Judge Orders Perez Freed From Prison


July 24, 2001

Rafael A. Perez, the former Los Angeles police officer whose allegations of police misconduct plunged the LAPD into a wrenching period of investigation and reform, was ordered released from prison Monday by a judge who ruled that he lived “up to his end of the bargain” by cooperating with authorities.

Citing concerns about Perez’s safety, state prison officials declined to say precisely when or where the former Rampart Division officer would be set free. They would only confirm that they will comply with Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry’s order to release Perez within 24 hours of Monday morning’s ruling.

The order releasing Perez, 33, ends a chapter in the Rampart police corruption probe. Even as authorities continue to prosecute some officers and hunt for others who may have been involved in crimes, the central figure in the scandal will walk out of prison a free man less than three years after his initial arrest for stealing three kilograms of cocaine from LAPD evidence facilities. While Perez’s past has been well documented, the future for the man who identified dozens of allegedly crooked officers and victimized hundreds of gang members remains complicated and uncertain.

District attorney officials said Monday they plan to appeal Perez’s release on grounds that the judge exceeded his authority. If they succeed, Perez may be forced back to prison to serve additional time on his five-year sentence.

Federal authorities, meanwhile, are still considering whether they will seek to indict Perez for corruption-related offenses, which they continue to investigate.

He could play a role in other potential prosecutions arising from the D.A.’s and LAPD’s ongoing probes. But until the federal investigation is resolved, it’s unlikely he will be called as a witness.

As for Perez’s immediate plans, he wants to reunite with his wife and family and keep a low profile, his attorney said. Monday evening, several people arrived at the Perez home, one woman carrying several bags of food, as Perez’s wife apparently waited inside.

Since he was incarcerated, Perez has become a deeply religious man who “wants to be a productive member of society,” attorney Winston Kevin McKesson said.

But any plans that Perez may have “to do good deeds in the community” may be difficult to achieve, McKesson said.

“He certainly has concerns about his safety,” McKesson said. “He doesn’t know who would want to take a potshot at him.”

Perez Could Leave the State

Because of those concerns, Judge Perry said Perez will be permitted to seek parole arrangements out of state if he desires.

The ex-officer has been praised and vilified for his work as the key informant in the Rampart corruption probe. Civil rights advocates have said he helped to crack the police code of silence and spurred much-needed reforms at the LAPD.

Some in law enforcement, however, have questioned Perez’s veracity and blamed him for putting the entire Police Department under a cloud of public distrust.

“It’s hard to imagine that Rafael Perez could ever fully serve his debt to society,” the LAPD police union said in a prepared statement Monday. “Regardless of his release date . . . it is too soon. He has tarnished the image of the hard-working men and women that make up the rank and file of the LAPD and disappointed the people of Los Angeles.”

Perez’s release was set in motion early Monday when Perry sought to resolve a controversy over whether he should receive state “work-time” credits for the time he spent in jail cooperating with authorities after he was sentenced in February 2000.

Those credits would allow Perez a day off his sentence for every day he served in a state prison. Under such a calculation, Perez’s attorney has argued, his client should have been released last month.

Prosecutors and prison officials, however, said that because Perez served his time in a county jail and was not sent to a state facility until just two weeks ago, he is not entitled to those credits.

District attorney officials argued that Perez was never promised work-time credit. And, they noted, his plea deal makes no mention of it.

But the judge rejected that argument. At the time of sentencing, he said, all parties mistakenly believed that Perez would earn those credits in county jail. He said Perez should not have to suffer for their mistakes.

“We have a defendant,” Perry said, “who cooperated and in a very real sense furthered the cause of justice in this community and is placed in a position where he is being harmed because of his cooperation.”

The judge added: “He did live up to his end of the bargain.”

As Perry handed down his ruling, the once-swaggering anti-gang cop wept. His attorney placed his arm around Perez’s shoulder. Perez’s wife and other relatives and friends who attended the hearing cried.

Prosecutors petitioned the state Court of Appeal to halt Perez’s release, but the appellate court denied the petition without comment.

Perez traded his LAPD uniform for county jail blues in 1998 when he was arrested and charged with stealing six pounds of cocaine from LAPD evidence facilities. He pleaded not guilty and took his chances before a jury.

At first, the gamble appeared to pay off. The handsome, charismatic ex-cop was an excellent witness on his own behalf, and the jury hung 8 to 4 in favor of a conviction.

But authorities weren’t finished. Under the direction of Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Rosenthal, LAPD investigators gathered more evidence linking Perez to the missing cocaine.

He also was indicted on charges of stealing two additional pounds that were discovered missing.

Meanwhile, Perez would later say, he was lying awake in his jail cell, reflecting on some of his then-unknown misdeeds as a police officer. His mistreatment of one man in particular, Javier Francisco Ovando, weighed heavily on his mind.

Whatever his motivation, as his second trial was to begin, Perez’s lawyer approached Rosenthal about a plea bargain. Faced with a possible 12-year sentence for cocaine theft, Perez would serve five years in exchange for identifying other corrupt officers. What followed was a series of admissions and allegations that would rock not only the LAPD, but the entire Los Angeles County criminal justice system.

He first told authorities about Ovando, who he claims had been coming to him in dreams. Perez said he and then-partner Nino Durden shot Ovando, who was unarmed, several times. He said they then planted a gun on him and testified in court that he had attacked them, helping to send him to prison for 23 years.

Ovando was out of prison within days of Perez’s admission, and has since been paid $15 million by the city to settle a civil rights lawsuit.

In the coming weeks and months, Perez would implicate about 70 officers as having been involved in crimes or misconduct or knowing about them and doing nothing.

He said the corruption was centered in the anti-gang CRASH unit he was assigned to in the Rampart Division. The unit, he said, mimicked the gangs it policed, with many of its members wearing skull tattoos with the dead man’s hand of aces and eights.

Perez’s statements to investigators led to the overturning of more than 100 criminal convictions, because prosecutors lost faith in the credibility of their police witnesses. Most of those cases involved Perez and Durden as arresting officers. In addition to his role in the Ovando case, Perez said Durden routinely stole drugs and money from suspects.

Durden denied any wrongdoing for more than a year.

But in March, in a surprise development, he pleaded guilty to a host of state and federal charges, including planting a gun on Ovando and providing false testimony against him in court. Durden is continuing to cooperate with federal authorities as he awaits imposition of his anticipated eight-year sentence.

Seven other officers have been charged with crimes as a result of Perez’s allegations.

Four were convicted by a jury of corruption-related offenses, but their convictions were overturned. That outcome has been appealed by the district attorney’s office.


Times staff writer Miles Corwin contributed to this story.

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