The Dirtiest Cop Alive
Nov 2000. Maxim Magazine. by Gil Reavill
Los Angeles police officer Rafael Perez was part of a ruthless task force charged with eliminating gangbangers from the city’s terrorized streets. So how did the cops become monsters themselves?
Joey Tenorio, the scrawny 14-year-old junior gangbanger everyone called L’il Silly, tried to stay calm as he stood handcuffed to the second-floor railing in the abandoned rathole at 11th and Lake in downtown Los Angeles. It was a bright day in early August 1997, but he had to force himself to keep from shivering. He was terrified.
Tearing through the house like a shitstorm were a dozen LAPD cops from the Rampart Division’s antigang detail, called CRASH—Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums. He recognized them from the gaudy patch some wore on their uniforms: a grinning white skull with deep black eye sockets, wearing a cowboy hat with a silver LAPD badge on the brim. Fanned out in the background were four cards—the deadman’s hand of aces and eights. Everyone on the street knew to fear that insignia and anyone who wore it. Word was these guys were worse than any gang.
According to Tenorio, the two cops who’d cuffed him—Brian Hewitt, the buffed-out one with the dirty-brown Fu Manchu mustache and the wild eyes, and Ray Perez, the intense one who seemed to be calling all the shots—stomped upstairs with the rest of the CRASH unit to clear the upper floors. On the way up one of the cops kicked Tenorio square in the head as he walked past him. As Hewitt and Perez trooped back down, they booted him upside the skull again.
He watched nervously as the big freak Hewitt took out a black felt-tip pen and drew two concentric circles on the plaster wall of the hallway. He couldn’t figure it out at first, until the goddamn cop inked in a center circle.
“You don’t give me a gun, and your head’s gonna go right through that bull’s-eye,” Hewitt promised L’il Silly.
“I don’t know where I can get you a gun,” Tenorio cried.
Wrong answer. The two cops uncuffed him from the railing and recuffed his hands behind his back. Perez and Hewitt each took one of Tenorio’s arms and lifted his 90-pound body easily. Then they hurled a battering ram consisting of the head and body of Joey Tenorio hard into the target. The impact made a flat, smacking sound and bent Tenorio’s neck back at a crazy angle. When they pulled him away from the wall, the plaster cracked and crumbled and a jagged hole roughly the size of Li’l Silly’s cranium appeared in the bull’s-eye.
“Tell me about the gun!” Hewitt demanded.
“I don’t know about a gun!” the kid screamed.
The cops smashed Tenorio into the target over and over until the wallboard busted apart and they were ramming him into the two-by-fours underneath. He felt blood trickle from a gash in his head, then gush. He tried not to pass out, even as the splinters of wood sliced into his skin and embedded themselves deep beneath his scalp.
Welcome to Rampart, kid.
The Thin Blue Line
The assault on Joseph Tenorio triggered no immediate official investigation. Officers Perez and Hewitt never entered the event into their memo books. It was, in fact, just an ordinary day in the City of Angels’ most hellish police precinct.
The Rampart Division of the LAPD covers eight square miles of misery just west of downtown. Poor and mostly Hispanic, the densely packed area is home to more gangs than any other part of L.A.—60 in all, with about 8,000 members battling for turf. For years, bodies littered the streets. To fight fire with fire, a city-wide antigang unit, CRASH, was created and given a simple, all-encompassing mandate: Clean up the mess, no questions asked. The CRASH motto was “We intimidate those who intimidate others.” For a time in the mid-90s, gang violence in L.A. plummeted. But at what cost?
Last fall, the stunned citizens of L.A. began to find out. Two years after he used Joey Tenorio as a battering ram, Rafael Perez became the central figure in one of the worst police- corruption scandals in U.S. history. In 50 hours of gripping testimony given to investigators, Perez painted a chilling picture of brutal, rogue cops working far outside the law. The elite officers of Rampart, he said, planted evidence to get convictions, sold drugs, and unlawfully beat and even murdered suspects.
Few of the cops, investigators concede, may have been worse than the whistleblower himself. “One of my clients told me he’d rather meet Satan in a dark alley than Rafael Perez,” a lawyer representing Rampart victims said to Court TV. On February 25, 2000, Perez told a judge: “Whoever chases monsters should see to it that in the process, he does not become a monster himself.” But just how did Perez—and much of an entire division in the nation’s largest police force—become more evil than the criminals they pursued?
Baptism by Blood
Rafael Antonio Perez was born in Puerto Rico to an absent father and a tough, hard-working mom. He moved to the U.S. while he was still a kid and soon became obsessed with cop shows like Adam-12. He joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1989 at age 21, and prospered right from the start.
“Perez was a glory hound,” says a senior officer who had him under his command. “The guy looked like a great officer, but it was all about himself—the highest gun take, the highest number of narco busts, the highest felony arrests. If he wasn’t in the thick of it, he wasn’t interested.”
Assigned to the West Side Narcotics Bureau after some quick promotions, Perez partnered up with the star of the unit. David Mack was a smooth operator who’d learned street smarts the hard way, growing up in Compton. Mack had run his way out of the ghetto, winning a track scholarship to the University of Oregon and becoming an NCAA 800-meter champ. He almost married fellow sprinter Florence Joyner. But by 1988, at age 27, he’d lost his world-class wheels and joined the LAPD.
Mack and Perez worked undercover in some of the worst neighborhoods in east L.A. Mack seemed to know everyone. Perez, just 25, idolized his partner, picking up Mack’s taste for cigars, designer suits, and mistresses.
“Ray was impressionable and young,” remembers his wife, Denise, who met Perez while working as a department dispatcher. “He really looked up to David for his street sense.”
On October 26, 1993, Mack and Perez sealed their partnership in blood. That night they rolled up to Jesse Vicencio, a crack dealer with the Clanton 14th street gang. The two cops were acting as “buy dogs” for an undercover narcotics sting.
Vicencio, dusted up on PCP, acted nervous and jerky. Suddenly, in the middle of the deal, he threw the cash Perez had given him back into their car.
“Nah, man,” he said. “Are you Bloods or Crips?”
Perez, riding shotgun, tried to do damage control. “Come on, man, I’m just a basehead,” he said. “Take it easy.”
Vicencio began to back away. Suddenly, say bystanders, David Mack was reaching past Perez with a .38. He thrust it out the window, then he began squeezing off rounds. He hit Vicencio in the scrotum and in each thigh. The gangbanger staggered away toward the middle of the street and clutched his midsection while blood began to seep through his clothes, warm and sticky. He turned to run. More shots, in rapid succession. Two hit Vicencio in the left arm and one went through his back, tearing up his innards. One more bullet entered his chest, puncturing his right lung and aorta.
After 13 shots in all, Vicencio died in front of 2137 Cambridge Street, the house where his parents, wife, and young daughter lived. He never fired a round, and according to witnesses, may not have even been armed.
The LAPD investigated the incident, as it does every “O.I.S.”—officer-involved shooting. Vicencio, the investigation concluded, pulled a gun first. They nominated Mack for a medal on that one. Ray Perez came out a hero, too. But Perez was restless. He wanted something bigger.
Initiation into a Secret World
The more Perez heard about CRASH, the more he wanted in. Created in the 1980s as a last-line defense against the vicious drug-related gang violence threatening to engulf the city, the department’s 20 paramilitary-style CRASH divisions were culled from the best street officers the LAPD had to offer. The units were given breathtaking autonomy, with little oversight.
For Perez, there was only one problem. You couldn’t just join a CRASH unit as though it were some neighborhood gym. You had to be sponsored in. But Perez had an ace: Sammy Martin, Mack’s former partner, was an active CRASH officer, and he agreed to recommend Perez for his detail—the CRASH unit at Rampart.
Even in the harsh realm of CRASH, the 20-member Rampart unit stood out. “They were tough and crazy,” says Rafael Zambrano, a former member of the Playboys gang, who more than once was on the receiving end of a CRASH beating. “They were there to kick ass.” And they got results.
Ray Perez arrived at Rampart CRASH in August 1995. His first impression was that he had joined a particularly hard-partying fraternity—Animal House with semiautomatics. Perez dove headfirst into its rituals. “There was always going to be some type of bachelor party,” Perez recalls. “It just depended on who we would pick to be the bachelor that day.”
Most of the blowouts were held in one of the unit’s “CRASH pads”—places near the precinct house used to hothouse mistresses, hookers, drugs, and copious amounts of booze. One was an apartment in the Valley donated in return for the increased security that a cop presence would provide.
The parties had a tendency to get out of control fast. Even as everyone was getting trashed, the CRASH veterans watched Perez carefully. They were leery of the new recruit. For his part, Perez was eager to prove that he was “in the loop”—he inked the same grinning skull tattoo that other CRASH officers had, matching the patches on their uniforms.
Soon Perez’s loyalty would be put to the test for real.
Getting in the Loop
As soon as Perez hit the sidewalk in front of the Shatto Place apartments the night of July 26, 1996, all hell broke loose. Shotgun blasts boomed from the interior, sounding like cannons. Perez didn’t waste time. He tore up the front stairwell and almost tripped over the wounded body of a gangbanger, Jose Perez. Officer Michael Montoya had him covered, so Perez didn’t even slow down.
More blasts echoing from upstairs. Just as Perez got to the third-floor hallway, he saw Juan Saldana, a member of the 18th Street gang, fall over backward. He’d been hit in the “10 ring,” or dead center in the chest. Another blast had ripped through his back. Above him stood Officer Kulin Patel, his semiautomatic still drawn.
“Decock and holster,” Perez shouted to the frozen Patel. Perez inched forward to put the cuffs on Saldana. Just then officers Brian Hewitt and Doyle Stepp burst into the hallway from upstairs.
“Shit!” Hewitt said, looking at Patel. “Kulin got him.” He and his partner Stepp had been pursuing Saldana through the building. Now the guy lay bleeding at their feet, going into shock. “What’s going on?” mumbled the dying Saldana.
It dawned on Perez: No gun. Saldana was unarmed.
“Shit!” Hewitt said again. He and Stepp disappeared upstairs, returning seconds later. Stepp carried the butt of a pistol by his fingertips. He dropped it next to Saldana.
Then they showed Ray Perez how it was done. Led by their sergeant, Eddie Ortiz, the CRASH officers huddled up in the third floor hallway. Nobody else was allowed near the scene.
Planting a gun was an art, one the officers of CRASH had down cold. The “throw-down gun,” they explained, was always loaded, with a bullet racked in the chamber—a loaded gun carried a higher penalty. Also, CRASH cops routinely filed off the guns’ serial numbers, since that made possession into an instant felony.
The cops huddled together as Juan Saldana bled out a few feet away. Finally an ambulance was called, and Perez led the barely conscious, handcuffed Saldana downstairs. Medics met them at the first floor landing, but Saldana died shortly after.
“Before I arrived at Rampart CRASH,” Perez later told investigators, “I had never put a gun on a person. When you get to Rampart CRASH, this is something that you’re taught.
“Once you’re in the unit,” he added, “certain things have to happen before someone can say, ‘Yeah, you can depend on him, he’s in the loop.’” No question, Perez was now in the loop.
That night after the shooting, the CRASH cops partied at the Short Stop, their favorite bar, until 6 a.m.
That summer Ray Perez got a new partner, a guy he sponsored into the unit. Nino Durden knew enough to play second fiddle. He let Perez, who spoke Spanish, do most of the interrogations while he booked evidence. But he had a mean streak.
On October 11, 1996, Durden and Perez were set up in an OP, an observation point stakeout, in apartment 403 of a huge abandoned apartment building downtown. They were looking for 18th Streeters with guns. The place stank of piss. Inside, they found a 19-year-old named Javier Ovando.
The two cops handcuffed Ovando and dragged him into a darkened, trashed-out apartment. According to an account told much later by Ovando, Perez and Durden began interrogating him. Things quickly went straight to hell. Ovando refused to cooperate, enraging both men. Suddenly Perez pulled his Beretta from its holster and fired it directly into Ovando’s chest; moments later, Durden shot him in the chest also. The blasts sounded enormous in the tiny space. Ovando lay moaning and bleeding, sprawled backward toward the door. Then Perez grabbed him by the front of his shirt, pulled him off the floor, and shot him point-blank in the head.
Amazingly, Ovando was still breathing. “Hold on a second,” Durden said, running off. When he returned, he carried a filthy red rag. He let it fall open and a gun tumbled out, clattering down next to Ovando: A TEC .22 semiautomatic with a banana clip that they had confiscated a few days earlier.
Javier Ovando was paralyzed from the waist down. Convicted of assault on a police officer, he was wheeled into his sentencing hearing strapped to a hospital gurney. The judge scolded Ovando for what he characterized as a total lack of remorse and gave him a prison sentence of 23 years.
A Reign of Terror
Rampart CRASH was too strapped for personnel to send many supervisors out into the field. The cops were just unleashed on the streets, more and more in plainclothes, and everyone—police hierarchy and citizenry alike—turned their backs. Throughout the spring of 1997, Perez and Durden slipped deeper into the dirty bath of street drug culture, barely noticing that the level was rising over their heads.
Perez took a mistress straight off the streets, a big-breasted drug informant named Veronica “Bela” Quesada. At the same time she was seeing Perez, she became involved with Ruben Rojas, one of the leaders of the Temple Street gang.
Rojas knew the CRASH unit well. In 1994 they picked him up in an alley, then threw him in the squad car and drove into the rival 18th Street Gang’s territory. The cops made Rojas take his shirt off—revealing his gang tattoos—and pushed him out of the car. Then they switched on the loudspeaker.
“Temple Streeter walking by!” they announced.
Ruben tried to run, but it was futile.
“Next thing I know I got 10 motherfuckers on me,” he said. “I got stabbed in the arm two times, in the stomach. My jaw was broken and so were two of my fingers.”
In the spring of 1997, shortly after Ruben had gotten out of prison on armed robbery charges, he and Quesada began seeing each other. When Ray found out, he went ballistic.
A few days later, Rojas was sitting at home in his boxer shorts watching Free Willy on video. He didn’t recognize the voice when he picked up the phone and heard some guy speaking half English and half Spanish. “Don’t you know it’s bad to be messing with somebody’s novia?” the caller snarled.
Five minutes later, his front door crashed open and CRASH cops flooded into the house. They slammed Rojas down to the carpet. Perez stood over him and shoved a shotgun into his face. “Motherfucker,” he yelled, “make a move and you’re a dead son of a bitch!”
The cops, about four of them, furiously ransacked his house, screaming and turning everything upside down. They found nothing.
Perez didn’t know what to do with Rojas until an old friend climbed up the steps and entered the house. It was David Mack. He had dropped by the neighborhood and thought he would help out his old buddy Perez.
“Bring him in,” Rojas recalls Mack saying.
Sitting in the station’s interrogation lockup, Rojas saw Perez emerge from the evidence room holding a yellow envelope with a bulge in the bottom. “This is what you’re going down for,” Perez said. “These are your drugs.”
Perez nailed Rojas for six years state time, effectively eliminating a gang leader and a rival in love at the same time.
Where the Money Is
In May 1997 Nino Durden and Perez made a clean arrest. They confiscated a shoebox stuffed with the holy trinity of the coke trade—money, drugs, and pagers. After returning to the Rampart station house, Durden sat in an unused interview room and counted the cash. Perez walked in on him.
“Man, there’s $1,000 in here,” Durden said.
Perez paused for a moment.” Yeah, well, shit, we ain’t gotta book all of it.” Durden booked $500. He and Perez split the other $500. There was no turning back now.
During a bust that summer, Perez took a pager and a white paper bag filled with cocaine off a suspect. The bag contained 24 ounces of coke, already rocked up. As he prepared to book the coke as evidence, the beeper went off.
Perez looked down at the number on the display, and looked back up at Durden. Why not?
Perez made the call. Pretending to be a dealer, he set up a meeting with the potential buyer, fully intending to arrest him when they met. But as he and Durden were driving to the rendezvous, Durden came up with a better idea.
“Screw it, let’s just sell to him,” Durden said. After two more deals, they ended up pulling in $10,000 from the bag.
If things were spinning out of control for Ray Perez, he had plenty of company. His old partner Mack was in the West L.A. precinct, a flashy neighborhood that contrasted sharply with his own financial plight. Mack knew it wouldn’t be easy to support a wife and two kids on a cop’s salary of $55,000, but he never thought it would be this hard.
In private he started speaking cryptically about planning a major crime. “I could kill you in your apartment and nobody would ever know.” he told his girlfriend, Errolyn Romero.
As winter 1997 approached, Mack became more and more desperate. His credit card bills had reached $17,000, and he owed the IRS more than $20,000.
On the morning of November 6, 1997, Mack dressed in a dark business suit, a cloth hat and dark sunglasses. A little after 9 a.m., he entered the Bank of America on West Jefferson Boulevard, just across the street from the USC campus.
Mack seemed to know his way around the bank. It helped that the branch assistant manager was his girlfriend, Romero.
Romero got Mack into the vault, where two tellers were at work. Once inside, Mack turned nasty. Sweeping an M-11 assault rifle from a sling inside his jacket, he screamed at the bank employees not to touch their emergency pagers. “Don’t get yourself killed for money that doesn’t belong to you,” he shouted. Scooping up almost three-quarters of million dollars in shrink-wrapped packets, he got away clean.
Mack went on a spending spree that was extravagant even by his standards. He took his two former partners, Sammy Martin and Ray Perez, to Las Vegas to see Michael Moore fight Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight belt. They never got around to the fight. Instead, they checked into a luxury suite and hung out at Caesar’s Palace, smoking $100 cigars, drinking, living the highlife. For the occasion Mack wore a bright-red designer suit, complete with a matching top hat.
Back in L.A., Mack continued to splurge. He bought car stereo gear, leather furniture, and a Chevy Blazer. He paid off some loans and deposited $7,000 into his bank account.
The investigation into the robbery almost immediately settled on Romero. She had ordered a large shipment of cash the day before the robbery. She failed a lie-detector test.
Under intense grilling, Mack’s girlfriend finally caved. She slid a business card across the table to investigators. Printed on it was the name, DAVID MACK, LAPD.
Stealing from the Cops
Back in Rampart, things were going from bad to worse. After Mack’s arrest, Perez became paranoid that he was being investigated by the feds. But between the stolen dope he sold and the dope money he stole, the payoff was just too sweet to stop. He had his girlfriends, his gambling, his family. He began substituting flour for some of the coke he confiscated before he checked it into the evidence locker. But it still wasn’t enough. By early 1998, he’d graduated from ripping off drug dealers to ripping off the LAPD. He would check out large amounts of coke under other cops’ names. “I need this,” he would tell the clerk, and she’d get it for him. It was a snap.
Ray Perez ultimately got tripped up not because he stole drugs or because he planted evidence and framed gangbangers. The fall of Ray Perez happened because he was rude.
Laura Castellanos, an officer in the Property Division, remembered Perez’s nasty attitude five months earlier when he checked out an item for use in court: three kilos of cocaine, wrapped in cardboard. When a search of the evidence room showed pounds of coke had disappeared under the LAPD’s noses, police chief Bernard Parks enacted a secret task force to investigate. Castellanos picked Perez out of a photo lineup.
On August 6, 1998, detectives searched his house, his Ford Explorer, and his work locker. They found nothing, and Perez refused to cooperate further. He was taken off active duty.
Three weeks later, SWAT teams blocked off Rafael Perez’s quiet suburban street, search dogs were brought in, and he was arrested for the theft of close to eight pounds of cocaine.
C r i m e s and Punishment
The first trial against Perez resulted in a hung jury. He decided not to roll the dice on a second trial. Looking at a sentence of 12 years for the coke heist, Perez didn’t like what he saw: a dozen years in state lockup, doing time with many of the same gangbangers he had beaten, robbed, and framed.
Perez called his lawyer. He brokered a sweetheart deal: a reduced sentence of five years and immunity from other charges for full testimony. And so Perez talked. And talked some more.
Perez’s searing testimony, delivered over four months from September of ’98 through January of ’99, blew the lid off the dark world of CRASH. By the time he was finished, four more officers would be arrested, and 70 cops would be put under investigation. Among those who went down were Brian Hewitt, Nino Durden, and Edward Ortiz, who was later accused of quarterbacking the whole operation.
Prisons across the state had to throw open their doors, freeing Ovando, Rojas, and many others. Almost 100 cases have been overturned; up to 4,000 may wind up back in court.
In spring of this year, police chief Bernard Parks formally disbanded all CRASH units. This August, a federal judge ruled that the LAPD could be sued under RICO statutes, essentially declaring that the LAPD is a criminal enterprise.
The ruling increased the city liability to staggering proportions. Already, Mayor Richard Riordan earmarked the city’s $300 million tobacco settlement to pay off gang members whose civil rights were trampled. It might not be enough.
On February 25, at his sentencing hearing, Perez tried to explain his actions to an outraged public. “The lines between right and wrong became fuzzy and indistinct,” he said in an unwavering voice. “I stepped over that line landing with both feet sometimes on innocent people. It didn’t occur to me that I was destroying lives.” Ray Perez remains in protective custody in a Los Angeles County jail, from where he recently informed his lawyer that he has found God.
David Mack got 14 years in a federal prison for the bank robbery but never told the authorities where he had stashed the major part of the money. Mack has been transferred to a federal prison in the Midwest, where he has repudiated his police past and claimed heavyweight gang connections.
Rojas, the ex-gang member who was framed for drugs, says he crossed paths with Mack as he was being transferred from one prison to another. As Rojas sat across the hall from Mack, he passed the former cop a note, asking, “How does it feel?”
He never got an answer.
—Additional reporting by Laurina Gibbs and Charles Rappleye
The Dirtiest Cop Alive
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