Among Fernando Perez’s past jobs—high-ranking Mexican Mafia gangster, drug dealer, thief, gun-toting carjacker and, alas, jailhouse snitch, lying in court undoubtedly is his forte. Stacks of court transcripts and other legal documents spanning 15 years prove Perez is a prolific, gifted liar. The Garden Grove hoodlum from the 18th Street Gang will say anything to anyone to help himself avoid accountability for a lifetime of crime.
Facing a potential prison term of 25 years to life because he’s a Third Striker, Perez—dressed oddly for an inmate in fashionable blue jeans and a light blue Polo button down shirt—landed in Superior Court Judge Gregg L. Prickett’s Santa Ana courtroom on Feb. 26 and, while weeping through prepared remarks, claimed he’s “sincerely sorry” for his crimes.
“I have changed beyond words,” he said, angling to win his immediate return to freedom. “I will not disappoint . . . I am truly a changed man.”
Of course, Perez, who is now in the Federal Witness Protection Program, has employed the alleged rehabilitated defense on at least three other occasions since 1999. It is impossible to count the number of times he claimed he’d left the gang at the precise time he was rising in a rank so high he could and did order assaults and murders of his enemies. According to court records, he also committed flagrant, 2009 perjury to Pricket in hopes of avoiding conviction..
The Feb. 26 hearing was a rare spectacle because Perez brought powerful advocates for his freedom: the FBI, U.S. Department of Justice and the Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA), which just a few years ago labeled the defendant a despicable, deceitful thug who’d earned a life sentence.
Law enforcement’s flip-flop on Perez happened during an internecine Mexican Mafia battle over Orange County underworld control between Peter Ojeda and Armando Moreno. He served in Moreno’s violence-prone leadership and found himself placed on Ojeda’s “hard candy” list as a death target in 2010. Hoping to screw his rivals and win punishment reduction, Perez began working as a paid government snitch.
There’s no doubt that Perez played, as FBI Special Agent Anthony Garcia said, a “very significant” role for two years helping win guilty pleas from at least 25 of his old mafia colleagues. He provided agents charts of the gang’s hierarchy and operational history as well as translated kites, coded jail communications among the hoodlums. Had Eme members known of his betrayal, “[Perez] would have been killed at the first opportunity,” Garcia told the judge. “Gang culture is very clear. If you rat, you’re dead . . . I have no doubt it’s: ‘kill him on sight,'”
The snitching also won the praise of Assistant United States Attorney Joseph McNally, who earlier this year successfully co-prosecuted Mexican Mafia cases inside Orange County’s Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse. McNally vouched for Perez’s character, saying, “He is in good faith trying to change himself.” The federal prosecutor also admitted the judge was right to have concerns and that the defendant had been “incentivized” to snitch while “staring down the barrel of a 25 years to life sentence,” but he hopes for leniency.
Said McNally, “He’s going to be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life. He is a long term enemy of the Mexican Mafia.”
OCDA’s James Laird chimed in, acknowledging his agency is abandoning its stance that Perez is a hopelessly dangerous criminal who should never walk the streets again. Laird said it would be “in the interest of justice” for Prickett to erase all of the defendant’s felony strikes and focus on “what kind of skin he’s put in the game.”
Laird, a member of Tony Rackauckas’ OCDA management, described Perez as a public servant, called for judicial “discretion” in his favor and predicted his release from custody would be “a huge win for everybody.”
Tossing caution to the wind, the prosecutor stole a page from the defense lawyer playbook, implying that the defendant deserves sympathy for his criminal history because “there is something environmental about it.”
Defense lawyer Richard Curran added to the glowing presentation by asserting there is no evidence his client hasn’t been a model citizen for “seven or eight years.” In the courtroom that day, McNally, Garcia, Laird and his colleagues, Scott Zidbeck and Scott Simmons, all officers of the court, remained shamelessly silent while Prickett had been given a false impression.
Five years ago Perez ordered a brutal hit on inmate Richard Aguilar, according to court records. In 2014, he repeatedly lied under oath during a special hearing in People v. Scott Dekraai, another time OCDA officials remained mum. For example, he falsely stated he’d volunteered to rat on Dekraai out of the goodness of his heart, not to win benefits. Perjury in this county apparently won’t be prosecuted if it’s committed by sheriff’s deputies or snitches barking statements that please government officials.
There’s a second, troubling prong to the Perez mess. He is Exhibit A in Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders’ belief that OCDA hides critical evidence to trip defense lawyers even in capital cases. Dan Wagner, who heads the agency’s homicide unit, filed a January 2013 affidavit stating OCDA had no intention of giving the informant any consideration for ratting. He also insisted that in a jail with an inmate population of 6,000, Perez coincidentally found himself placed in cells next to two high-profile, police targets, Daniel Wozniak in 2010 and Dekraai the following year.
From that deputy-arranged perch, the snitch worked to grab incriminating statements for the government in violation of Massiah, a U.S. Supreme Court case that bans authorities from questioning defendants who have been charged and have legal representation. Leaving no mystery about his government employment, Perez privately memorialized that his “mission” was “Operation Daylight.”
“I just want to get back home with my kids and I’ll do whatever it takes to get there,” he wrote in a note.
For more than a year, Wagner strenuously fought surrendering records to Sanders that undermined Perez’s credibility and underscored his potential incentives to lie under oath. One was a record created by an Anaheim police detective who’d warned other law enforcement officials not to trust him as a snitch.
Once Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals refused Wagner’s secrecy demands and was forced to release the records, the prosecutor claimed his position hadn’t been intentional cheating, but rather a benign, “flawed” understanding of the law. To maintain the innocence stance, he also explained he didn’t originally supply Sanders with a hidden OCDA letter indicating the agency’s intentions to reward the snitch for Dekraai work because he, the Dekraai prosecutor, supposedly didn’t know it existed. When it was discovered that Wagner had an email copy of the plan, he claimed he had forgotten to open the document. Simmons adopted the same story: He too forgot to read the email in a death penalty case.
Rackauckas insists nobody in his agency has committed any wrongdoing and that errors have been fully addressed with in-house training seminars. The DA’s media spin has become comical at times. But it hasn’t dissuaded nationwide calls for an independent DOJ probe.
Meanwhile, this latest snitch scandal chapter awaits Prickett’s historic decision—one the government has suspiciously postponed at least 32 times in eight years. The judge was scheduled to rule on Feb. 26, but law enforcement’s adamant push for Perez’s freedom gave him pause. He said he wanted to further study the issue and the veteran gangster’s veracity for a March 4 hearing.
Can he trust the 34-year-old Perez when he says, “I did terrible things, but I am not that man anymore”?
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.