By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Late in the afternoon of February 6, 1996, a gangbanger and midlevel hustler named Miguel Malfavon stepped onto the patio of a McDonald‘s restaurant at the corner of Temple and Alvarado streets, in the northeast section of the Rampart District. There was traffic on the street, there were people eating; a couple with a child strolled down the sidewalk.
Quietly, someone in the apartment complex just to the north of the restaurant pulled a handgun. The couple on the sidewalk cried, in Spanish, ”Oh my God,“ and in the same instant, two shots rang out. On the McDonald’s patio, a second man produced a handgun and began blasting. Sonya Flores, then 18 years old, was nearly caught in the crossfire, but managed to stumble into the restaurant.
Police arrived two minutes later to find Malfavon dying on the patio floor, and Flores shaking, her clothes splattered with his blood. While patrol officers and detectives cleared the scene, CRASH Officers Rafael Perez and Sammy Martin took Flores into their custody and drove her to the station six blocks away.
There they conducted a momentous interview. Within hours, Flores had named four shooters. She repeated those identifications in court four months later, and all four, along with an alleged accomplice, went to prison, where they remain to this day.
The convictions decimated the leadership of the Temple Street gang, among the oldest street gangs in all of Los Angeles. The case went on the books as a shining victory for CRASH, the kind of kick-ass law enforcement the unit was established to provide.
Now, almost five years later, Flores has come forward to say those identifications were fraudulent -- that Perez pressured her to name several of the assailants, and that she went along. It‘s a new twist on what has become the Rampart routine: This time it’s the star witness in a multiple-felony arrest who says the perpetrators were framed, and Rafael Perez who contends that the convictions were authentic.
Flores is a figure who has come to haunt Rafael Perez. She told investigators in January that she had taken up with Perez when she was just 16 years old, that she had become pregnant by him and had an abortion, and that she was ”in love“ with Perez at the time of the McDonald‘s shooting. And in just the past month, it was Flores who said she was present when Perez and his former partner David Mack shot and killed a drug dealer and a woman who appeared to be the dealer’s mother, then took the bodies and buried them in Tijuana.
That alleged double homicide, described to investigators and to the L.A. Times, is now the subject of a federal investigation. If proven at trial, those murders would break Perez‘s immunity deal, leaving him open to prosecution for all his various crimes and ending his run as reformed, contrite malefactor.
But the McDonald’s shooting itself, and the allegation that Perez manipulated the case, could come to reshape the broader picture of the Rampart scandal. According to another new voice, a Temple Street veteran, the McDonald‘s shooting was staged to eliminate the rivals to Perez’s own burgeoning criminal enterprise.
That scenario is suggested by Flores, but is expressed in detail by Ruben Rojas, who was among the first convicts released from prison after the Rampart scandal came to light. Rojas, whom Perez admitted framing on a drug charge, told investigators last November that Perez was the chief architect of a criminal conspiracy that involved at least half a dozen Rampart cops in the street sale of cocaine. They were operating in the Temple Street district, and the local gang was getting in the way.
Rojas went further, contending that the actual shooter at McDonald‘s was Perez himself. That claim was dismissed, in part because Perez and Flores both maintained the identifications in the case were legit. Now, however, Flores has thrown the official version of the McDonald’s murder into doubt.
None of these new developments can be taken at face value. In a now-familiar Rampart conundrum, all of the voices here belong to hustlers and admitted perjurers. Perez, of course, has lied for years, in court and out. And Ruben Rojas is an ex-con and longtime member of a criminal street gang. When pressed, he attributes most of his allegations to ”word on the street,“ or, simply, ”word.“
Sonya Flores now tells investigators that she engaged in an elaborate lie during a court hearing and that she stood by as Perez and Mack, who would soon turn bank robber, murdered a drug dealer and his mother.
Her story has evolved in stages. Early this year, she admitted for the first time that she had a continuing relationship with Perez, and had seen him do drugs at the Rampart crash pad, but still insisted that her original testimony in the McDonald‘s case was valid. Flores was asked by detectives, ”Nobody told you what to say or what to do, or who to point out?“
”No,“ she replied.
”All the police or detectives ever asked you was to tell the truth?“