By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
When Sonia Flores was his lover, Rafael Perez -- L.A.’s most famous corrupt cop -- persuaded her to tell lies that sent five men to prison. When Perez spurned her, she told incriminating stories about the ex-cop, but it was Flores herself who did the time, for lying to investigators. Now, on the occasion of her release from federal prison, the City Attorney‘s Office is making one more bid to get her story straight.
Last month, Deputy City Attorney Deborah Breithaupt sought to take Flores’ deposition at the SeaTac Prison in Washington state, where she‘s currently incarcerated. After Flores refused to cooperate, Breithaupt petitioned federal judges here and in Seattle to compel her appearance.
It seems a long way to go for statements from Flores, a human credibility gap, but there’s much at stake, including millions of dollars in potential liability and answers to vital questions about the Rampart scandal. “Flores was the principal eyewitness in a murder,” points out city attorney spokesperson Ana Garcia. Greg Yates, an attorney representing more than 20 Rampart plaintiffs, speaks in the same vein: “She‘s a percipient witness to the misconduct of police officers and other public servants.”
Flores was a teenager living with her brother in the Rampart district at the time she met Perez, then an officer in the Rampart CRASH anti-gang unit. She gained notoriety in August of 2000 as the former Perez girlfriend who implicated Perez and his former partner, David Mack, in several homicides. She then recanted her accusation, a move that led to her prosecution for false testimony. But it was another set of lies that the city wants to know the truth about now.
Flores was the sole government witness in the prosecution of five gang members on manslaughter charges stemming from a February 1996 shooting at a crowded Rampart-district McDonald’s restaurant. The five accused gang members protested their innocence, but when prosecutors offered a “package” deal based on a reduced charge, all five pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 12-year terms for manslaughter.
Flores admitted to police investigators in early 2000 that Perez told her which gang members to identify. Perez was among the officers who responded to the shooting scene, and was the one who took Flores to the station. Perez was also her lover at the time, Flores said.
Confronted with the accusation, Perez denied tampering with the investigation, but admitted having relations with Flores while she was a protected witness in the case. The convictions were overturned last year, and three of the five convicted men are now suing the city for damages.
Flores herself is scheduled for release from prison Friday. Deputy City Attorney Breithaupt said in court papers she wants to compel Flores‘ appearance this week because she has “every reason to believe Flores will disappear” once released from federal custody. Flores’ attorney, Marshall Bitkower of Encino, insisted he would make Flores available upon her return to Los Angeles, and denounced what he termed an effort to “strong-arm” his client. “The timing of this thing sucks,” Bitkower said.
Of course, there‘s some debate over what weight Flores’ testimony might carry, considering her history of false statements in and out of court. “Does she have a credibility problem? Absolutely,” said city attorney spokeswoman Garcia. But Flores remains the only witness to the McDonald‘s shooting, and has already been punished for giving false testimony. “I think she’s going to be a lot more careful this time around when she talks to us,” Garcia said.
Her decision could determine whether the city pays off the claims or takes the plaintiffs to trial, which could prove to be a multimillion-dollar question. “We really don‘t know what it’s going to mean until we hear exactly what she has to say,” Garcia said Monday.
It wouldn‘t be the first time statements by Flores have influenced high-stakes proceedings in court. Flores first surfaced publicly in September 2000, on the eve of the trial of four Rampart officers on charges of false arrest and other misconduct.
Rafael Perez was expected to be a key witness for the prosecution, as he was the source of the initial allegations. But prosecutors changed course after Flores told police that she watched as Perez shot a drug dealer in her presence. She also claimed that David Mack, Perez’s onetime partner, executed the dealer‘s sobbing mother, and that the three of them drove to Tijuana, where the officers buried the bodies in a ravine.
Flores stuck to her story for weeks as authorities investigated, even hiring a backhoe to dig out the purported graves. The Rampart trial stalled in the meantime, as the district attorney mounted a thin case without Perez. Flores finally confessed to making up the story about these two murders around the same time that a judge threw out the one charge on which the officers were convicted.
Now that Flores is once again being thrust to the forefront, her testimony could damage either side.
On the one hand, while she has disavowed her identification of four of the men charged in the McDonald’s shooting, she always maintained her accusation against a fifth, Anthony Adams, then a leader of the Temple Street Gang. In fact, she said she knew a plot was afoot before the shooting took place and that she had tried to dissuade Adams from pulling the trigger, but he ignored her.
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