Justin Flores was on probation the night he shot and killed two El Monte police officers. But his parole officer hadn’t seen him in person for more than six months.
In the days leading up to the murders, the Los Angeles County Parolees Department received reports that Flores was in possession of a gun – which he was barred from by a criminal conviction – and that he had struck a woman with whom he was romantically involved. according to three law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the case.
Flores’ mother also called her son’s parole officer in early June to report that he had started using drugs again in March and asked his parole officer for help, but the officer refused to discuss the case with her.
After Flores captured El Monte Police Officer Joseph Santana and his training officer, Cpl. Michael Paredes, this month frustrated friends and loved ones searched for someone to blame. A review of court records and interviews with law enforcement officials suggest an increasingly concerned Flores should have been taken into custody before opening fire on June 14.
On Friday, LA County Superintendent Hilda Solis told the Times she had directed the County Inspector General’s Office and the Civil Parole Board to investigate the Parole Department’s handling of the Flores case in the months leading up to the murders.
The move comes amid growing concerns that probation officers have been lax in personally screening their clients since the COVID-19 pandemic. The day after the El Monte officers were killed, probation officer Adolfo Gonzales called an “emergency meeting” to order an audit of field contacts between officers and probation officers, according to a probation officer with direct knowledge of the situation, who requested anonymity because it was not the Fall was entitled to discuss the case with the media.
“People have become lazy. … When you have these high-risk offenders on parole, that’s a personal visit,” one official said.
Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said Flores’ case shows the many leaks emerging in an overworked and underfunded criminal justice apparatus that treats hundreds of thousands of people annually across LA County.
“Nobody made it a priority. I think everyone saw this guy as a potential problem, but everyone assumed he’d be brought in before there was a potential problem,” she said. “And they lost at those odds.”
Santana and Paredes were responding to a reported incident of domestic violence around 4:30 p.m. on June 14 at the Siesta Inn, a one-story stucco motel in a crime-strewn section of El Monte.
Officers were able to get the victim out of the room while Flores retreated to a bathroom. Flores then opened fire and shot both officers in the head, sources told the Times. Flores stole a gun from one of the fallen officers and ran into the motel parking lot, where he exchanged gunfire with other responding officers. He fell to the ground before taking his own life.
A documented member of the Quiet Village gang, Flores had a long criminal record that included convictions for burglary, multiple traffic violations and a multitude of arrests for drug possession, court records show. In early 2021, he was placed on parole as part of a plea bargain after being arrested as a felon in possession of a gun.
While Los Angeles County Dist. atty George Gascón was heavily criticized for the plea deal, which some critics dismissed as too frivolous. The parole department’s handling of Flores after he was taken into their responsibilities has come under increasing scrutiny.
On June 2, 12 days before the murders, the parole department received charges of domestic violence against Flores and a complaint that he was in possession of a firearm, according to three prison officers. That same day, a parole officer conducted a telephone “check-in” with Flores and directed him to show up for an in-person meeting on June 6, according to a statement from the parole department.
But Flores never showed up, parole officers said. Around the same time, Flores’ mother, Lynn Covarrubias, called her son’s parole officer, concerned that he had been abusing drugs again. Covarrubias said Flores relapsed in March after his cousin was murdered in Commerce. Flores had been living with his wife at the Siesta Inn, Covarrubias said, where both had descended into drug use.
“I told them my son and his wife were on drugs and he needed help and going back to prison wouldn’t help him and the parole officer told me he couldn’t discuss his case with me,” Covarrubias said. Flores’ wife became listed as his next of kin. “He said the only way he could get my son back into a program is if he does something wrong and reports it to the health department [sheriff’s department.]”
Attempts to contact Flores’ wife were unsuccessful, although she claimed in a television interview that he had abused her.
Covarrubias has claimed Flores did not abuse his wife and has denied reports that her son committed suicide during the shootout with police. She has offered her condolences to the families of the two officers who were killed, but she has also expressed her frustration with the parole department for not intervening.
“I feel like the parole department should have stepped in and done more to help him, to get him help. And they didn’t,” she said.
Parole officials declined to comment on what the department knew or when, but said an internal investigation was underway. El Monte police officers declined to comment on the parole department’s handling of Flores.
The parole department produced what it called a “desertion report,” and a hearing on Flores’ parole was scheduled for late June, records show. This hearing could have resulted in an arrest warrant being issued for Flores.
If Flores had turned up for his June 6 meeting with his parole officer, it would have been the first time someone from the department had seen him since December, officials said.
The department says parole officers are supposed to schedule face-to-face meetings with their “clients” once a month, but that policy has been relaxed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, like many other such agencies across California, the department opted for monthly phone check-ins.
A parole officer claimed personal visits would have been crucial in monitoring Flores, who had a long history of misdemeanor and was known to struggle with drug addiction. Given the recent allegations of domestic violence and guns, and the fact that Flore’s mother said her son started using drugs again in March, a face-to-face visit would have raised the alarm earlier, the official said.
The failure to properly police Flores reflects broader problems with the police’s supervision of probation officers across the county. The morning after the killings, a parole chief sent an internal message concerned about “field contacts,” according to an email verified by The Times.
“Our field service numbers reflect that employees aren’t going out into the community enough,” the email said. “Our case numbers are at an all-time low… we also have a high rate of unsuccessful contacts.”
A spokeswoman for the probation department said the email had “no connection to the Flores case” and was issued by a representative from another office within the agency. But Gonzales, the department chief, also called an “emergency meeting” the day after the killings to discuss concerns about officers failing to meet their parole officers in person, according to a source with direct knowledge of the meeting.
“He said, ‘We need to make sure everyone is doing the oversight, have all your officers audited to make sure we’re making the oversight contacts’ … the words were ‘all hands on deck,'” the person said.
A parole officer declined to comment on the description of the meeting.
The questions about the parole department’s failure to properly monitor an adult in its care come as the agency has faced increased scrutiny of its operations. The county’s two juvenile homes, which are controlled by the Parole Board, have failed repeated inspections and were ruled unsuitable for housing juveniles by the California Board of State and Community Corrections last year.
A lawsuit filed this year also alleged that more than 20 young girls over a dozen years were sexually assaulted at a juvenile camp run by the probation department.
Levenson said ultimately, several law enforcement agencies appear to have misjudged Flores’ potential for violence.
“We don’t do much to individualize our defendants. You’re either the drug defendant and it’s just a drug problem, or you’re a violent defendant that we need to take seriously,” Levenson said. “What we don’t anticipate is how quickly a person on drugs can become violent.”
Santana and Paredes will be buried in El Monte on Thursday.
Times Staff Writer Nathan Solis contributed to this report.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-29/the-killer-of-two-el-monte-police-officers-wasnt-seen-by-his-probation-officer-in-person-for-six-months-plus El Monte cop killer had not been seen by L.A. probation officials for months before attack