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Smooth Talker

Stephen Torres is wearing a plastic glow-in-the-dark rosary, a skull tattoo with a banner that says "Kimberly Forever" and an aquamarine jumpsuit. Both the rosary and the tattoo are easily explained. Torres is a spiritual man, he contends; the skull he received as an Army Ranger, while "Kimberly Forever" refers to his wife of five years, at press time just days away from delivering Stephen Jr., the couple's first child. Torres, however, will not be present for the birth, and the reason has to do with the jumpsuit. It's standard issue at Denver County Jail, where the self-proclaimed CEO and money man behind locally based hip-hop label UnderPressure records has been incarcerated since early last month. Torres is charged with seven felonies, including conspiracy, securities fraud and violation of the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act.

It's not the first time Torres has been inside. In fact, he's amassed a criminal record that includes felony theft convictions and felony escape. In addition to the new indictments, he is still awaiting trial on fraud charges brought against him last year. Torres, however, didn't mention any of this to Steve Jackson, LeJon Vivens or LeQuan Starks, the three ambitious young UnderPressure execs who let Torres become a partner in their company in January of this year. It's easy to understand why. Torres was willing to fund the trio's somewhat ambitious projects, including the production of rapper Dez's debut CD, Under Pressure. He had the equipment to help the business run smoothly, including top-of-the-line computer systems. He had a hands-off approach to the artistic side of the company, letting the three do their thing with little interference, preferring instead to cut checks, make deals and maintain the label's Web site, Prior to Torres's involvement, the label had been an unevenly funded and mismanaged venture. Jackson, Vivens and Starks had the desire and the smarts to run the label, but they lacked adequate overhead. "We were maxing out credit cards," says Jackson. "I remember one time, LeJon left the studio with one dollar in his pocket. One dollar. And it was like, 'Well, that's it until the next paycheck.'"

Torres had exactly what they needed to make any serious progress in the music business and develop national clout: cash. Only problem, according to Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter, was that the cash wasn't his.

Starks says that when the three met him on the local hip-hop scene last fall, Torres said he was the owner of several companies, including Torres Interactive and VisionOne Technologies. He told Starks he had made millions with Torres Interactive, providing Web design services and creating and selling the interactive role-playing game "Pandalara, the World of Kelitan" through the Internet. VisionOne was also a computer-based consulting company, providing networking and Web services to small businesses. The claims seemed legit to Starks and his partners, especially when Torres was able to dump more than $100,000 into the recordings of Dez, R&B singer Allison Wright and rappers Sherme and Dae Dai without flinching. Things seemed to be going well under the new business arrangement. Dez's CD-release party at the Ogden Theatre in June was sold out, and sales of the disc were brisk. The UnderPressure Web site was getting hits from around the country. Jackson, Vivens and Starks, as well as the artists, were being paid for their efforts -- not always the case with young labels.

Yet in the first week of September, the threesome got a call: Hadn't they heard? Torres's home office had been raided by police, his equipment (including fifteen computers) and financial records confiscated, his assets frozen. VisionOne had been dissolved, and Torres was in jail with bail set at $2.5 million. Soon after, the three were besieged by calls from people who'd heard variations on the rumor that UnderPressure had also been raided.

"That's all we heard," Vivens says. "People were coming up to us on the street, at clubs, saying, 'We heard the government took all of your stuff.' They thought we'd been in jail. They'd ask me, 'When did you get out?' and I'd be like, 'Get out of what? Get out of my house?'

"We were a little worried," he adds. "It was an out-of-the-blue surprise to us. We went through every possible thought. Were we somehow entangled in this? But no one ever raided our office, no one ever even questioned if we had anything to do with Stephen's business. We didn't know. If we would have known, we would have slowed down, we would have done things much differently. We heard nothing about what was really going on, what Stephen was into."

What Stephen was into was a whole lotta trouble.

Torres is accused of, among other things, soliciting an investment of $350,000 for the marketing of Pandalara, which he said had a street value of $200 million. (Torres claims the game was a favorite of role-playing-game enthusiasts and is available as a CD set through the Internet for $33 to $45 or via a monthly membership charge; Westword searches of the Internet yielded zero results.) He is also accused of knowingly misrepresenting his background and financial worth to the Centennial Banc Shares Corporation, a Denver-based mortgage company, to collect more than $300,000 and 400,000 shares of corporate stock. According to court documents, Torres, a former tow-truck driver, told the firm he was a computer expert and a millionaire. And though his methods didn't quite net millions, Torres was making enough to buy his pregnant wife a new house and a Lexus. Enough to fill that house up with high-tech equipment and nice things. Enough to bankroll a record label.

Under the fluorescent yellow light of Denver County's interview room, Torres contends he is innocent. And when he is vindicated -- and he will be, he's sure of it -- he'll return to his post at UnderPressure as if nothing ever happened.

"When I first met those guys, I knew they had so much drive and power," he says. "I didn't tell them about my past, because they were clean and I was under some scrutiny. I didn't want to get them involved in that. But the passion that these guys had, the talent -- I just wanted to back them, so I did.

"UnderPressure is like a family," he continues. "I did things for those guys because it was a family thing; I took care of them. I invested all the money, then gave them percentages, never saw a dime of it back and didn't really expect to. I backed UnderPressure because I believe in Dez and everyone else. It's a family."

Jackson, Vivens and Starks don't exactly share Torres's feelings of familial warmth. Asked what they think of him today, they offer a collective scoff and say they feel betrayed by their former partner. They haven't spoken to Torres and have no desire to. The company continues to operate, thanks in part to the components put in place during Torres's days with the label.

"This whole thing has never been a setback," Vivens says. "It's a blessing in disguise. It's given us a greater motivation, and everything is going as planned. When it's all said and done, in a year from now, we're going to be a perennial power, and ain't nothin' gonna stop it. We're alive, well, and still putting it down."

Jackson, Vivens and Starks are concentrating on a forthcoming CD from singer Wright, whom they view as their "ticket to major distribution." Wright seems to be coming through: She's landed an opening slot for French hip-hop duo Les Nubians and has been invited to a Quincy Jones-produced industry showcase in Detroit next week.

As for Torres, he's excited about the birth of his baby and a strengthened spirituality he's felt as a result of his legal troubles.

"I'm using my time to think about God and religion," he says. "I know things will work out all right, because God gave me talent, and weird things happen when you're talented."

According to Torres, if he's found guilty of all seven charges, he could be sentenced to nearly 100 years in jail. Which would provide more time for him to get in touch with his spiritual side and contemplate those talents. -- Laura Bond

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Laura Bond
Contact: Laura Bond