Dressed in a blue federal prison outfit, surrounded by armed guards, restricted by body chains and wearing a bulletproof vest, notoriously two-faced ex-Mexican Mafia shot caller turned confidential law-enforcement informant Fernando Perez (a.k.a. “Inmate F”) entered Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals’ courtroom on a mission. Individuals such as Perez sitting on the witness stand usually answer questions posed by lawyers.
But from the outset of his late March testimony, this witness repeatedly ignored Deputy Public Defender Scott Sanders’ inquiries. Instead, Perez planted evidence of sincerity on his face and volunteered dozens of dubious statements he thought local prosecutors—people in partial control of his incarceration stint and under fire for allegedly operating an unethical, confidential jailhouse-informant program—wanted him to say.
It would be a huge, legal no-no for the government to trample on a charged defendant’s constitutional rights by continuing to press for self-incriminating statements after the person invokes the right to remain silent and have defense counsel present during questioning. Sanders believes he uncovered convincing evidence Tony Rackauckas’ district attorney’s office (OCDA) and Sandra Hutchens’ sheriff’s department (OCSD) concocted an unscrupulous plan to skirt ethical responsibilities by using informants such as Perez to befriend targeted, pretrial inmates, solicit information about their charges or their defense lawyers’ strategies, and then funnel the information to prosecution teams that hid evidence of the scheme.
One potential route to a plausible-deniability defense for OCDA and OCSD in this situation could be that informants acted independently without any government aid or inducement—and that’s the tale Perez had come to tell at Goethals’ ongoing, special evidentiary hearing on Sanders’ gross government-misconduct allegations.
According to Perez, who for years helped to craft the Mexican Mafia’s “Hardy Candy” assassination list in Southern California, he woke up one day in his cell while awaiting punishment and had an epiphany: He forevermore will be “100 percent honest.” Coincidentally, at the same time, he says, jail deputies began placing him in cells next to a series of prosecution-targeted inmates including Scott Dekraai and Daniel Wozniak (both Sanders’ clients), as well as several other suspects. Also coincidentally, all of the targets confessed their crimes in excruciating detail without him ever once asking a single question for prosecutors, he claims.
“I just did what was right,” Perez testified, explaining that his motivation to serve as a snitch had nothing to do with hopes or hints he’d win leniency while he faces a potential life punishment for a 2009 gang-related conviction, a case in which prosecutors oddly haven’t sought a sentencing hearing in the five intervening years. “I’m a changed man. I’ve turned my life around.”
Sanders didn’t accept the story, perhaps because Perez had employed the conversion tale on at least two prior occasions while rising to a top tier in organized crime, moves that in 2000 inspired an Anaheim police detective to warn his colleagues to never trust him as an informant. But this time, the hoodlum crossed a life-risking, point-of-no-return status: Not only did he debrief deputies on Mexican Mafia hierarchy and politics, but he also translated their coded messages and squealed about their crimes. Surely, he expected to be rewarded by receiving “a benefit” from prosecutors, Sanders asked.
Perez stuck to his story. He became an informant for one reason only: “It felt right,” he said, because he now wants to be “a family man” who operates on the concept that “what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong.”
But Sanders possesses proof of Perez’s lies. For example, evidence the DA’s office may have hidden for nearly two years until Goethals compelled its release shows the informant wrote notes about his “assignments” and “jobs” for law enforcement, displayed an eagerness to question targeted inmates, and made inquiries about winning compensation for his services. He even titled his work for the government “Operation Daylight” and won secret payments for his family from the FBI.
After several hours of Sanders’ intense questioning, Perez—not exactly the brightest bulb on the block—cracked. Confronted with his informant memos that, for example, mention he tried “not to ask too many questions” of targets, he first said he couldn’t recall writing such notes, but later admitted he had asked questions, if only to keep the flow of conversations going. In a separate memo, he wanted to know if deputies needed him “to fish” for information from a certain inmate. Sanders showed him the handwritten memo and asked if he would have fished for law enforcement.
“No,” he replied as his eyes darted around the courtroom.
Sanders wasn’t done fileting this snitch. He read another of the informant’s notes to law-enforcement officials: “You know I’ve been helping you, and I’ll do whatever it takes to get back to my wife and kids.” But, said the public defender, you claim you were an informant only because it was the right thing to do.
Perez, who is presently housed in protective federal custody at a secret location, stared at Sanders and, after a pause, shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s a combination of both—doing the right thing, and if they can help me get closer to home, then it is what it is.”
Asked Sanders: You wanted valuable consideration by prosecutors at your future sentencing hearing?
“True,” said Perez without hesitation, as if he hadn’t contradicted hours of prior testimony.
In the case of Dekraai, who already confessed to slaughtering eight people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011 and is facing a potential term of 400 years in prison and no possibility of parole if convicted, Sanders wants Goethals to punish prosecutors for alleged informant cheating by blocking their push for the death penalty. The judge, a former prosecutor and defense attorney, is taking the public defender’s motion seriously.
In addition to putting Perez on the witness stand, Goethals is allowing Sanders the extraordinarily rare opportunity to question Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner, Dekraai’s prosecutor, as well as deputy DAs Scott Simmons and Erik Petersen, their investigators, and jailhouse deputies. The public defender wants these officials to explain under oath the informant program and numerous suspected violations of court rules about hiding exculpatory evidence from defense lawyers.
For example, initial documents the DAs released in discovery did not disclose Perez’s Mexican Mafia membership and left the false impression that his contacts with DA-targeted inmates had been coincidental without deputy direction, according to Sanders.
To underscore his argument of government cheating, the public defender showed Goethals a bombshell, November 2011 memo Wagner’s investigator sent Petersen, Perez’s prosecutor. That record doesn’t just outline the value of the hoodlum’s snooping on Dekraai; it also documents a willful intent inside OCDA to keep Sanders in the dark.
“Inmate F [Perez] provided facts and intelligence about the events of the day of Oct. 12, 2011, that only Dekraai could have known,” wrote OCDA investigator Robert Erickson to Petersen. “Those facts and intelligence will likely greatly enhance the prosecution of Dekraai, especially in the event there’s an insanity plea entered by Dekraai. . . . I respectfully request that you keep Inmate F’s name as it relates to the Dekraai case confidential. Nothing about Inmate F or his statements regarding the Dekraai case have [sic] been discovered to the defense.”
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.