- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

His story was believable enough, even coming from behind prison walls.

Joey Torres was a convicted murderer with a whole lifetime on his hands, but he worked the pay phone like tomorrow would never come.

The calls were mostly collect, to some of the biggest names in sports. Amazingly, they listened as the former amateur fighter skillfully blended his tale of being unjustly imprisoned with his pitch to keep kids off drugs.

Torres reached 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.

“We have a complex relationship that I can’t begin to explain,” Molitor said later. “But this is a guy who has tried for so long to do good for people.”

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.’ ”

Torres boasted Darryl Strawberry would even take his calls in the Dodgers dugout.

He may have been a con pulling a con job, but he had a way of getting people to listen.

Torres told how he 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 Bob 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.”

Someone 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 was the ultimate feel-good story.

“He’s just kind of magical,” Palomino said. “Everybody responds to him.”

Everybody, it seems, but a hard-nosed prosecutor in Los Angeles who 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,” Pamela Frohreich said. “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 June18, 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 he would serve time in a California Youth Authority until age 25. If he messed up there, he faced 25 years to life.

That would come back to haunt Torres after he was caught reportedly trying to get a girlfriend to smuggle a gun into his lockup. He was transferred to state prison to serve out the longer sentence.

In prison, he worked the phones relentlessly, often spending 10 hours a day calling athletes, attorneys and reporters. Sometimes, he would call collect 20 times or more until someone accepted.

Palomino was so moved by Torres’ story 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.”

Albuquerque youth coordinator Chris Baca found the same thing out when he visited Torres in a New Mexico prison years later. Torres promised Baca running back Emmitt Smith would be there.

“I said, ‘Yeah, and I’m Queen Elizabeth,’ ” Baca recalled.

At the prison, Baca found out just how good a salesman Torres was.

“I get there and not only is Emmitt Smith there, but so is his mom, his girlfriend, his half brother, a defensive end from the Raiders and I don’t know who else,” Baca said. “I don’t know how he got them there, but he did it.”

The Anaheim Pond was the kind of place Joey Torres always imagined he might be fighting. He might have been a contender, until prison took 23 years of his life.

On the night of April27, 2002, though, Torres finally got his chance.

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

Working his corner were Molitor and Davis.

At 5-foot-6 and 199 pounds, Torres didn’t look much like a fighter. But he had a story to tell, and getting back in the ring was a big part of it.

“He wasn’t really serious about it,” said former U.S. Olympic coach Ken Adams, who trained Torres. “He 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 Bruce 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 flabby, heavily tattooed Torres looked even worse. The first right hand Williams threw sent Torres down face first, much to the surprise of both fighters.

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 chanted “WWF! WWF!” believing the fight was fixed.

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

“No matter what anybody says, I made it,” Torres said afterward.

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 wasn’t in the script. 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.

Just last month, federal investigators raided Arum’s offices.

The con had joined forces with the law to pull the ultimate con.

“All he was 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 simply saddened by the fact Torres is back behind bars.

“You see people getting out of prison for much lesser offenses who were 100 percent proven to be guilty,” he said. “It’s pretty unbelievable the way the system works.”

It could have been worse. Torres won’t face additional charges for failing to turn himself in.

“He’s already under a life sentence,” Frohreich said. “We’ve got enough other things to worry about.”

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