LITTLE ROCK, California—The $20,000 drop was supposed to be her last job.
Monique Figueroa promised to quit dealing crystal meth and enter rehab.
Just one last score and then she’d go legit. Maybe start clean in Nevada or Arizona to get out of the game and raise her toddler daughter.
Figueroa wouldn’t know it but there were forces out there with other plans for her future. And after delivering the cash to an associate in Los Angeles back on May 19, 2015 while her boyfriend was in jail for murder, the 28-year-old mother vanished.
Ten days later her 2003 black Mercedes-Benz SUV with blacked-out rims was found tucked inside an abandoned shed in Juniper Hills, some seven miles from her father’s home.
Since she’s gone missing every day is brutal for Figueroa’s father; especially Christmases and Easters and birthdays “are the hardest times.”
Last October, The Daily Beast shadowed Jeff Figueroa, a 60-year-old heavy equipment operator, around the Little Rock, California desert.
When he was standing on the side of a back road against a fenced-off patch of property on the ridge of the Angeles Forest peaks (just a stone's throw from where his daughter’s SUV was discovered), Jeff was overcome with grief.
“My heart is pounding away,” he said. “I think something of hers is there. I can feel it.”
It’s unknown if this remote swath is one of the half dozen digging sites that L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies say they visited since Figueroa disappeared. One thing is certain: Figueroa’s daughter is no long a missing case but officially a no-body homicide, according to authorities.
In fact, the lead detective tracking down Figueroa’s killer or killers is convinced she knows who made the mother disappear.
“I know what happened and I’m working to recover her body and put my evidence together,” L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Detective Karen Shonka told The Daily Beast. “Now it’s just trying to put it together and it’s going to be very, very hard.”
Hard because the case is riddled with complications, not least being the fact that Figueroa’s boyfriend David McKell is facing his second murder trial in a year. (The first ended in December where he pled guilty to the cold-blooded killing of 18-year-old Troy Filinow.)
Over the past year The Daily Beast visited Monique Figueroa’s haunts, interviewed numerous friends and relatives, acquaintances of the victims in McKell’s alleged murders. Most requested and were granted anonymity for fears they would become targets for speaking out.
There is an overwhelming sense of paranoia rooted in this already isolated desert community where locals, including some methamphetamine users, have cooked up theories as to how and why Figueroa is gone.
So cracking her case and getting locals to trust law enforcement has proven difficult.
“Look what happened to [Monique],” Det. Shonka said. “Do you think anybody else is going to come forward and say anything?”
Less than a year before she went missing, Monique Figueroa was using.
A source who’s known Figueroa all her life remembered talking with her about her habit.
“She told me ‘I can’t believe that no one else knew except for you… A month after I had my [daughter] I started tweaking. How do you guys think I lost all that weight?’”
At that point Figueroa, who normally weighed around 140 pounds, had dipped down to 110.
Figueroa grew up riding dirtbikes with the boys and was a serious student. She earned a trophy for her perfect attendance at Sunday church services and lettered as the manager of Little Rock High School’s varsity wrestling and baseball teams.
Her only lapse was maybe falling too deep into the local partying crowd.
During her short life, the source said, Figueroa dated mostly local white guys who drove monster trucks.
Yet she saw something in David McKell, who like her was half-Hispanic.
“They started dating and he pretty much became her protector,” the source said.
According to one family member McKell “was good to her.”
Figueroa had originally fallen for her high school sweetheart, the relative went on to say. That boyfriend was her soulmate and died suddenly before they could marry. Then Figueroa became pregnant with another guy.
“She was such a good mom.”
Seeing beyond McKell’s mean facade was in Figueroa’s DNA.
“She doesn’t care who you are, good or terrible, she’ll find good in everybody,” the relative said. “She really found good in him.”
With McKell by her side she may have felt more empowered.
“Monique started getting fronted meth to where she could support her own habit and went on to sell it,” the source said. “She was like the runner girl for the white supremacists.”
Figueroa would buy meth from her “white supremacist” connect and “sold it to the Mexicans” for a premium, the source said. Then her Mexican customers, as well as members from McKell’s gang, the source said, started sourcing dope at a discount and Figueroa sold it for a profit to the white supremacists.
Playing both sides (or “two different cards” as the source called it) crept up on Figueroa.
Anonymous threats were lodged against both Figueroa and her daughter, the source confirmed.
“They pretty much said, ‘Do you want to fuck with us? Do you want us to deal with [your daughter]?’”
Hearing her daughter’s name terrified Figueroa.
These threats “going back and forth over the last year,” the source said, forcing the entire family to wipe the little girl’s likeness from all social media accounts, and they forbid Figueroa’s daughter to wander outside alone.
“I didn’t think she was going to go missing for sure, but we knew something was coming,” the source said. “We all felt it.”
Leading up to her last job Figueroa phoned McKell in prison, pleading for help.
By this point the source said Figueroa pledged allegiance to her boyfriend’s gang AGK, short for “Always Going Krazy.” And before she was gone, the source said Figueroa “in her own words,” announced, “Fuck the white boys. [AGK] are going to take care of me if anything happens…. They’re going to take care of me. They swore they’re going to take care of me.’”
Det. Shonka confirmed that the last conversation between Figueroa and McKell took place on a phone call “three days before she went missing” and in that conversation “David advised Monique to get help from some of the guys in AGK.”
Then came what was supposed to be her last job.
The plan was for Figueroa to make enough money on this one run and then go to rehab before relocating out-of-state and enrolling in school, the source said.
On the day she was going to drop off cash, Figueroa phoned the source “20 minutes before the drop and said ‘I’m almost there. Once I get done with the drop I’ll be back in town and I’ll call you.’
“I haven’t heard from her since.”
A week prior, on Figueroa’s 28th birthday, she and her father Jeff were feuding about her relationship with McKell. If it wasn’t over dealing drugs with him, it was seeing them exchanging merchandise to big box stores for gift cards.
During a meal they decided that Monique would check herself into rehab.
“She agreed to go,” Jeff said.
But there was this last drop.
“She told me ‘I have to do this one thing,’” Jeff recalled. “I told her ‘Don’t do what the guy says. Get away from these people.’
“I had it all set up at the Tarzana Treatment Center,” he said. “She told me, ‘I promise dad I’ll be there.’ They were waiting on Monique but she never showed.”
A few days after that last job was completed and his daughter didn’t return home, Jeff panicked and went to the authorities.
“She was never out overnight,” he said. “That’s why I filed the missing person’s report because she never missed coming home. Never.”
Curiously, her dad and his ex-wife received a text message each sent from their daughter’s phone that read: “Had to leave, be home soon.”
The text message wasn’t from Figueroa, the source contends.
In fact, the source and Figueroa had a codeword that they shared whenever Figueroa was planning on going into hiding. The two pledged to text the secret codeword to avoid anybody going to the authorities to report Figueroa missing.
“We had a rule and I told her ‘I will freak out about you if I don’t hear from you in 24 hours,’” the source remembered telling her. “She would message me it and I would tell myself, ‘Okay cool, she’s going to go away for like 24 hours.”
Except on May 19, the source said, “she didn’t send any text message.”
Each of David McKell’s cheeks is tattooed with cursive screeds and his neck has “AGK” in big capped letters.<<EMBED: https://scontent-lax3-2.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/10906253_1380296398941293_7789676048299395195_n.jpg?oh=c4e4662fce2bf49ede3989e76a20689b&oe=5952DEC6>>
In one of her visits behind bars with the convicted killer, Det. Shonka said she informed him they were reclassifying Figueroa’s missing case as a homicide.
“He literally cried like a baby,” Shonka said, who in 30 years of police work hadn’t witnessed someone so tough crumble. “He genuinely loved her… I never seen anybody so hurt and so upset.”
In that moment McKell allegedly told her, “I’m willing to do whatever it is to help you. I will talk to people and I’ll figure out what happened.”
But then the inmate, already serving 25 to life for one murder, and possibly facing the death penalty in a subsequent double murder trial set to begin next month, had second thoughts.
“He was going to help us,” Shonka said, citing how McKell realized wearing a snitch jacket behind bars would cost too much. “But then he told us ‘They’re going to kill my family, they’re going to kill me. So, you know what, I take back whatever I said I was going to do.’”
His mother Sheila McKell said things changed after her son received a piece of mail in prison.
“He was terrified because someone had sent him a letter with a picture of me and his daughters,” she told The Daily Beast. “He felt a major threat to his daughters and myself.”
The result forced Sheila to protect anybody trying to harm her grandchildren.
“I didn’t let the girls sleep over at my house anymore,” she said. “I’m just a grandma, I’m not a badass or anything like that.”
By McKell joining AGK and becoming “Smiley” and deciding to live the thug life, she says he’s cursed so many.
“They’re like a social cancer and they destroyed not only David—although it was his choice—but it destroyed his mother and his children. It goes generational,” she said.
Sheila is now trying to raise her granddaughters.
“There isn’t a week that goes by that those sweet little children aren’t shedding a tear and asking ‘Are we ever going to see our daddy?’
Whatever her son’s shortcomings on the streets, his mother said she is certain her son adored Monique.
“We were very close, David and I, and he told me about this girl he had met and said, ‘She’s the one. She’s so awesome,’” Sheila remembered. “I think they thought they could change their lifestyle.”
But Figueroa’s father Jeff suspects the love was never genuine.
“He’s a master manipulator who has been ruling the roost from jail,” Jeff said. “He was running the show—even from prison—and he and his friends have done this before.”
He suggests his daughter wasn’t the only person to have gone missing as a result of having ties to this gang.
“They get these young girls and they wine and dine them and get them to move around their drugs,” he said. “But there’s other girls out there and other guys out there too. These guys are like serial gang killers.”
Two years ago, on Feb. 2 Troy Filinow was spending the afternoon with friends at a Palmdale home, when he stepped outside and crossed paths with McKell.
According to official L.A. Sheriff’s Department accounts, they began brawling in the middle of the street.
When Filinow was gaining the upper hand—McKell pulled a gun. He shot him through the throat and again in the back, according to the autopsy report.
Months later in court McKell pled guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
The evidence against McKell was strong. Investigators tracked down key witnesses and also found McKell’s prescription eyeglasses that he left on the street near Filinow’s body.
“We got DNA off those eyeglasses,” L.A. Sheriff’s Det. Ralph Hernandez told The Daily Beast.
As homicide investigators closed in on McKell for Filinow’s murder, they soon discovered “Smiley’s” name pop up in an execution-style double murder.
“While we were looking for him we developed information that he had also been been involved in a double murder in the city of Montclair,” Hernandez said.
McKell and a 37-year-old reputed fellow gangster Richard Roach were accused of being money-grubbing assassins.
According to police reports, the pair plus another unnamed assailant arrived at a detached auto garage at a home located on Monte Vista Ave. at around 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 8, 2015 to do a drug deal.
They allegedly gagged the mouths and duct-taped the wrists of Livied Arturo Sanchez, an Army veteran, and Mario Padilla before fatally shooting both.
Another victim, who The Daily Beast is not naming, was spotted bleeding and booking it from the garage’s gravel road driveway.
For more than a month after that fatal robbery, McKell and Figueroa were living each day on the lam.
Their run as outlaw and devoted girlfriend came to an end when the couple on March 11 were spotted by deputies hiding out in a tent in the backyard of a Lancaster home owned by McKell’s relative.
“It turned out that David Mckell was sleeping in the backyard along with Monique,” Hernandez said.
“In the process of that investigation they arrested Monique Figueroa for the possession of meth for sales,” Hernandez added.
While incarcerated, McKell’s alleged co-conspirator Roach, known by the moniker “Whetto” was caught back on Aug. 13, 2015, at the Riverside Hotel and Casino in Laughlin, Nevada and later extradited to California.
Roach’s murder trial was postponed 90 days from its March 20 date at the San Bernardino Superior Courthouse in Rancho Cucamonga. McKell’s case is awaiting a preliminary hearing in May.
Meanwhile, family members of one of the dead, Livied Sanchez, are steering clear of any courtroom.
“We were told it’s better not to go for our safety because his friends are going to see us there,” one close relative of Sanchez’s said.
The absence doesn’t take away their disdain.
“We hate not being there because we want to be on top of it,” the relative said. “We want them to be convicted for what they did.”
Sanchez (known affectionately by his middle name “Arturo”), the relative said, served in the Army for four years and drove an ambulance during a tour in Afghanistan.
When the veteran returned home, he was changed.
The “goofball” who was helping to raise his 15-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter and known to lovingly tease his deaf sister—was always a “nice, kind-hearted man.” After Sanchez was diagnosed with PTSD, his relative said, “he was more reserved and didn’t talk about what happened there.”
He was lost in life and turning to “pills and stuff” after breaking up with his pregnant girlfriend.
On the day he was killed, the 32-year-old father left his home in West Covina at around 4:30 p.m. after giving his mother a kiss goodbye.
While en route to the garage to work on his Volvo he picked up Jack In The Box burgers to share with his pal, Mario Padilla.
“He would go and get his old car fixed there,” the relative stated. “It was a legitimate shop on the side of the house.”
“Arturo” was no criminal, the relative said. “He was like the least trouble guy and he was always at home, so this was all a surprise for us.”
The source close to both McKell and Figueroa pegged the killings in the auto garage to a turf war involving two separate gangs; and that McKell, Roach and another associate, brought tens of thousands of dollars in cash to purchase crank.
Instead, the source said, “all three people walked away” after murdering Sanchez and Padilla and collected several pounds of meth and thousands of dollars more in cash.
Police and prosecutors did not verify the amount of money and meth taken.
Investigators quickly were onto McKell and Roach’s trail.
“In our quest to find McKell we ended up developing information to implicate him in the Montclair murders,” Det. Hernandez said.
While the case on her was admittedly “weak” and not “fileable,” as Det. Hernandez put it, they had more than enough to place McKell as Filinow’s shooter and already were compiling evidence to pin him as one of the killers in the Montclair double homicide.
But they hoped Monique might cooperate.
“We didn’t need her as an informant because we already knew he killed [Filinow],” Hernandez said. “What we needed were witnesses and we would have used her as witness or nothing.”
But he noted Figueroa wasn’t willing to say anything.
“We actually spoke to Monique and she wanted nothing to do with talking to us. And we tried to speak to McKell and he also didn’t want to talk to us, either.”
With Figueroa freed after her father bailed her out that same day, McKell was subsequently charged for three murders. Monique’s family and friends say they do not believe she snitched.
Meanwhile McKell’s mother Sheila says her son is bearing the guilt for his own mistakes but deeply torn about caring so dearly for Figueroa.
“He regrets that she was attracted to him, because he feels if she hadn’t been —these things wouldn’t have happened to her.”