddy owned a company that rented out trucks that carried goods from maquiladoras into the United States and two car dealerships in Chula Vista called Premiere I and Motorland Auto Sales.
Eddy’s father-in-law was a neurologist in Tijuana, and Eddy, who had once been the starting quarterback on the only American-style football team in Ensenada, had earned a law degree from a Tijuana college called Centro de Estudios Superiores. He was famous in his hometown of Ensenada for being the first Mexican ever to win a 216-mile cross-country race through the Mexican desert called the Baja 250. Off-road cars like the one Eddy owned cost upward of $100,000, and year after year, the races were won by foreigners.
Eddy picked up the note on his front step. “Urgent to call Robert” it said in Spanish, and it listed a phone number. Eddy went to look at the surveillance video, and he paused the tape to show the man with the pointed hairline leaving his front door. He took some pictures of the screen. Then he drove to a nearby shopping mall and used a public phone — not his cell or house phone — to call the driver of the white Volkswagen.
According to Eddy, the conversation went like this.
“Is this Robert?” Eddy asked.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“You left me a note on my house,” Eddy said.
The person calling himself Robert then told Eddy that he’d been sitting in a bar when he overheard some people planning to kidnap Eduardo González Tostado. These men in the bar had talked about where Eddy’s businesses were and where his house was and what number you had to punch into the keypad at the gate to get to Eddy’s house. For $30,000 (which was what, Robert said, those guys owed him), he would tell Eddy who these men were. For free, he told Eddy that the person who’d passed along the gate code was “El Arquitecto.”
The architect was a friend of Eddy’s named Eduardo Monroy, someone Eddy knew from vacations in Puerto Vallarta. Eddy had helped Monroy find an apartment and then had given Monroy work remodeling the patio at the Mansiones house, for which Eddy had given Monroy the gate code.
With this knowledge of a former friend plotting against him, Eddy drove back home, punched in the gate code that was now circulating among people who meant him harm, and went back to his wife and child. When his cousin Sergio arrived from Ensenada, Eddy showed him the note. Sergio would remember the note differently. “Mandil, call me,” Sergio recalled it saying, not “Urgent to call Robert.” In Sergio’s memory, the note referred to Eddy by his nickname.
In any case, Sergio looked at the security video, studied the pale-skinned man with the pointed hairline, and told Eddy he’d once given that man a ride in La Jolla. The man in the video was the Tijuana boyfriend of someone Sergio knew, and his real name was Juan, not Robert.