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Recantations surface in L.A. police trial

The Associated Press
Saturday November 11, 2000

LOS ANGELES — A surprise recantation of murder allegations by the ex-lover of disgraced cop Rafael Perez surfaced Friday with a corruption case against four of his former colleagues already in the hands of a jury. Trial watchers said the timing couldn’t be more suspicious. 

“I don’t know the answers,” said attorney Gigi Gordon. “I just know there’s something wrong. Where did this woman come from? ... I believe there is someone out there directing this.” 

The mystery woman in the case is 23-year-old Sonia Flores, whose power to turn the corruption case on its ear was demonstrated a month ago when, on the eve of trial for four police officers, she accused the chief informant, Perez, of murder. 

Her claims sent federal authorities rushing to Mexico where earth-moving equipment was used in an effort to unearth three bodies she said were buried in a Tijuana ravine. 

No bodies were found — for good reason. Apparently there were no murders. 

When Flores failed a lie detector test this week, the Los Angeles Times reported, she broke down in tears and told federal authorities she made up her claims against Perez. 

Her lawyer said it was a simple case of a jilted lover looking for revenge. 

“She’s a woman scorned,” said attorney Marshall Bitkower. “She had everybody fooled.” 

But few of those who followed the probe of alleged corruption in an anti-gang unit at the Police Department’s Rampart station buy that explanation. 

“The timing smells,” said Loyola University Law School professor Laurie Levenson. “It seems like more than coincidence. When something like this happens it makes people  

wonder if this has been a fair and honest trial.” 

Gordon, who has represented many of the approximately 100 people who had their criminal cases dismissed due to alleged police misconduct, notes that the first headlines about Flores’ accusations broke just before the jury was selected in the officers’ trial. 

In opening statements, defense lawyers denounced Perez as evil incarnate and said he was accused of murder. 

Perez, who was convicted of stealing cocaine from an evidence locker and began talking to investigators in a deal for leniency, had been expected to appear at the trial. 

But his lawyer quickly sent word that he wanted immunity on the murder allegations if he was to testify, and prosecutors refused. Thus, the expected star witness of the Rampart trial, was never called to testify. 

“I think it’s suspicious if the reason they kept Perez off the stand was because of these allegations,” Gordon said. 

Now, with jurors deliberating the fate of the four officers, headlines proclaim that the murder allegations were untrue. 

Gordon said her suspicions do not fall on the prosecutors who struggled to prosecute the officers without much cooperation from the Los Angeles Police Department. 

“I think they have to feel they got snookered by this,” she said, suggesting that the LAPD was the moving force behind Flores’ deception. 

“This is just my opinion,” she said, “but the whole purpose of Sonia Flores was to shut Rafael Perez down and keep him off the witness stand in this and other cases.” 

She said there are many questions swirling around Flores: Why did she make her allegations five years after her relationship with Perez had ended? How did she contact the LAPD and why wasn’t the district attorney informed? Why did police take Flores’ claims to federal prosecutors first? And why did Perez deny having an affair with her? Was this the first time she was given a lie detector test? 

“I just feel like this woman didn’t come out of nowhere,” said Gordon. “This is speculation, but my guess is she gets busted for something and in exchange for not getting prosecuted she offers to tell all.... She was Perez’s snitch. If you’re an informer and you get in trouble you use what’s in your repertoire and you answer to your masters. Her masters were the LAPD.” 

District attorney’s spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons refused to comment on the Flores matter. And defense attorneys for the officers insisted if there was a conspiracy it certainly didn’t involve them. They believe that the prosecution never planned to put Perez on the stand to testify against Sgts. Brian Liddy and Edward Ortiz and Officers Michael Buchanan and Paul Harper. 

“We’ve been harassed by the LAPD. They searched my client’s house. And now they’re supposed to be conspiring with us?” said attorney Harland Braun who represents Buchanan. “It’s ridiculous. They’ve gone hammer and tongs against our guys.” 

Attorney Barry Levin, who heads the defense team, refuses to absolve prosecutors from blame in the Perez-Flores fiasco. 

“This is all a ruse for the district attorney’s office to explain a failed prosecution,” he said. ”... The sham is the prosecution never intended to call Perez. They didn’t want him destroyed on the witness stand.” 

He also said there has been little effort by the department to help the cops on trial. 

“I think the LAPD could care less if our guys were acquitted,” said Levin. 

He said he has prepared his client, Ortiz, for the worst — even if he is acquitted. 

“I told him no one will ever carry you out of the courtroom on their shoulders,” he said. “Don’t think you’ll ever get vindicated in this courtroom. No one will ever suggest you’re innocent.” 

Braun said the defendants understand that “We want an acquittal first and God will give them vindication.”