‘Psychologically tortured’: California city pays man nearly $1m after 17-hour police interrogation

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Officers threatened to kill the dog of Thomas Perez Jr as they pressured him to falsely confess to killing his father, who was alive

California city has agreed to pay $900,000 to a man who was subjected to a 17-hour police interrogation in which officers pressured him to falsely confess to murdering his father, who was alive.

During the 2018 interrogation of Thomas Perez Jr by police in Fontana, a city east of Los Angeles, officers suggested they would have Perez’s dog euthanized as a result of his actions, according to a complaint and footage of the encounter. A judge said the questioning appeared to be “unconstitutional psychological torture”, and the city agreed to settle Perez’s lawsuit for $898,000, his lawyer announced this week.

The extraordinary case of a coerced false confession has sparked widespread outrage, with footage showing Perez in extreme emotional and physical distress, including as officers brought his dog in and said the animal would need to be put down due to “depression” from witnessing a murder that had not actually occurred.

The incident began on the evening of 7 August 2018 when Perez Jr’s father, Thomas Perez Sr, whom he lived with, left the house with their dog to get the mail, according to a summary of the case written by Dolly Gee, a federal judge. The dog returned a few minutes later, but Perez Sr did not; the next day, his son called the police and reported him missing.

Officer Joanna Piña, who took the call, reported Perez Jr’s demeanor as “suspicious”, claiming he seemed “distracted and unconcerned with his father’s disappearance”. She and her supervisor, Cpl Sheila Foley, went to Perez’s house, and then brought him back to the police station for questioning. Police then searched his house, where they claimed they found “visible bloodstains” and that a police dog smelled the presence of a corpse. Jerry Steering, Perez Jr’s lawyer, said there had been no blood in the home, and police appeared to have been claiming miscellaneous stains were blood.

Perez Jr sat for hours of initial questioning while officers obtained additional search warrants allowing them to access devices they had seized. At one point, two officers took Perez out of the station and drove him around to different locations “purportedly to investigate his father’s disappearance”, the judge wrote. The officers berated him, insisting he killed his father and did not remember it, and telling him he did not need his medication as Perez begged for medical attention.

“Where can you take us to show where Daddy is?” one said.

“We’re not going to go to the hospital, because that’s not going to help you,” another added.

The officers eventually returned to the station, where Perez Jr faced further questioning, the judge said.

Video of the interrogation revealed hours of two officers accusing him of murder while Perez was distraught and crying, said the judge, who noted Perez was “sleep deprived, mentally ill, and, significantly, undergoing symptoms of withdrawal from his psychiatric medications”. The officers at one point brought in his dog, with one of them saying: “It did happen … you killed [your father], and he’s dead … You know you killed him … You’re not being honest with yourself … 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? Look at your dog. She knows, because she was walking through all the blood.”

During the interrogation, Perez Jr started pulling out his hair, hitting himself and tearing off his shirt, nearly falling to the floor, at which point the officers laughed at him and told him he was stressing his dog, the judge summarized. The footage showed him at one point lying on the floor holding on to his dog. Officers also said he would be “charged” $1m in restitution if he did not lead them to his father’s body.

Eventually, detectives falsely told Perez his father’s body had been located, that he was in the morgue with stab marks, Perez’s complaint says. Perez then falsely confessed and was left alone in the room, where video captured him trying to hang himself.

“[Perez] was berated, worn down, and pressured into a false confession after 17 hours of questioning. [The officers] did this with full awareness of his compromised mental and physical state and need for his medications,” the judge wrote. “[The officers’] conduct impacted Perez so greatly that he falsely confessed to murdering his father and attempted to commit suicide in the station.”

Perez was then transported to a hospital on an involuntary psychiatric hold and, for the first time, read his Miranda rights indicating he had a right to remain silent, the judge said. That night, one of the detectives received a call from Perez Sr’s daughter, who confirmed that her father had been located and was alive.

Steering, Perez Jr’s lawyer, said Perez Sr had left their home to visit a friend, which is why he had not returned, and that his daughter informed the police that he was at the airport on his way to visit her in northern California. Steering said police did not, however, inform Perez Jr that his father was alive and instead kept him isolated in a psychiatric hold for three days while he believed both his dog and father had been killed.

Steering said detectives took the dog to a pound, but that Perez Jr was eventually able to track him down due to the dog’s chip and rescue him.

Fontana police spokespersons and lawyers for the city did not respond to inquiries on Friday and have not said whether any officers faced disciplinary action. Lawyers for officers David Janusz and Jeremey Hale, who conducted parts of the the interrogation, did not respond to inquiries. A third officer involved in the interrogation, Kyle Guthrie, who was not a named as a defendant, could not be reached.

“Between 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,” Steering said in a statement.

In an interview, the lawyer said watching the footage laid bare how officers can force people to make false confessions: “This case shows that if the police are skilled enough, and they grill you hard enough, they can get anybody to confess to anything.”

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