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Murder in the Family

Teenager and her boyfriend deny killing four of her relatives in the home she shared. They express sorrow, but say little of the crime.

November 16, 2002|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

In a family of beautiful girls, Monica Diaz was the chunky one. "They called me Chubby Checkers," she says.

She was a Diaz living with the Flores family -- a niece living with her aunt and uncle and their children.

The only person she felt she belonged with was Michael Naranjo. While her family teased her about her weight, the boy told her she was beautiful.

"When Michael came along, he was so easy to talk to," she says. "He used to say, 'I love you so much. No one will ever appreciate you like I do.' He used to call me his Cinderella."

She smiles sheepishly as she tells her story, her wrist chained to a wall at the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles. In jail-issue blue top and baggy pants, she sits in a visiting booth on a fall afternoon, clasping the phone receiver behind a glass wall. She turned 19 on Halloween.

Michael, also 19, sits one jail tower away. Both are charged with four counts of murder and one of attempted murder. Both have entered not-guilty pleas.

In the early hours of July 21, 2000, authorities allege, Michael stole into the four-bedroom Flores home in Pico Rivera and, with Monica's help, stabbed Richard Flores, 42, his wife, Sylvia, and three of their children -- young Sylvia, 13, Matthew, 10, and Richard Jr., 17. Of the five, only the elder Sylvia survived.

Untouched in the rampage were Monica's half sister, Laura Reta, and the eldest Flores daughter, Esperanza, who were both 18 and shared a bedroom.

Authorities allege that Michael did most of the stabbing but that Monica's "involvement in this crime is equal to" that of her partner, says sheriff's Sgt. William Marsh, lead investigator on the case.

Naranjo and Diaz spoke in separate interviews this fall, their first since being jailed.

Sitting behind glass partitions in their respective towers, they appear mild-mannered and affable. He smooths back his longish hair as he names his favorite bands and speaks respectfully of his girlfriend's uncle, the man he is charged with knifing to death. She is given to giggles and occasional tears as she talks about the family she is accused of plotting to kill.

She says she harmed no one and found out about the alleged plot only after the stabbings. "I'll have to live with the fact that I didn't tell anyone about what happened," says Monica, who has a court-appointed attorney.

She won't call Michael the killer but says: "Michael does feel bad for everything that happened.... I know if he could go back in time, none of this would have ever happened."

Michael, who is represented by a public defender, won't discuss the attack but describes how he feels about the deaths.

"Sad," he says. "You read about these things in newspapers. Then something like this comes along and it's 10 times worse."

Which leaves the question: Why would Michael and Monica massacre most of her family?

She describes a life that evokes the name Michael gave her, Cinderella -- the girl treated dismissively by her family but like a princess by her boyfriend.

Monica says she knows that her family has "suffered a lot these past two years, but this gets so one-sided. They make it sound like 'The Brady Bunch,' but it wasn't."

It was a blended family. Sylvia and Richard Flores were raising their children as well as the two daughters of Sylvia's sister, who died in 1987. Monica and Laura had different fathers but were raised together. They shuttled between their maternal grandmother and their Aunt Sylvia.

Monica was 8 when she and Laura moved permanently into the Flores house. Bedroom space was tight, so some kids slept two to a bed. Never officially adopted, Monica and Laura got the same discipline and love as the other children, say family friends.

Sylvia handled medical claims for a group of doctors, and devoted the rest of her time to her children. Richard rose up through the ranks of a custom woodworking company to become a purchasing agent. He was 6 feet 9 and fond of gold jewelry, an affectionate father who liked to tease and was protective of all the girls, by most accounts.

But Monica was unhappy. There's a teen angst to her complaints: When she played basketball to please her sports-obsessed family, her aunt and uncle sometimes missed her games. They were always there when Esperanza, a city-ranked high school player, or little Sylvia, a budding phenomenon, played.

The elder Sylvia, Esperanza and Laura describe a family that traveled together in their 12-seat van. They squabbled and teased and laughed together. "We were a combination of 'Cosby' and 'Roseanne,' " says Sylvia.

They were proud of Monica's intelligence -- she helped the others with their homework -- and never forced her to play sports. Sure, Sylvia says, they missed a few of Monica's games but never during summer league. Sylvia says the children's taunting "wasn't to the heart. They had their disagreements with each other, but the next minute you saw them hugging. Despite what she says, we were a real good family."

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