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Bouncing Back : Orphaned by Gunfire, Flora Valdez Is Triumphing Over the Tragedy

July 14, 1994|SUSAN PATERNO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Flora Valdez's comfortable life was shattered in 1991, a few weeks before her sophomore year of high school, when her mother and stepfather were gunned down outside an apartment building in Buena Park.

The teen-ager, who until then had been the object of doting parents who plied her with plenty of clothes, pocket money and other amenities, suddenly found herself penniless and without a home. She and two older sisters--Veronica, 19 at the time, and Rozio, 18--were evicted from their Buena Park apartment and had to split up.

"I used to have everything I wanted," she said. "Then one day I woke up and my parents were gone and I'm Cinderella mopping floors at Kentucky Fried Chicken."

But she persevered. Valdez went to live with friends in Cerritos, took a full-time job and continued to attend school. She graduated recently from Tracy High School, a continuation school in Cerritos. She had an A average.

Valdez, 18, is the first in her family to earn a high school degree and credits her late mother, Altagracia Felix, with providing the inspiration to continue.

"I used to cry night and day, asking myself, 'Why did they die? Why do I have to stay up late mopping floors, get up early to go to school, iron my own clothes?' And then I remembered what my mom always told us. 'Go to school and learn.'

"I never understood why until the day they died," Valdez said. "Then I realized education was the key, the only way to get out of mopping floors and cleaning for other people."

Felix, 38, and her husband, Javier Contreras, 46, were shot at close range Aug. 25, 1991, by a man with an assault rifle as they dropped off a friend at an apartment building in Buena Park. Two men, Francisco Soria Patino and Juan Soria Lopez, have been charged with murder, but they apparently fled to Mexico, said Buena Park Police Lt. Mike Schwartz.

Contreras, a chef, had been convicted previously of selling drugs to undercover police officers and had spent some time in jail. But the slayings most likely were motivated by jealousy, Schwartz said. Felix earlier had reportedly spurned the advances of one of the suspects.

After her parents were slain, Valdez dropped out of school for three months. Most of her time was consumed with funeral arrangements, the police investigation and the constant search for money. Valdez and her sisters had to borrow money to bury their parents in Mexico.

Valdez became so distraught at one point that she was hospitalized. "I only had one thing on my mind, that they were gone, gone forever," she recalled.

She says that Schwartz, the Buena Park officer, is one of the people who encouraged her to continue with school. Schwartz first met Valdez when he told her of her parents' deaths. He kept in touch.

"I kept telling her, 'I realize it's hard, but focus on school. Get your education and get beyond this.' I'm real proud of her," said Schwartz, who attended Valdez's graduation. "It's easy to help her. She's a sweet kid."

At her graduation, Valdez received several awards, including a savings bond from the local Optimist Club and a $250 scholarship from the Buena Park Police Department. Since then, she has moved into an apartment in Fullerton with her sister Rozio, now 21, who is married and has a child.

Valdez, who has been working at a Pep Boys store in Anaheim the past two years, is considering a career in medicine, aviation or teaching, she said. She plans to join the Air Force or attend community college in the fall.

"I'm gonna make it," she said. "You only have one chance at life."

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