Out of the Can and Onto the Stand
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 Attorneys 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 shes 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 theres 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: Shes 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.
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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 McDonalds 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, theres 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 McDonalds shooting, and has already been punished for giving false testimony. I think shes 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 dont know what its going to mean until we hear exactly what she has to say, Garcia said Monday.
It wouldnt 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, Perezs onetime partner, executed the dealers 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 McDonalds 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.
Adams has always maintained his innocence, and is one of the three plaintiffs seeking compensation for the years he spent behind bars. Police reports show that Flores first named another gang member as the shooter, and only weeks later pointed the finger at Adams.
Flores has maintained her story that Perez was among a number of corrupt officers at Rampart who used drugs and attended parties at a crash pad near the police station. The allegations would bolster the argument that the LAPD failed to root out problem officers at the troubled division.
Flores also has maintained her accusation that Rafael Perez committed a murder while at Rampart. In particular, she says Perez and another officer shot and killed a young member of the Temple Street Gang who had threatened to expose Perezs drug dealing. According to Flores, that homicide precipitated the shooting at McDonalds.
Flores reiterated each of those allegations during an interview with the Weekly in November of 2000 -- and this was after she had recanted the eyewitness accounts of the other homicides, and before she was sentenced for giving false statements to the FBI. Flores said at the time she was outraged by Perezs misconduct, and said, If I could do something to keep him in jail a little longer I would do it.
As it turned out, it was Flores who did the extra time. Perez went to jail for the misconduct he admitted to the district attorney -- a five-year state sentence -- and he is currently serving two additional years of federal time. Flores, meanwhile, will have spent 14 months in prison upon her release Friday.
Her freedom wont end her entanglement in the Rampart scandal. This time her statements could be tested in a court of law. As Greg Yates observed, Ultimately, its up to a jury to decide her credibility.
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