Justice stalks LA's 'killer police'

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The Independent US

Sonia Flores had no illusions about her policeman boyfriend. Not only did she know he was dealing drugs on the side, she frequently volunteered to act as a cocaine courier for him. She knew he was involved in other bad stuff - after all, he was a member of a high-profile anti-gang unit in Los Angeles' Rampart Division, which held rowdy celebration parties every time a suspect was shot and whose officers sported skull tattoos as a mark of prowess at hunting their prey.

Sonia Flores had no illusions about her policeman boyfriend. Not only did she know he was dealing drugs on the side, she frequently volunteered to act as a cocaine courier for him. She knew he was involved in other bad stuff - after all, he was a member of a high-profile anti-gang unit in Los Angeles' Rampart Division, which held rowdy celebration parties every time a suspect was shot and whose officers sported skull tattoos as a mark of prowess at hunting their prey.

But nothing quite prepared her for the evening six years ago when - according to her account - she accompanied her boyfriend, Rafael Perez, and another officer on a drug deal that quickly went sour. The man they went to see, whom she knew only by his code name Chino, did not have the money he was supposed to produce and an argument broke out.

At length, Perez pushed him to the floor and shot him first in the shoulder, then in the head. Chino's mother, who witnessed the whole thing, broke down in unconsolable sobbing until Perez's partner, David Mack, killed her too with a handgun fitted with a silencer.

Flores was sitting on a couch just a few feet away and was splattered with blood. The officers told her to get a plastic bag from the kitchen and wrap it around the woman's head to stop blood spilling on the floor. The officers then rolled both bodies in carpeting, sealed them with masking tape and took them to their car.

According to testimony that Flores has given both to investigators and reporters from the Los Angeles Times, she was told that if she ever talked about what she had seen, she would be killed.

But that was not the end of it. A couple of months later, she went on a trip across the Mexican border with Perez and Mack, only to learn half-way there that there was a body in the boot - the body of Mack's girlfriend. They were on their way to bury her in the same place the two previous victims were buried - on a rubbish-strewn hillside above the border town of Tijuana.

Flores says she had been too afraid to come forward (Perez and Mack are now both behind bars for other crimes), but her testimony could prove to be the most explosive chapter yet in Los Angeles' ever-widening police corruption scandal.

In the next few days, investigators will travel south to Tijuana to try to find the bodies, according to her description of where she saw their burial mounds. In the meantime, publicity surrounding her as yet unconfirmed revelations is causing a furore in the courts and in the corridors of power.

Not only has she given one of the most graphic accounts of police brutality in the Rampart Division, she has also severely undermined the credibility of the public prosecutor's star informer. Rafael Perez has been singing like a canary ever since his conviction on cocaine-dealing charges last year - hoping that by naming fellow officers he could escape further prosecution. His testimony has triggered investigations into 70 officers, five of whom have just gone on trial in the past few days, and caused more than 100 convictions in gang-related cases to be overturned.

The snag is that Perez was supposed to give a full confession of his crimes as a condition of his plea bargain. Now, even before Sonia Flores' story has been verified, apologists for the Police Department are jumping all over his credibility, calling him a "monster" and a "sociopathic serial perjurer" who has dragged the maximum number of colleagues down into the mud with him.

Perez's lawyer, meanwhile, has counter-attacked, calling Flores' allegations "a desperate plea for attention".

It is impossible to overstate how high the stakes are in this terrifying game of allegation and counter-allegation. The corruption scandal already appears to have felled the career of the Los Angeles district attorney, Gil Garcetti, who is almost certain to be voted out of office next month.

The future of police chief Bernard Parks is in doubt. He was recently forced to relinquish control over the LAPD to a special oversight commission from the federal Justice Department. And the scandal is also sure to cast a long shadow over next April's mayoral election, in which the incumbent, Richard Riordan, is barred from running again.

The just-opened trial of four officers accused of framing numerous suspects in 1996 has become fraught with tension even during the jury selection phase. While the defence has been hurling invective at Rafael Perez, the prosecution has accused the LAPD of withholding documents and tipping off officers whose houses were to be searched.

"The Rampart investigation has documented how difficult it is for a law enforcement agency to police itself," Brian Schirn, the prosecuting attorney, said last week. "Many of these investigators from the LAPD have relationships, even friendships, with some of the individuals under investigation. Accordingly, it is not surprising that there are some LAPD investigators who have difficulty conducting a thorough investigation of the police agency to which they belong."

Flores has offered to take a polygraph test. "What reason do I have to lie?" she said. "Mack and Perez are smart people. The only stupid thing they did was having me around when they did this stuff."

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