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Fugitive returned to L.A. from Mexico to face murder charges

Undated FBI handout photo shows Joe Luis Saenz. Mexican federal police have captured suspected murderer, rapist and drug gang member Joe Lui
Undated FBI handout photo shows Joe Luis Saenz. Mexican federal police have captured suspected murderer, rapist and drug gang member Joe Lui

By Brandon Lowrey

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A suspected gang member and drug cartel enforcer accused of four Los Angeles-area slayings has been returned to California to face murder charges after he was captured in Mexico, ending a three-year stint on the FBI's list of most-wanted fugitives.

Jose "Joe" Luis Saenz, a U.S. citizen from Los Angeles who has been on the run through North and Central America in recent years, was apprehended last Thursday in western Mexico and deported back to the United States the following day, the FBI said.

Saenz, known variously as "Peanut Joe Smiley," "Zapp" and other assumed names, was arrested without incident outside a modest apartment where he had been living alone in Guadalajara, capping weeks of surveillance by U.S. and Mexican authorities, FBI officials said.

FBI special agent Scott Garriola, who led efforts to locate the fugitive, said Saenz told him he was surprised to have been caught. "I think his words were he got 'sloppy,'" Garriola told a news conference in Los Angeles on Monday.

Saenz, who according to FBI records is 36 or 37, was due to appear in court on Monday in Pomona, east of Los Angeles, for arraignment on a murder charge stemming from the 2008 killing of a man over a drug debt in Los Angeles County.

Authorities said they have video footage of that killing.

He also is accused of shooting two rival gang members to death in Los Angeles in July 1998 and of kidnapping, raping and killing his estranged girlfriend, the mother of his child, after she threatened to turn him in for the two earlier slayings.

Saenz had been listed among the FBI's 10 most-wanted fugitives since October 2009. If convicted, he could face the death penalty, authorities said.

Authorities described Saenz as a street gang member and "enforcer" for one of Mexico's drug cartels, but they declined to elaborate on his suspected criminal affiliations.

The fugitive, whom FBI agents and sheriff's deputies described as charismatic and highly intelligent, had tattoos removed from his arms, put on a significant amount of weight and tried to alter his fingerprints to avoid detection while he was on the run, authorities said.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Tim Gaynor and Cynthia Osterman)

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