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California city officials defend police in 2018 interrogation of man characterized as ‘psychological torture’


In a forceful defense of its police officers, Fontana city officials say detectives did nothing illegal in the 2018 interrogation of a man who was “psychologically tortured” into falsely confessing to killing his father.

An unsigned statement on the city’s website posted Wednesday, May 29, said, “the City of Fontana vigorously denies that (any officer) violated any state or federal law during the investigation.”

The city recently paid nearly $900,000 to settle a federal lawsuit by Thomas Perez Jr., who alleged investigators grilled him for 17 hours in August 2018 — even suggesting his pet Labrador Retriever would be euthanized — to get him to confess to killing his father. Police later learned Thomas Perez Sr. was not dead or even missing, but was at Los Angeles International Airport awaiting a flight.

The story, first reported last week by the Southern California News Group, ignited a firestorm of news stories throughout the country and put the Fontana Police Department under a global microscope for its interrogation techniques.

“A reasonable juror could conclude that the detectives inflicted unconstitutional psychological torture on Perez,” said U.S. District Court Judge Dolly M. Gee in a 2023 summary judgment allowing the lawsuit to proceed. “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.”

According to court documents, detectives told Perez that they had found his father’s body and it wore a toe tag at the morgue. They said they had evidence he was the killer and initially withheld his medication for anxiety, depression, high blood pressure and asthma.

Perez eventually broke down, confessed to stabbing his father with a pair of scissors and tried to hang himself after being left alone in the interrogation room.

The backlash from the investigation spotlighted the use of deception by police, which has been a common practice during interrogations, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that lying was allowed.

“The Fontana case is an extreme one, but it fundamentally begins with a mistaken belief about the use of deception in the interview room,” said El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson, a leading reformer in police interrogation. “While it is legally acceptable for police to lie to suspects they are questioning, they can end up with very bad results and it’s simply not the most effective way to interview people.”

Fontana officials, in their statement, stressed that detectives had ample reason to suspect violence against the then-71-year-old father, whom Perez had reported missing. Blood evidence had been found in the house, which was in a state of disarray, with broken furniture. Detectives saw it as a sign of struggle.

A cadaver dog had alerted to the odor of human remains inside the house. A shower curtain was gone and Perez had disposed of his father’s clothing, said the statement. Perez’s attorney, Jerry Steering, said he had donated the clothes to Goodwill Industries.

The statement said the city would never have agreed to a settlement if Perez had demanded an admission of wrongdoing.

“The settlement in this case was a business decision which was recommended by a federal court mediator to save the city further time, effort, and expense,” the statement said.

City officials also said that in the years since Perez’s interrogation, Fontana police leaders “have developed many service enhancements to deal with mentally challenged individuals.”

However, the statement doesn’t identify those enhancements and police did not immediately respond to a request for more information.

The city also noted that Perez had voluntarily submitted to questioning and was not isolated for 17 hours in the interview room, but was taken out for coffee and driven around. Court records, however, show the grilling did not stop once they left the room.

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