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Fontana pays nearly $900,000 for ‘psychological torture’ inflicted by police to get false confession

‘In my 40 years of suing the police I have never seen that level of deliberate cruelty,’ says an attorney for Thomas Perez Jr.

Thomas Perez Jr. rips his shirt off during a police interrogation in the suspected killing of his father, who had been reported missing but was later found alive. (Screen grab from Fontana police video)
Thomas Perez Jr. rips his shirt off during a police interrogation in the suspected killing of his father, who had been reported missing but was later found alive. (Screen grab from Fontana police video)
Tony Saavedra. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register)
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Within hours after Thomas Perez Jr. called police to report his father missing, he found himself in a tiny interrogation room confronted by Fontana detectives determined to extract a confession that he killed his dad.

Perez had told police that his father, 71-year-old Thomas Perez Sr., went out for a walk with the family dog at about 10 p.m. on Aug. 7, 2018. The dog returned within minutes without Perez’s father. Investigators didn’t believe his story, and over the next 17 hours they grilled him to try to get to the “truth.”

Also see: Fontana police keep public in the dark on shootings involving officers

According to court records, detectives told Perez that his father was dead, that they had recovered his body and it now “wore a toe tag at the morgue.” They said they had evidence that Perez killed his father and that he should just admit it, records show.

Perez insisted he didn’t remember killing anyone, but detectives allegedly told him that the human mind often tries to suppress troubling memories.

At one point during the interrogation, the investigators even threatened to have his pet Labrador Retriever, Margosha, euthanized as a stray, and brought the dog into the room so he could say goodbye. “OK? Your dog’s now gone, forget about it,” said an investigator.

Thomas Perez Jr. curls up in the fetal position with his dog after being grilled by police to confess to killing his father -- who had been reported missing but was later found alive. (Screen grab from Fontana police video)
Thomas Perez Jr. curls up in the fetal position with his dog after being grilled by police to confess to killing his father — who had been reported missing but was later found alive. (Screen grab from Fontana police video)

“How can you sit there, how can you sit there and say you don’t know what happened, and your dog is sitting there looking at you, knowing that you killed your dad?” a detective said. “Look at your dog. She knows, because she was walking through all the blood.”

Finally, after curling up with the dog on the floor, Perez broke down and confessed. He said he had stabbed his father multiple times with a pair of scissors during an altercation in which his father hit Perez over the head with a beer bottle.

Suicide attempt

He was so distraught that he even tried to hang himself with the drawstring from his shorts after being left alone in the interrogation room. Perez was arrested, handcuffed and transported to a mental hospital for 72-hour observation.

But later that day, the truth derailed the detectives’ theory and their prized confession.

Perez’s father wasn’t dead — or even missing. Thomas Sr. was at Los Angeles International Airport waiting for a flight to see his daughter in Northern California. But police didn’t immediately tell Perez.

“Mentally torturing a false confession out of Tom Perez, concealing from him that his father was alive and well, and confining him in the psych ward because they made him suicidal, in my 40 years of suing the police I have never seen that level of deliberate cruelty by the police,” said Jerry Steering, Perez’s attorney in Newport Beach.

Related: Fontana denies wrongdoing in 2018 police interrogation characterized as ‘psychological torture’

$900,000 settlement

Steering filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against the city of Fontana, alleging that police psychologically tortured Perez and coerced a false confession without first determining that the father had actually been slain. The suit was recently settled for nearly $900,000.

Perez agreed to the settlement rather than take the case to trial out of concern that a jury award could be overturned on appeal on grounds of qualified immunity for police. Generally, qualified immunity protects law enforcement officers unless they violate clearly established law arising from a case with nearly identical facts, according to the Legal Defense Fund.

Fontana police did not return an email seeking comment. Three of the involved officers remain employed with the department. One other officer has retired.

Why police were suspicious

So how could this happen?

In court documents and depositions, police say they had reason to believe Perez was lying.

First, they noted he seemed “distracted” and “unconcerned” during the 911 call, according to court records. Officers responding to the call noted the father’s cellphone and wallet were still at the home, which was in disarray. Police saw the mess as a sign of a struggle, but Steering said Perez was renovating the house and had argued with his father about it.

Additionally, a police dog sniffed out the scent of a corpse in the father’s bedroom. And there were small blood stains in the house. Steering later would say the blood stains were caused by the father’s finger-prick diabetes tests.

Perez’s lawsuit claims detectives also refused for several hours to retrieve his medication for high blood pressure, asthma, depression and stress.

Thomas Perez Jr. is interviewed by police in the killing his father -- who had been reported missing but was later found alive. (Screen grab from police video)
Thomas Perez Jr. is interviewed by police in the killing of his father — who had been reported missing but was later found alive. (Screen grab from police video)

Emotional distress

Perez became so distraught that he began pulling out his hair, hitting himself, making anguished noises and tearing off his shirt while police encouraged him to confess, according to a summary of the case written by U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee.

“He was sleep deprived, mentally ill and significantly undergoing symptoms of withdrawal from his psychiatric medications,” Gee wrote.

At one point during the interrogation, investigators drove Perez to get coffee and then to some housing tracts where he had been looking to buy. Detectives berated Perez, insisting he did not need his medication and that they knew he killed his father, according to the case summary.

“When can you take us to show us where Daddy is?” asked one of the investigators.

Also see: Recording shows Fontana police shooting fleeing suspect, say he had gun

Later, during their interview, the detectives told Perez his father’s body actually had been found already.

Asked in a deposition about his line of questioning, one of the detectives said: “I believed at the time if we told him that we had located the body, then maybe he would give us more information about what had occurred.”

Police, in court records, insisted Perez was voluntarily undergoing questioning and was free to go at any time. However, in her case summary, Gee wrote that the “circumstances suggested to Perez that he was not free to leave.”

She also noted that there was “no legitimate government interest that would justify treating Perez in this manner while he was in medical distress.”

Father turns up alive

Perez’s nightmare ended shortly after police got a phone call from his sister, who said their father was alive and well. He had actually walked to the train station in Fontana and rode the line to Los Angeles County to visit a relative and then took a bus to visit a female friend, Steering said. Perez Sr. later went to the airport to await a flight to Oakland to visit his daughter.

Police picked up the father at the airport and brought him to the Fontana station.

But the investigation didn’t stop there. Detectives obtained a warrant to again search Perez’s house for evidence that he had assaulted an “unknown victim,” according to Gee’s summary.

It appears none was found.

Perez was not released until after the end of the three-day psychological observation period. He then retrieved his dog from Riverside County Animal Services, tracking her down through an implanted chip, Steering said.

While Gee concluded Fontana detectives had sufficient reason to believe an offense had been committed, she criticized officers for their interrogation tactics.

“A reasonable juror could conclude that the detectives inflicted unconstitutional psychological torture on Perez,” Gee wrote in her summary judgment. “Their tactics indisputably led to Perez’s subjective confusion and disorientation, to the point he falsely confessed to killing his father, and tried to take his own life.”

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