Did actions by an LAPD officer specializing in MS-13 help a gang killer flee?

Nevada authorities allege a Los Angeles detective interfered with their hunt for an MS-13 gang member wanted for murder in 2010. An LAPD
investigation cleared Det. Frank Flores, but the claims recently resurfaced in two federal drug cases. This photo shows a recent MS-13 arrest.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

November 19, 2017

The accusation against the Los Angeles gang cop was as strange as it was troubling.

A police sergeant hundreds of miles away in Nevada claimed that LAPD Det. Frank Flores and one of his gang informants had interfered with the hunt for a murder suspect. Flores’ meddling, the officer alleged, had helped the killer flee the country.

It was 2011 and Flores was part of an FBI-led task force investigating Mara Salvatrucha, the notoriously violent gang commonly known as MS-13. Flores had established himself as an MS-13 expert who testified frequently about the gang’s secretive inner workings. A product of East L.A., he wrote in a court filing that he “learned early on the language, culture, rivalries and turf territories associated with gangs.”

The sergeant from Sparks, just east of Reno, detailed her complaint in a 10-page memo to the FBI that The Times reviewed. “Detective Flores openly discussed the identity of a tipster with his informant and overlooked the opportunity to immediately apprehend our murder suspect,” she wrote.

Her accusations landed to little effect. Flores remained on the task force and continued to work with secret informants whose recordings of drug deals led to several federal prosecutions of alleged MS-13 members. After the FBI passed on the complaint to the LAPD, Flores was formally cleared of any wrongdoing by an internal investigation, an LAPD spokesman said.

The episode seemed to be in the past.

But in recent months, the allegations resurfaced in two of the MS-13 drug cases Flores was working on at the time he crossed paths with Sparks officers. A judge hearing the cases ruled that the defendants were entitled to have the LAPD’s records from its investigation into the allegations and also gave the go-ahead for the Nevada detectives involved in the complaint to testify about what occurred.

The decision was a potential boon for the accused MS-13 members, whose lawyers planned to use the material to cast doubt in jurors’ eyes on Flores’ credibility and, by extension, the credibility of his informants and the cases in general.

The rulings appeared to spook the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, which, after years of work on the cases, dismissed the charges in one case and agreed to a plea deal in the other. The resolution meant the LAPD’s file on Flores was not disclosed and the Nevada detectives did not testify.

Mark Windsor, a defense attorney who represented the defendants in both cases, said he believes the government opted to dispose of the cases “entirely because of Detective Flores, the way he handled his [informants], and the behavior of his” informants.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney, said in a written response to questions that the decisions were made “after evaluating all of the evidence known to us at the time…. We make decisions designed to ensure that justice is served and we meet all of our obligations as federal prosecutors.”

Mrozek added that “the decisions recently made in the cases were not designed to protect any law enforcement officer.”

LAPD officials did not allow Flores to comment on the allegations, and a spokesman for the Sparks Police Department referred questions to the LAPD.

The allegations against Flores have resurfaced amid heightened scrutiny over law enforcement’s efforts to combat MS-13, which was formed by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s and has since spread into dozens of states. President Trump and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions have made targeting the gang a priority, frequently citing its members as justification for their hard-line stance against illegal immigration and their attacks on cities such as Los Angeles that refuse to fully cooperate with deportation efforts.

In May, the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles announced a sweeping racketeering case against dozens of alleged MS-13 members, including its senior ranks in the region.

In May, the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles announced a sweeping racketeering case against dozens of
alleged MS-13 members, including its senior ranks in the region. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The claims against Flores stemmed from a double murder in Sparks on Nov. 20, 2010. Two men from a local gang were shot in an apartment in front of several witnesses. The assailant was identified as an MS-13 associate, Luis Alejandro Menendez-Cordero, who went by the street name Apo. Witnesses said the killings seemed unprovoked and that Menendez-Cordero had tried to fire on a third man, but his gun jammed.

Greta Woyciehowsky, a detective sergeant in the city’s police department, and others were assigned the case. They tracked Menendez-Cordero to Sacramento, but learned he had fled to Los Angeles a few days earlier. The detectives sent fliers with the suspect’s photo and information to police throughout the region.

Flores called Woyciehowsky the next day. One of his MS-13 informants, he said, had been with Menendez-Cordero at a party, according to the memo Woyciehowsky later wrote. She added that Flores was cagey on the phone and reluctant to reveal his informant’s name or telephone number.

Shortly afterward, a woman called Sparks police to report that Menendez-Cordero had been staying in an apartment in South L.A, the memo said. Woyciehowsky noted that the woman was scared of the man and worried for the safety of a little boy who lived in the apartment with his mother.

When a Sparks detective called Flores to relay the information, Flores told him the mother in the apartment was, in fact, his informant. Woyciehowsky accused Flores in the memo of then calling his informant to discuss Menendez-Cordero and revealing to her the name of the frightened woman who had alerted Sparks investigators to his whereabouts.

Flores told Sparks detectives that his informant denied Menendez-Cordero was staying in the apartment, according to the memo. When one of Woyciehowsky’s partners offered to arrange for officers to stake out the apartment, Woyciehowsky wrote that Flores refused, saying the officers would be quickly discovered.

Woyciehowsky described in the memo the growing frustration with what Sparks investigators saw as Flores’ refusal over the weeks that followed to assist them in their attempts to locate and interview Flores’ informant and the woman who had called with information about Menendez-Cordero. Eventually, the Sparks officers took matters into their own hands: Posing as workers from the gas company, a few of the officers went to the informant’s apartment and got someone there to provide her cellphone number.

Woyciehowsky said in the memo the Sparks team felt they had no choice but to go in search of Flores’ informant. The move, she said, angered Flores, who accused the Sparks officers of putting his informant’s safety at risk.

Menendez-Cordero, it turned out, had fled the country not long after being discovered in Los Angeles.

In an interview weeks later, the woman who had called to report Menendez-Cordero told Woyciehowsky that shortly after making the call, she was confronted by an unknown man for alerting police, according to the memo. The man, she recalled to Woyciehowsky, threatened to kill two of her friends unless she drove Menendez-Cordero to Mexico. The woman said Flores’ informant disguised
Menendez-Cordero for the trip using a wig and makeup.

After the woman dropped Menendez-Cordero at a hotel in Mexico, he moved on to El Salvador. In 2015, more than four years after he fled, police in El Salvador arrested him. After Nevada prosecutors agreed to a demand by Salvadoran officials that they not seek the death penalty, he was extradited.

Last month Menendez-Cordero was convicted of the murders and sentenced to two life terms in prison.

Woyciehowsky’s accusation would not be the last time Flores faced criticism. The following year, the government dismissed charges of racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder against a well-known anti-gang activist, Alex Sanchez. The charges had been based largely on Flores’ interpretation and translation of recorded phone calls, which came under heavy criticism from Sanchez’s lawyer.

After Menendez-Cordero fled Los Angeles, Flores and others on the task force continued to build drug cases and in 2013 the U.S. attorney’s office indicted several people in a string of cases.

Drug deals orchestrated and recorded by Flores’ informant were the basis for many of the charges, court records show. In exchange for her work, the woman was paid about $150,000 and at least temporarily spared being deported, among other benefits, according to the records.

Many of the defendants were convicted and sentenced to prison. Two of the cases, however, dragged on.

In one, the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison. After an appeals court overturned the conviction because the man was improperly prohibited from arguing the informant entrapped him, the case went to U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder.

Over the course of a week in June, Snyder ordered the LAPD files on the Sparks episode be turned over and approved the testimony of Woyciehowsky and another Sparks detective. Three weeks later, the government made a deal with the defendant that lowered the minimum prison sentence from 10 to five years. The defendant is awaiting sentencing.

In a second case, the defendant faced charges based on recorded drug deals carried out by Flores’ informant and another informant used by the task force. In August, weeks after Snyder made her order regarding the LAPD records — and nearly four years after the man was charged — the government dismissed the charges that were based on Flores’ informant without explanation. The remaining charges were eventually dismissed as well.