By Tony Saavedra, OCR
The jailhouse informant at the center of Orange County’s snitch controversy was sentenced Friday to 21 years on a third-strike gun conviction that could have meant life in prison.
Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett gave Mexican Mafia member Fernando Perez credit for nearly 14 years in jail. That means Perez will serve no more than seven years in prison.
In his ruling, the judge also dropped two of three strike convictions against Perez, citing federal authorities and local prosecutors who said Perez was “critical” in dismantling the Mexican Mafia prison gang in Orange County. (Read the ruling)
Perez, known on the street as “Wicked,” received consideration for testifying against Mexican Mafia leaders, translating their hand-written notes and performing other jailhouse informant services that have now landed him in federal protective custody.
“These facts are significant in this court’s judgment and warrant mitigation consideration,” Prickett said.
Perez, 34, sought a reduced sentence of only 17 years, which would have made him eligible for release in less than two years. Both the prosecutor and defense attorney had advocated for the lesser sentence and the removal of all three strikes.
Prickett declined. But the judge decided that a sentence of 40-years to life would be “outside the spirit of the strike law” considering Perez’s cooperation with law enforcement and his attempts toward rehabilitation, such as earning his high school GED and his dog training certificate behind bars.
Under California law, felons convicted of “three strikes” are eligible for life imprisonment.
Defense attorney Richard Curran said his client, while not necessarily happy with the sentence, was “accepting.”
Perez will serve the rest of his sentence at an undisclosed federal lockup and will receive a new identity when he is released, Curran said.
Perez’s sentencing drew a packed Santa Ana courtroom Friday as attorneys and other onlookers strained to see the informant at the heart of a scandal that has rocked Orange County’s justice system. Perez was a key figure in two high-profile murder cases in which he elicited confessions defendants awaiting trial in jail.
Those cases exploded into Orange County’s snitch controversy, led to the removal of the District Attorney from the county’s worst mass shooting and sparked calls for a federal investigation from legal experts in California and across the nation.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who represents admitted Seal Beach shooter Scott Dekraai and double-murderer Daniel Wozniak, said Perez got better than he deserved in court Friday.
Sanders cited Perez’s involvement in Mexican Mafia assaults and his role in coaxing confessions on behalf of law enforcement from in-custody defendants in violation of their rights to fair trials.
“He was allowed to dodge a bullet,” Sanders said outside the courtroom.
Perez was in hot water with the Mexican Mafia when he decided to become an FBI informant in 2010. Perez was on the losing end of a civil war for control of the gang’s Orange County faction, according to court records. Once a rising star in his group or “mesa,” he had become a marked man.
Perez had faced a life sentence for a third-strike gun conviction in 2009. He turned to snitching as a way to get back to his three children, parents and college-educated siblings. He dubbed his efforts “Operation Daylight” on hand-written notes to investigators.
Raised in Santa Ana, and a member of the 18th Street gang since age 15, Perez has spent much of his life behind bars.
He was 18 when he was jailed in a misdemeanor domestic violence case. He became a felon just a few months later after his mother found a gun in their home. Perez told police he was holding the weapon for another member of his gang.
He later was arrested on charges of robbery, possession of a stolen vehicle and gun possession with an enhancement for gang membership — chalking up two strikes.
Then, in December 2006, a police officer pulled over Perez in Garden Grove. The officer found 3.2 grams of methamphetamine, a used pipe and empty plastic baggies inside Perez’s white Volvo, according to authorities. Perez was out on bail when police arrested him again less than a month later for being a felon in possession of a loaded, cocked handgun. The firearm was found in the pouch of a car passenger door, inches from where Perez was sitting. He denied the gun was his.
For much of the past nine years, Perez has been jailed in Orange County. He earned the trust of Armando Moreno, the leader of a Mexican Mafia faction challenging federal prisoner Pete Ojeda for control of Orange County. Perez became a shot-caller at the jail, carrying out Moreno’s directives.
When the warring ended, with Ojeda on top, Perez turned to informing on his associates in the Mexican Mafia.
He had tried being a snitch before, in the early 2000s, but Anaheim police cut him loose because he had kept a gun at his home. An Anaheim officer noted on Perez’s county informant card: “Do Not Use.”
Perez took another shot at being an informant in 2010 when he wound up jailed next to Costa Mesa community theater actor Daniel Wozniak, who was charged with killing two friends, beheading one of them. According to police accounts, Perez took his own initiative to get Wozniak talking about the killings. He then went to authorities, who decided not to use his information.
Perez, himself a target in a federal investigation against the Mexican Mafia, told authorities he was willing to snitch on his gang. In court last week, federal authorities called him critical in dismantling the Mexican Mafia’s hold on the Orange County Jail. Authorities say he aided in the conviction of about 100 prison gang members, including Moreno.
After wrapping up his work against the Mexican Mafia, Perez found himself in a cell adjacent to Scott Dekraai, who days earlier had gunned down eight people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011. Perez befriended Dekraai, calling him “bro” and bringing him hot water for his tea. Authorities bugged Dekraai’s cell and recorded more than 130 hours of conversation between the two men.
After learning about Perez’s role against his clients, defense attorney Sanders launched an investigation and extensive hearings that went far beyond his two clients and delved into what he contends are three decades of misuse of jailhouse snitches by police and prosecutors.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has said his office made mistakes but maintained this week that “There was no intentional violation of anything.”
But what can you do to stop snitches? Here’s a list of snitches with pictures and locations. Also read: Control of Information so you can stop snitching on yourself. Also: How to find out who’s a snitch and 10 Ways to Spot an Informant and How the cops are tracking you and No Warrant No Problem and Criminal defenses (How to beat your court case) And to inspire you: 7 Fugitives who Became Folk Heroes, How I Lost my friends