Wherever he goes, he will spend much of the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. Wherever he goes, he will leave behind a criminal justice system staggering beneath the weight of his allegations.
Perez cooperated to a limited degree in the preparation of this story, participating in slightly more than two hours of interviews by telephone. The interviews are his first extended public comments since his conviction. He speaks forcefully, often eloquently, and with remorse about what he has wrought.
Upon the insistence of his attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson, he declined to answer any questions about his own criminal activities. His willingness to speak was often much greater than McKesson's willingness to let him. Perez has, however, as a condition of his sentence, spoken extensively to investigators about those activities. Transcripts of those interrogations were also used for this story.
Well, sir, make no bones about it, what we did was wrong--planting evidence, evidence on people, fabricating evidence, perjuring ourselves--but our mentality was us against them.
. . . We knew that Rampart's crime rate, murder rate, was the highest in the city. And people come, lieutenants, captains and everybody else would come to our roll calls and say this has to end and you guys are in charge of gangs. Do something about it. That's your responsibility.
And the mentality was, it was like a war, us against them, and they didn't play fair, and we went right along with it and didn't play fair. If they ran from us and discarded the narcotics in the gutter, it was no big deal to us. We'll just put dope on you. We know you had it. . . . You run and toss a gun in the gutter or throw it behind a tree and we can't find it, no big deal. We'll get you on our own. Didn't matter what the crime was. We knew that you were getting away with it, either by intimidating witnesses or one way or another.
We'd arrest them for legitimate arrests, legitimate robbery or murder. Two, three days later, couple weeks later, they were out in the street laughing, and we took it upon ourselves, and I think it just, it was the way of Rampart. They were not going to get away with it. We were going to make sure.
--Rafael Perez, Los Angeles County Superior Court, Sept. 21, 2000
A Promising Beginning, Then Disgrace The Preacher
There was a time when people would have expected the opposite of Rafael Perez, who as a boy was so averse to misbehavior that he refused to ride the bus to school because kids on it acted wild.
For most of his 33 years, Perez was the antithesis of a thrill seeker. He was born in Puerto Rico in 1967, the second of three children of Luis and Luz Perez. Perez didn't know his father, didn't see so much as a photograph of him until he was 30. The permanence of their separation was assured when Luz moved to Brooklyn, taking the kids with her. Luis stayed on the island. Rafael was 5.
The young family stayed in New York briefly before settling across the river in Paterson, N.J., an industrial town that Perez remembers with affection. While there, his mother attended college, graduated, taught English as a second language, remarried and had a fourth child.
The school the Perez children attended in Paterson was run by a no-bones-about-it disciplinarian principal named Joe Clark, who wielded a baseball bat to enforce points of order and became famous as the subject of the film "Lean on Me." The strictness was fine with Perez, whose brothers and sister called him The Preacher for his sternness.
"I was very strict," Perez recalls. "I was the one that would catch my sister or my brother cutting class, and I'd have to sit there and explain to them why they should go to school and if they cut again I'm gonna tell mom so they better go.
"I was protective of my sister, especially protective of her. I was protective of my older brother because I was always worried about him doing something that would hurt my mom. It was strange, because I was not the older one, not the oldest in the family, but I acted like I was.
"By the time I was 13 I was pretty much, I considered myself like the man of the house. I sort of had those growing spurts. I all of a sudden grew a goatee. I was taller than my older brother, more responsible than my older brother, or even my older cousins.
"I sort of just grew up. My mind started telling me what I wanted to do, what I wanted my future to be like. It just didn't seem I was at the same level as kids my age. Maybe I was a nerd. I don't know what you want to call it. I was just a lot more responsible than the other kids in my neighborhood."
He was also shy. He remembers losing his first girlfriend at 13 because he refused to slow-dance with her.
When Perez was about to enter high school, the family moved to Philadelphia, specifically to North Philadelphia, one of the toughest neighborhoods in a tough town. Paterson had been gritty. North Philly was mean. The family stayed initially with Perez's uncle, who Perez says was a drug dealer.