Rampart Runneth Over
Late in the afternoon of February 6, 1996, a gangbanger and midlevel hustler named Miguel Malfavon stepped onto the patio of a McDonalds 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 McDonalds 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. Its a new twist on what has become the Rampart routine: This time its 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 McDonalds 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 dealers 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 Perezs immunity deal, leaving him open to prosecution for all his various crimes and ending his run as reformed, contrite malefactor.
But the McDonalds 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 McDonalds shooting was staged to eliminate the rivals to Perezs 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 McDonalds 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 McDonalds 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 McDonalds 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?
And thats what you did?
And thats what I did. Now, Flores says thats not what she did at all.
Clearly, both Flores and Ruben Rojas have their own agendas -- both have long ties to the Temple Street gang, and both have personal reason to seek vengeance against the rogue cop. As one attorney in the case observed of Rojas, Hes a pawn in a big game, and I dont know whos moving the pieces. Yet their accounts are also intriguing. For more than a year, Perez was able to narrate the story of his corruption himself, contradicted only by the fellow cops hes accused of misconduct. Now Flores and Rojas have come forward to suggest even darker tones to the story.
The statements from Flores and Rojas surfaced in public view in September, put on the record by Art Goldberg, an Echo Park lawyer then representing Anthony Adams, one of those convicted in the McDonalds shooting. Neither Flores nor Rojas would agree to an interview with the Weekly; this story is based on court documents and their interviews with investigators.
Already frazzled by nature, to judge from his rumpled suits and flyaway hair, Goldberg is sorely pressed for time these days, dividing his energy between his criminal law practice and his current campaign to succeed his sister Jackie on the L.A. City Council. But Goldberg will stop long enough to discuss how he flushed out this volatile new fuel for the long-smoldering Rampart story.
Goldberg said he first heard of Flores and her connection to Perez sometime late last year, through neighborhood contacts hed developed over years in criminal practice in the Rampart District. He mounted a vigorous attack on what he saw as Perezs manipulation of Flores as a witness in his original writ, filed last January 28. In addition, Goldberg learned of Ruben Rojas allegations when he briefly joined Greg Yates as co-counsel to Adams. Yates represents Rojas in civil proceedings against the city.
Still, Goldberg said he was surprised when he received a package last month containing D.A. transcripts of extended interviews with Rojas and Flores. He was even more stunned that there was no accompanying court order barring their release. I realized they had messed up, he said, especially when the D.A. scheduled a hearing for the next Monday to request an order keeping them secret.
Goldberg said he recognized instantly that, if they became public, the transcripts could alter the entire shape of the Rampart case, possibly leading to a new round of revelations and winning his client a new hearing. So he called the Times and invited reporters to publicize Flores and Rojas statements. Every time you open stuff like this up, it all starts to come out! he declared with obvious glee.
The gambit paid off in court last week. For the first time since Rampart hit the headlines a year ago, Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler, whos issued repeated protective orders barring public disclosure of investigative materials on Perez and his associates, dropped all restrictions on access to any new materials relating to Rafael Perez or David Mack.
Let the investigations begin, Fidler told an audience of more than a dozen representatives of the defense bar, including representatives of the public defender, as well as the district attorney, the city attorney and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Asked later what factors he thought finally forced the Flores commentaries to the surface, Goldberg said the internal struggle between the police and the district attorney had delayed the release, but could not do so indefinitely. After all, there was intense human drama at work. This statement really came out of her anger at being put down by Perez, Goldberg said of Flores statement. Its a woman scorned that really opened this whole thing up.
The year 1996 found Rafael Perez 28 years old, THREE years into his second marriage -- to an LAPD dispatch operator -- and 10 months into the Rampart CRASH unit. a His assignment was Temple Street, a multiethnic gang of roughly 275 young men that ranged along the south side of Sunset Boulevard from Alvarado Street to Hoover Street.
That was the official version. Perez was, by his own account and according to Flores and Rojas, carrying on at the same time a multifaceted secret life. By her account, Flores was a big part of it. Although Perez insists he had sex with Flores just one time, she says they had an ongoing relationship, and her account is corroborated in part by a former roommate who told police investigators in September that Flores had openly discussed her boyfriend, and that she herself met Perez three times.
Flores says the relationship started in 1994, when Perez carded her as an underage patron at the Pan American nightclub, just a couple of blocks from the Rampart station. She was living with her brother in an apartment nearby, and quickly fell for the dark, handsome cop. Perez brought her by the crash pad he maintained with fellow officer Sammy Martin, and she became a regular visitor. Martin, she said, would take her aside and warn her against the pitfalls of entering a sexual relationship at such a young age, but she ignored him. She said she was in love.
Flores also claims that Perez had a professional interest in her as well. She had detailed and continuing knowledge of the Temple Street hierarchy, and she told police investigators that Perez utilized [Flores] to provide him with information regarding the Temple Street gang.
Toward the middle of 1995, Flores went to a nightclub with a friend and was surprised to find Perez there with another woman. She vowed then to leave him, but soon after discovered she was pregnant. When she told Perez her period was two months late, he suggested she get an abortion. He drove her to a clinic and dropped her off, but once the procedure was complete, she took the bus home.
Once again, she decided to stay away from Perez, but when she saw him again at a nightclub several months later, she couldnt resist his advances. Weeks after that she moved in with the man who became her common-law husband, but, she says, she continued to see Perez. As she later told investigators, she would answer his call to come and meet him regardless of the time, day or night.
Ruben Rojas knew both Perez and Flores during this time, both of them at a distance, in his capacity as a street operator with a criminal record. In addition, he says he had an inside source for information on Perez -- according to Rojas, the two shared a girlfriend. At first I wasnt aware that this woman was involved with Officer Perez, Rojas told investigators. So when I met this woman, she indicated to me the first night that she was seeing some man and that this man was, you know, taking money from friends of mine that she knew . . . She kept telling me about her boyfriend who used to, uh, was taking peoples drugs, delivering them on the streets.
Rojas says he first encountered Perez in the summer of 1994, soon after Rojas release from state prison, when he was walking with a fellow Temple Street gangbanger named Anthony Adams. According to Rojas, Perez and his partner, Nino Durden, first asked them if they had drugs on them. We didnt have anything with us, so what they did is they, they smashed our face against the wall and started disrespecting our neighborhood and started screaming out Rampart this, Rampart that, and they just got in their car and left. In the interviews, Rojas uses our neighborhood as a synonym for the Temple Street gang.
It was the beginning of a series of encounters that left Rojas fearful of the CRASH unit, and convinced that the police were engaged in the drug trade. In 94, Perez and Durden, Officer Mack, Officer Hewitt and other officers were involved in a drug organization that was coming out of Rampart Police Station, Rojas told investigators last November.
He described how the operation worked. They had their enforcers . . . Their strategy was to go into the neighborhood, arrest as many people as they possibly can, beat the crap out of em, turn them into informants. Once you are an informant, they can put practically anything on you. So they will tell you, Look, were gonna make you a deal. You sell for us, well protect you and well get everybody you feel thats a threat off the streets.
The goal, Rojas said, was profit. Rampart police CRASH unit wanted my neighborhood because my neighborhood, at that time, was like MacArthur Park, a million-dollar industry.
As for Flores, Rojas claims he knew her as an operator in Perezs organization. Sonya Flores was a drug trafficker for Perez and Durden, he told police investigators. He also knew her as an associate of Temple Street, and as one of Perezs girlfriends, one of five he could name. Rojas told the investigators that Perez had a way with women. All of them, if you notice, well, all these women are very gorgeous, theyre pretty. Theyre very lovely, man.
Miguel Malfavon was 36 years old, a veteran of the Diamond Street gang who went by the street moniker Lizard and, by several accounts, a rent collector for the Mexican Mafia. That meant that his line of work involved keeping track of the level of drug activity in a given district and making sure the Eme, as the Mexican Mafia is known, received its cut.
Malfavons district was Temple Street. The place he made connections was a relatively small McDonalds outlet on Alvarado Street a block south of the Hollywood Freeway. There are just a dozen tables inside the store and the same number outside, on a patio under a heavy wooden trellis. Next to the patio lies a drive-through lane, and then a sidewalk where, even today, Temple Street associates do a brisk business selling fake identification to illegal immigrants.
On the afternoon of February 6, 1996, Malfavon apparently walked into an ambush, though its never been clear who was gunning for him, and why. Flores told the police that the Temple Street clique was tired of paying off the Eme and decided to end the tithes with an emphatic message. She also suggested that one of the Temple Street gang had a personal grudge against Malfavon, though the details of her story have changed over the years.
According to Flores, she was hanging around the McDonalds for hours that afternoon and saw the whole episode unfold. She said she noticed one Temple Street associate -- the man who ran the local racket in fake IDs -- was looking nervous, and when she inquired why, he told her the Eme was expected to show up. Soon after, she said, a Temple Street gang member approached her and asked if I had seen some guys . . . the guys from the Mexican Mafia. Flores said she had prior knowledge that this gangster was plotting against the rent collector, and spent two hours beforehand trying to dissuade him. Then, she said, she called Perez to warn him of trouble brewing but was unable to reach him.
The plot thus in motion, Flores said the gangster left the McDonalds and took up a position in a nearby apartment building -- at one point, she said, in the bushes, at another, in a window -- providing a narrow vantage looking through the trellis beams onto the patio tables. Soon after, Malfavon drove up in a beige Mercury sedan, walked to the patio with an associate and sat at a table with two Temple Street regulars called Coco and Porky.
Then the shooting started. Malfavon was struck several times the fatal shot was to the head, apparently from a high-powered rifle fired from the neighboring apartment building. Flores and two other witnesses also testified that they saw somebody on the patio draw a gun and begin shooting -- one witness said northbound, toward the tan Mercury, or toward the apartment building. The crew from Temple Street then jumped into a van and fled.
Rafael Perez and other Rampart officers arrived at the scene in less than two minutes. Since the blood on her dress made her a material witness, Flores was initially grabbed, handcuffed and placed in a squad car by Officer Robert Arcos. In the end, she was the only witness who said she could identify the gang members at the scene. She made a brief statement to Arcos, saying Temple Street gangsters were behind the shooting, but named none of them.
Perez and partner Sammy Martin stepped in immediately, took the cuffs off Flores and drove her to the Rampart detectives station, where the CRASH unit was headquartered at Third Street and Union Avenue. There Perez conducted a detailed interview, providing her with photos from the CRASH gang book and eliciting several identifications. Later that evening, having thus been prompted, Flores was finally interviewed on tape, with Perez, Martin and two detectives. At that time she named four gangbangers by their monikers -- Blackie, Coco, Porky and Demon. Blackie, she said, was the gangbanger with the grudge, the one who shot from the apartment building.
It was a sloppy round of identifications. Blackie was indeed a Temple Street gangbanger, but in the space of two weeks, his name disappeared from the record of the case. In his place, as the shooter and the Temple Street member with the grudge against Malfavon, Flores named Anthony Adams -- Goldbergs client -- who went by the street name Stymie. Further, it turned out that Demon, the moniker for a Temple Streeter named Geovany Velasquez, could not have been on the scene because Velasquez was in prison at the time. Lastly, the Coco she selected was not the same person known on the street as Coco.
The detectives investigating the case met with Flores two days later. They had learned Velasquez was in jail. By the end of the interview, Demon was replaced by Dracky, whose real name is Jesse Alvarez, who had an alibi -- three witnesses who could place him well away from the scene, according to his attorney, Javier Ramirez.
Sometime thereafter -- its not clear when -- Blackie was replaced by Anthony Adams. The first reference in the record to Stymie is in a typed follow-up report composed by Perez, March 9, and purporting to reconstruct his initial interview with Flores. There was no tape of that meeting, and Perez took no notes. To attorney Goldberg, this was Perezs brazen -- and successful -- bid to frame Adams.
The confused identifications showed up in the LAPDs own record and became an issue when the case reached a preliminary hearing in June of 1996. Three defense attorneys grilled Flores and Perez on their shaky and shifting identifications. But Perez was a practiced witness, and Superior Court Judge Glenette Blackwell bound the case over for trial. A fifth defendant, Cesar Menendez, was added to the case in August 1996, on the strength of fingerprints placing him at the scene. Menendez joined in the guilty plea in December 1997. His attorney says Menendez is innocent.
Deputy District Attorney Robert Grace then went to work. All five defendants faced murder charges that could land them in jail for life. The alternative was to plead guilty to a charge of voluntary manslaughter, meaning they would be sentenced to 12 years in prison. To Andrew Stein, an attorney now representing Jorge Porky Alvarez, the evidence presented never warranted a conviction for his client. The case casts horrible aspersions on the entire criminal justice system. Stein points out that Alvarez had never before been arrested, and agreed to plead only under the coercive terms of the deal. The federal government doesnt allow packaged deals for just that reason.
Sonya Flores has now come forward with a new explanation of how she made such a mess of the identifications that night at the Rampart station. They were fabricated, she says, names that Perez was pulling out of the gang book.
A summary of her statement to investigators from the LAPD Rampart Task Force, recorded September 5 and made public last week, recounts the post-shooting interviews as follows:
Flores said that she knowingly committed perjury during her testimony regarding the murder that occurred outside of the McDonalds restaurant. Perez and Martin took [Flores] to an interview room at Rampart Detectives and showed her different photographs. [Flores] was only able to positively identify one of the shooters. Perez then left the room and returned with additional photographs. [Flores] was told by Perez to positively identify two additional photographs as suspects in the murder.
Some time later, Flores recalled Perez taking her to the L.A. County Jail to participate in a live lineup. Perez showed her pictures of the individuals he wanted her to point out . . . During this lineup [Flores] picked the individuals Perez had instructed her to choose.
The police interview is fairly limited in scope, and never addresses the question of why Perez might have so thoroughly tampered with the McDonalds case, or what really happened at the McDonalds restaurant that day. It does, however, touch glancingly on why Perez might have cared. As Flores told investigators, Perez was interested in the money that was being generated by narcotics in the area. Of course, as a CRASH officer, Perez would naturally have an interest in narcotics traffic. But as Flores explained further, Perez was also aware of the gangs traffic in forged immigration documents. Flores said, Perez was aware of this illegal activity and wanted a piece of the action. Perez made this statement to [Flores] and to one of the top Temple Street gang members.
Here we get echoes of Ruben Rojas. Perez and his cohorts, Rojas told investigators last November, wanted my neighborhood, because my neighborhood, at that time, was like MacArthur Park, a million-dollar industry. They were trying to take over. There were cops that watched maybe too much internal affairs, you know, but thats what they wanted to do. Believe it, thats what they thought they could do.
Rojas had a specific interest in what happened at McDonalds, because Anthony Adams -- Stymie -- was a close friend.
Rojas says that Adams was a poor choice to frame for that slaying, claiming he was out of state at the time. In fact, Adams was not arrested until May of 1997, and in New Mexico, where he was serving time in prison, but by that time he was unable to prove his whereabouts 15 months before.
Rojas described the McDonalds incident in his interview with detectives last year. His story is disjointed and rambling, broken up by detectives as well as his own attorney, but on his main allegations he is quite clear -- that the CRASH unit set up the entire incident, and Perez himself shot Malfavon.
Perez and Martin set it up, Rojas says.
Okay, a detective answers.
Perez and Martin committed the murder.
But they blamed it on my neighborhood. a
Deputy D.A. Richard Rosenthal asked Rojas, Now, did Officer Perez and Martin do the shooting or did they order the killing, or do you even know?
Rojas responded, Martin ordered the shooting, but it was Perez that did the killing.
Rosenthal asked the obvious question: How do you know?
Rojas: How do I know? Lets just say this, my friend was framed for that murder.
The investigators followed Rojas lead and they discussed the predicament of Anthony Adams. Rojas was then pressed again on his more pointed accusation. Did you see Perez shoot?
No, I did not.
Did somebody on the street or in the neighborhood tell you specifically that Perez shot Lizard?
Yes, they did.
Do you want to tell us who that person is?
I cannot. The name I cannot say.
Okay. Because youre fearful for that persons safety?
Rojas was not put off by the detectives skepticism. I could say this much right now: Perez is a fucking killer. Excuse my language, but Perez is the one that pulled the trigger.
Perezs attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson, said his client flat-out denies these allegations. McKesson pointed out that as part of Perezs plea bargain, he categorically denies any illegal acts to which he has not already confessed. Hewitts attorney, Paul DePasquale, said he could not comment on the charges. Martins attorney could not be reached for comment.
After the McDonalds homicide, Perez continued to press his campaign against Temple Street. The next April, Perez filed new charges alleging that suspects in the case had located Flores at her home in Huntington Park and threatened her if she dared take the stand against them. Named by Perez were Anthony Adams, who was still at large; Victor Hernandez, the Lil Blackie in Flores original, bogus identification; and yet another Temple Street character, Rene Mationg.
The three defendants denied any such effort to intimidate Flores, and hired a private investigator who showed that the address Perez reported for Flores did not exist in Huntington Park. The claim was complicated by the fact that nobody knew exactly where Flores did live, because she spent much of that time in Perezs protective custody. As the months went by, when detectives sought to get in touch with Flores, they simply called Perez.
Perez pressed on. In interviews with detectives last November, Perez described the alleged witness intimidation, and then said, I later arrested everyone that was involved in that crime. And I also arrested some of the ones that were involved in the actual murder. I think there were five defendants in the murder. I arrested several of them.
The campaign against Temple Street continued on through December, when all five McDonalds defendants entered no-contest pleas and were sentenced to prison. Along the way, Perez went after Rojas himself.
The arrest was initiated by a phone call, Rojas said. He was alone, at his mothers apartment, and a voice came on the line, in Spanish. He told me not to be messing around with another mans girlfriend, Rojas recalled later. I knew exactly who he was referring to. Minutes later, Perez burst into the apartment, pointed the barrel of a shotgun into Rojas side and placed him under arrest. He was accompanied by CRASH officers Durden, Doyle Stepp, Michael Buchanan and several more, along with a Sergeant Guerrero.
Perez later confessed that the Rojas bust was entirely fabricated. When he was asked why such a large crew of officers was present, he answered, Just in case there were five or six other gang members in the house.
This was a period of increasing depravity for Perez -- he shot an unarmed Javier Ovando in October 1996, and by 1997 he was obtaining his drugs directly from the Rampart evidence locker, the crime for which he was eventually busted.
In September of 1999, with one trial behind him and another pending, Perez finally agreed to talk. The most heinous crime he confessed to was his unprovoked shooting of Ovando -- that one he used to clinch his deal, telling the D.A. he would name Ovando only if he received a reduced sentence.
Since then, Perez has done most of the talking -- about himself, and about the crimes he alleges were committed by his fellow officers. All that changed with the release of the statements by Flores and Rojas. The question now is whom to believe, and how fully.
The whole exercise might seem almost academic if federal investigators find evidence to charge Perez with the double homicide that Flores has alleged. But Rojas has talked about a lot more than the McDonalds shooting. Theres the drug racket, with the systematic extortion of confidential informants. Rojas alleges a half-dozen officers, as well as ranking supervisors -- sergeants, detectives and a lieutenant -- participated in the scheme.
And that may be the darkest irony to emerge at this late juncture in this ever-shifting story. If true, these new allegations show the Rampart scandal to run deeper, wider and longer than anything suggested so far. But if a new indictment is brought against Perez, the district attorneys effort to prosecute other Rampart cops would surely collapse. At this point, at Rampart, truth and justice may be headed in opposite directions.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.