The snitch who helped federal authorities decapitate Mexican Mafia operations within the Orange County Jail, and who is at the heart of allegations that the district attorney's office misused informants, was rewarded Friday for his cooperation with a break on potential prison time.
Under California's three-strikes law, Fernando Perez — a career criminal who went by the name "Wicked" as a member of the 18th Street gang and later as the mysterious "Inmate F" in court papers — was facing 40 years to life on a conviction of being a felon with a firearm.
After state and federal prosecutors said they would not object to leniency, Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett on Friday gave Perez 21 years. Counting more than 13 years of time served, Perez has a little more than seven years left on his sentence and could be out sooner with good behavior.
At a sentencing hearing last week, FBI agent Anthony Garcia told the judge that Perez, 34, had provided valuable information about associates in the Mexican Mafia. It included which inmates were on the gang's "hard candy" list — those marked to be killed — and which were on its "green light" list for beatings.
The agent said that Perez had supplied about a dozen "kites," or surreptitious notes passed among inmates, providing a rare glimpse into the gang's inner workings.
"It's good to get one, but to get them on a regular basis is fantastic," Garcia said.
Had members become aware of Perez's cooperation with authorities, Garcia said, they would have killed him at the first opportunity. "I have no doubt about that," Garcia said. "The gang culture here is very clear on that. If you rat, you're dead."
Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph McNally described Perez as a low-level Mexican Mafia member who had helped convict more than 25 people targeted by an FBI-led task force called Black Flag.
Around 2010, McNally said, a war was raging between factions of the gang, and "ground zero … was the Orange County Jail."
Deputy District Atty. James Laird called the Mexican Mafia prosecutions "a huge win for law enforcement."
"The jail was running amok in 2010," he told the judge. "Things are back in order there."
Perez, accompanied to court by U.S. marshals, pleaded for leniency in a cracking voice.
"I'm no longer the person that I was when I was involved in the gang life," he told Prickett. "I have changed beyond words."
He also said he did not regret his decision to cooperate with authorities, even though it made him a marked man. "It has been nearly nine years since I held my children," he told the judge. "Please let me go home."
Prickett denied media requests to photograph Perez — a diminutive man with a shaved head and glasses — on the basis that it might endanger his life.
In the federal witness protection program as he serves his time, Perez is being held at a location secret even to his lawyer.
"I don't know where he is, I don't know where he's been, I have no way of contacting him other than relying on him to call me," Richard Curran said. When Perez is released, Curran said, he will be given a new name and go into hiding.
Perez's work as an informant was the catalyst for a controversy dogging the Orange County district attorney's office.
In 2011, well into Perez's career as a snitch, Orange County jailers put him in a cell next to Scott Dekraai — the former tugboat crewman who pleaded guilty to murdering eight people at a Seal Beach beauty salon.
Prosecutors hoped to use what the killer told Perez, during hours of secretly recorded conversations, to put Dekraai on death row.
The district attorney's office said the proximity between snitch and killer was mere coincidence. Dekraai's lawyer, Scott Sanders, insisted Perez had been planted — part of a widespread pattern of violating the rights of defendants who already had lawyers.
The controversy has caused numerous homicide cases to unravel. Last year, a judge ruled that prosecutors had improperly withheld informant-related evidence and threw the district attorney's office off the Dekraai case.
As a result of the ongoing controversy, the American Civil Liberties Union on Friday asked the Orange County district attorney's office and Sheriff's Department to detail their policies regarding the use of informants.
"We know that Orange County officials have failed to play by the rules," Brendan Hamme, an ACLU staff attorney, said in a statement. "What we don't know is how many innocent people were wrongly convicted because prosecutors and law enforcement adopted a win-at-any-cost strategy."
Sanders was in the courtroom to watch Perez's sentencing hearing. Afterward, he said he thought Orange County prosecutors had done the inmate a favor by minimizing his leadership role in the Mexican Mafia.
"He was one of the people who sat down at the table to decide who was gonna get hit," Sanders said, adding that Perez had benefited from prosecutors' silence at the sentencing. "They just gave him the world."