UTAH STATE PRISON — A man who once faced a potential death penalty for shooting and killing the owner of Salt Lake restaurant and critically injuring his wife had his first shot at parole recently.
But after waiting nearly 25 years to go before the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, Armando Ray Molina still didn’t seem fully ready to talk about what happened. Further, he admitted he would likely remain an active gang member while incarcerated out of necessity.
“Where did you get the gun?” board chairwoman Carrie Cochran asked in a recording of the Jan. 7 parole hearing.
“I just came across it somehow,” Molina replied.
“You waited 24 1⁄2 years to come and tell me that? That’s what you’re going to tell the board?” Cochran said in almost disbelief.
“I purchased it from somebody from somewhere, of course, but who, I’m not going ...” Molina started. “I bought it from somebody around the way.”
“I anticipated you would be a little more forthright today. I’m a little surprised,” Cochran said. “You waited 24 years for this hearing.”
At the end of the 70-minute hearing — which is very long by parole hearing standards — Cochran, who conducted the hearing, said she would have a tough decision to make.
The only thing that seemed sure was that Molina wasn’t going to be released from prison anytime soon. The hard decision appeared to be when, or if, the board would give Molina another shot at parole.
During a typical parole hearing, inmates are expected to be open about their crimes, admit their mistakes, show remorse and talk about what they have accomplished while in prison to make themselves a productive member of society again.
During his hearing, Molina gave answers that were sometimes vague, sometimes contradictory to the original case report, and at times he seemed more interested in protecting others who may have been peripheral players in the crime. His answers appeared to bewilder Cochran at times, and made moments of his hearing almost contentious.
But in other areas, Molina seemed to be truthful, such as when he admitted he would likely continue to be an active gang member while in prison, which he claimed was for protection because of the environment he was forced to live in.
“You have no other option but to become the person you don’t want to be,” he said.
In June 1995, Molina, who also went by the street moniker “Dopey” and had just turned 18, walked into the Valparaizo Cafe, 175 S. 900 West, with Carlos Gomez, 17, and shot and killed owner Joel Flores, 54, and critically injured his wife, Belen, who survived her injuries. Molina and his friend took $1 and a pack of cigarettes and walked back across the street to their house.
In 1997, Molina pleaded guilty to murder and no contest to aggravated robbery, both first-degree felonies. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors did not seek the death penalty and Molina was sentenced to two consecutive terms of up to life in prison. Third District Judge Glenn Iwasaki said at the time that he estimated Molina would serve at least 25 to 30 years.
He also predicted that Molina, who has been diagnosed with a number of learning deficiencies and below average intelligence, would learn little in those decades in prison and stood a good chance of committing a new crime when he is released.
During his recent parole hearing, Molina, now 42, contended he wasn’t on drugs and didn’t have any mental health issues when he committed the crime.
“We were bored. We were sitting around. There was nothing else better to do,” he said was his reason for going to the restaurant.
Molina claimed he and his friend were sitting in their house across the street and saw a light on in the restaurant and decided to check it out. He claimed he originally had no intention of robbing anyone even though he took a Mac 11 pistol loaded with hollow-point bullets with him.
Cochran asked him how it turned into a robbery and killing.
“I don’t know, see what we could get out of it. The thrill of it,” he said. “We went in there, asked them for the money. They said they didn’t have none. Me being young, I just got frustrated and started shooting up everybody that was in there.”
Molina estimated he fired five to six rounds. When police later went to his house to arrest him, eventually leading to police shooting Molina because he allegedly pointed a gun at them, Molina claimed he was trying to throw his gun away. Cochran asked why in the original police report it stated that Molina admitted to attempting to fire on police.
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t have made that statement,” he replied.
His answers to other questions also contradicted original reports, such as when Cochran noted that his record stated he was treated for depression, but Molina claimed he was never depressed.
“At least to my knowledge, I don’t feel I’ve had any issues with depression or anything of that nature,” he said.
Likewise, when Cochran pointed out that Molina was in a residential drug treatment program at one time, he claimed he had never used drugs.
“As far as I knew it was because of a drive-by,” he said.
In fact, Molina indicated that he joined a gang and committed crimes out of boredom.
“I chose to make the decisions that I did as a kid. I knew right from wrong and I still continued to do all the negative aspects of what I shouldn’t have been doing,” he said. “You name it, I’ve probably done it. Fighting, shooting at people — gang-related people.”
I can say without any hesitation, that you are where you belong. And that you need to remain where you belong. Not out of revenge or personal vengeance from me, but for justice. Justice for my family. Justice for my father. Especially for my mother. And justice for those that knew him.
Watching the hearing in the audience were members of Flores’ family, as well as Molina’s family.
Ricardo Flores, Joel Flores’ son, told the board how he remembered his mother, who survived the attack, breaking down after the day in court in which police went over the injuries her husband had sustained. He also remembered on the day of his father’s funeral that his mother, who was still recovering in a wheelchair, left the hospital long enough to attend, and how police officers and EMTs who had responded that night were there to mourn with them.
“Because a good man, a good friend, a good husband, a good father was taken away,” he said.
“I can say without any hesitation, that you are where you belong. And that you need to remain where you belong. Not out of revenge or personal vengeance from me, but for justice. Justice for my family. Justice for my father. Especially for my mother. And justice for those that knew him,” Ricardo Flores tearfully said to both the board and Molina.
Another son, Ramiro Flores, told Cochran how their mother still struggles with her injuries, both physical and emotional.
“My mother will always have trauma in her life. She will always have that memory. She will always have physical ailments,” he said.
Teresa Flores is Joel Flores’ daughter-in-law, although neither she nor her children — his grandchildren — ever got to meet Flores.
“I can see the pain and the anguish (the Flores family) still experience 24 years later as a result of what happened that day,” she said. “I believe in forgiveness and second chances. But I want to know if Mr Molina is prepared (to go back into society) ... I don’t want him to end up ruining or ending anyone else’s life.”
In response, Molina told the family he was sorry.
“I’d just like to apologize to them for my actions. I understand that I was young. I’m not going to sit here and justify or make excuses for what I did what did. I did it. There’s nothing I can say or do to take it back, other than apologize. I do regret (my actions),” he said.
“I don’t know why I did what I did,” Molina continued. “I did know better and I’m here today to own up to my mistakes and see where it goes from there.”
Molina believes he has tools to be a productive member of society again.
But what will be tough for the board to ignore is that Molina was moved recently back into maximum security. In April, Molina and another inmate were convicted of stabbing a third inmate 30 times, according to court records. He was found guilty in August of having a weapon while in prison, and Cochran noted there are new charges pending of again having a weapon.
Molina blamed it on the environment he’s forced to live in.
“Just a situation that got out of hand,” he said of the stabbing. “Again, it goes back to the environment I’m in. We don’t live by society’s rules in here, we live by a different set of rules to where at the end of the day we have to defend ourselves. It’s unfortunate that one side or the other got hurt. Again, it’s just an unfortunate situation, me being in here, I have to act and be a certain way.”
At one point, Molina blamed the new housing plan recently implemented by the prison. In August, the Department of Corrections announced it was ending something called an A/B strategy, which was developed five years earlier due to an increase in violence between two specific gangs. The plan, which corrections officials said was only meant to be a temporary solution, was a way to keep the two gangs separated.
But it also resulted in inmates having limited access to treatment programs and work opportunities, according to a statement from the Corrections Department. As the prison prepared to move away from the A/B strategy, inmate family members were encouraged to talk to their loved ones about disengaging from violent behavior if they were in a gang.
Molina pointed out to Cochran that he managed to stay out of maximum security for 13 years and completed a lot of treatment classes at that time. During that time, he said he “learned how to walk away from situations and turn the other cheek.”
But Cochran said she was having a hard time understanding how he had these new life skills but still attacked another inmate.
Molina claimed he has no choice but to protect himself because of the A/B change, even though he also admitted that the man he stabbed was an inactive gang member trying to leave the lifestyle.
“I’d like the opportunity to get out and prove to my victims, my family, myself that I am changed and that I have the necessary steps to become a better person as opposed to person I was when I got arrested,” he said. “But I’m a realist and I know there’s a good possibility I’m going to end up spending the rest of my life in here.”
So what I’m hearing is you’re basically saying that the only way I will have any options is if I walk away from the gang life... And I’m not going to sit here and lie — and my family is probably going to get upset about it — but as long as I’m going to continue to be inside these walls, I’m going to continue to be who I am and make sure that at the end of the day I come out safe. And it’s unfortunate.
–Armando Ray Molina
Cochran told Molina that it was all about choices and that his behavior was preventing him from getting a good shot at being released, including remaining an active gang member. If he continued to stab people, he would not be getting out, she said. She said there are inmates who learn to modify their behavior, even though prison is a tough environment to live in.
“You won’t get a release until you transition and can demonstrate you can remain discipline free,” she said. “It’s about choice.”
But Molina didn’t sound like he was ready to change some of his habits.
“So what I’m hearing is you’re basically saying that the only way I will have any options is if I walk away from the gang life. And in here, it’s a lot easier said than done. And I’m not going to sit here and lie — and my family is probably going to get upset about it — but as long as I’m going to continue to be inside these walls, I’m going to continue to be who I am and make sure that at the end of the day I come out safe. And it’s unfortunate.
“Now, if given the opportunity to be somewhere else in a different type of environment setting, then I could become something better. But until that time comes, it’s unfortunate that I gotta be who I’ve gotta be, and I gotta protect myself.”
The full five-member board will now vote on whether to grant parole or set a date for a new parole hearing in the future.