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For Victims' Families, a Death Sentence Won't Erase the Pain

Triple killer Alfred Flores hears his fate today. "I understand why they want him dead," his sister says.

May 19, 2003|Joy L. Woodson | Times Staff Writer

Tina Cardenas reached in her purse and pulled out some pictures of her brother, Alfred Flores. She hesitated to show them because, she said, a little embarrassed, "he looks gangstered up."

Cardenas knows there are three San Bernardino County families who want her brother executed or sent to prison for life, and she understands why.

In April, a jury convicted Flores of murdering three teenagers in 2001 because they wouldn't join his gang. The jurors voted for a death sentence, and today a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge will send him either to death row or to a life behind bars.

"There's nothing I can say that can change anything and that will change the feelings of the victims' families," said Cardenas, sitting on a picnic table at Saybrook Park in East Los Angeles. "I understand why they want him dead."

The bodies of 15-year-old Ricardo Torres and 17-year-old Alexander Ayala were found in Lytle Creek in March 2001, not far from a ranger station in San Bernardino County. The body of Jason Van Kleef, 18, was in a drainage ditch in an industrial part of Rialto.

Torres and Ayala had been shot several times. Van Kleef was shot once, in the back of the head. According to prosecutors, Flores gunned down Torres and Ayala because they refused to join his El Monte street gang, which Flores was trying to expand into the Inland Empire. Van Kleef wouldn't join either and was killed shortly after he witnessed one of the murders, police said.

During the trial, fellow gang member Andrew Mosqueda, 19, delivered the most damning testimony. He said Flores, known as "Wizard," shot Torres in front of him after they had downed a couple of beers. And before that, Flores told him he was upset that the three refused to join the gang. Until recently, Mosqueda and Flores had been close friends. Together the two went on a robbing spree in Los Angeles County; Mosqueda is serving a 25-year prison term for those crimes.

For the parents of the victims, knowing why their sons were murdered has brought outrage -- and little relief.

Rebeca Torres, Ricardo's mother, and her family moved two months after the killing, fearing more retribution from Flores' gang. But that's not the worst part. The loss of her young son has left an emptiness in her life that she fears will never be filled.

"I'm never going to be the same," Torres said. "I work because I need to work, but every morning I say, 'You know what? I don't want to go to work.'

"I know I have more kids, but you feel something inside is empty," she said. "He not only killed my son, he killed me. He killed part of my family."

At the Torres home, there are pictures of Ricardo in the entranceway and on the coffee table. Alejandra Torres, Ricardo's sister, named her 4-month-old baby after him.

Ricardo's father, Carlos Torres, is a truck driver who on occasions has pulled his truck to the shoulder of the highway to cry.

To keep the spirit of her son alive, Marilyn Van Kleef, Jason's mother, listens to a tape of rap songs that Jason's friends made for her. As she drove along Rialto Avenue recently to pick up her husband, Kevin, she popped the tape into car's cassette player.

She tapped her manicured hands on the steering wheel and bobbed her head to the beat. She admitted she isn't one for hip-hop, but the song brings back memories.

"We'd get into the car and fight over the buttons," she said, "and he would play Shaggy, and I'd say I don't understand what they're saying."

A Shaggy tape is still tucked away in the car's side door compartment. And Jason's father said that, even though it's been two years since Jason's death, no one has had the strength to clean out his room.

Although the Van Kleefs, the Torreses, and Alexander Ayala's family all believe the right person is behind bars for killing the three teens, only Eva R. Sanchez, Alexander's mother, opposes the death penalty.

She credits her religious background with helping her forgive Flores. She attends church with her husband, Ricardo, often. Both work at a warehouse making medical parts.

"She didn't want him to have the death penalty because he would never have to repent for what he did," said Ricardo Sanchez, speaking for his wife. "She wanted him to be put in a little room and have to think about what he did."

"[Eva's] life was dedicated to her son," her husband said. "They lived very happily together ... until this man came and took her son away."

Flores' sister, Tina Cardenas, admits she would probably feel the same way if Ricardo, Jason or Alexander were her son. She has five children of her own.

"But [my brother's] no monster. I don't believe he did this," she said, eyebrows furrowed. "I personally think they convicted him because he was a gang member."

She hopes that by some miracle he has a second chance and can change his life.

Flores' trial attorney, Teresa Snodgrass, said her client maintains his innocence, and she plans to ask the judge to modify the sentence to give him life without parole.

She also said there are grounds for appeal, including her argument that the murder weapon, a 9-millimeter handgun, was obtained by detectives by bribing a Mexican police officer. The weapon was recovered in Mexico because Flores fled across the border after the killings and was caught six months later while attempting to cross back over.

Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos said Flores is the right man and hopes the death sentence brings closure to the victims' families.

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