Five years ago inside the Orange County Jail, Fernando Perez needed a miracle to overcome dismal prospects. A career criminal, the then 29-year-old Perez, who'd accumulated three prior felony strikes, faced spending the rest of his life in prison following gun possession and gang participation convictions. More immediately worrisome, a rival faction of the Mexican Mafia had placed his name on a "hard candy" death list.
He became a secret, paid government agent—a rat, in jail parlance—against all of his underworld colleagues.
That betrayal brought a reward today.
Instead of likely never getting out of custody, Perez—a.k.a. "Wicked" in his gang and "Inmate F" by his government handlers—won a dramatically reduced punishment that essentially could return him, a member of the Federal Witness Protection Program, to freedom with a new identity in about six years.
Seated at the defense table surrounded by multiple U.S. Marshals, Perez didn't audibly react to Superior Court Judge Gregg L. Prickett's ruling. He may have been slightly disappointed. The ex-Mexican Mafia boss and Tony Rackauckas' Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA) had hoped Prickett would erase all of the prior strikes and allow him to walk out of court a free man based on time already served, 3,337 days.
Perez must thank Assistant United States Attorney Joseph McNally for his assistance. Prickett cited McNally's Feb. 26 presentation outlining the convicted felon's sizable role in bringing down two Mexican Mafia sides battling for control over Orange County: one with Peter Ojeda and the other with Armando Moreno.
The judge called McNally's remarks for leniency "especially persuasive" and, thus, warranting "significant mitigation."
But Prickett also called Perez's own crimes, committed since the age of 15, "serious." He refused the government's request to delete all the pending strikes, opting instead to dismiss all but one.
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In the aftermath of the 25-minute hearing, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, whose death penalty client Scott Dekraai was targeted by Perez for illegal snitching, didn't take a stand on the punishment. However, Sanders singled out OCDA for criticism, calling the outcome a multi-year "sham" by prosecutors.
"They said they weren't giving him benefits so that they could avoid turning over records to the defense," he said. "The truth is they never stopped giving him benefits. They decided not to share information from a Dekraai evidentiary hearing that certainly could have convinced Judge Prickett that a lesser sentence was not appropriate. Perez admitted he committed perjury at his own trial. He admitted he planned to present false evidence to get a new trial and he admitted he was part of a mesa [the Mexican Mafia leadership council] that put out hits on other inmates."
According to Sanders, prosecutors' actions through this morning demonstrate their reform claims are empty.
"The district attorney's office should stop telling people they are now on the path of honesty and transparency about informants when it's nothing of the sort.," he said. "A big lesson from today is they continue to operate without real fear that they will held accountable for deception."