By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In March 2009, immigration agents in Miami transmitted an urgent message to the FBI field office at 26 Federal Plaza: Dominican narcotics traffickers had put out a contract on the head of Michael Garcia, the former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Alarm bells sounded. A plot to assassinate a man who had been one of the most powerful and prominent law-enforcement officials in the country was a big deal.
The FBI quickly dispatched agents, U.S. Marshals, and police to provide around-the-clock guards for Garcia, who had served as U.S. Attorney here from 2005 to 2008 before going into private practice. Federal agents ordered a range of wiretaps, dumped phone records, and sent agents and undercovers to the Dominican Republic.
The threat appeared plausible. After all, Garcia had sent his share of big-time narcotics dealers to prison. He had presided over terrorist indictments and page-one political-corruption cases (see Spitzer, Eliot).
Three months and $2.5 million in investigative costs later, however, the threat on the former federal prosecutor turned out to be a hoax. Even worse, the mastermind of the scam turned out to be a longtime paid confidential informant for both the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) and Florida state authorities. His name was Angel Jose Perez, a 30-year-old Dominican native living in Miami.
Worse than that, Perez was not only a convicted sex offender before he was granted confidential-informant status, but he also continued to commit a range of violent and nonviolent crimes over an eight-year period while getting paid by the authorities in exchange for dubious information, records show. Meanwhile, even though he had no visible means of financial support, he gambled nearly $500,000 in a nine-month binge from 2008 to 2009, and the authorities did nothing about it.
Perez was convicted of felonies in 2005 and 2007 in state court, but he was allowed to remain out of prison for years, until his hoax assassination plot was dismantled. And, records indicate, he actually fooled the feds twice—once involving the Garcia plot and a second time involving a 2007 money-laundering investigation in which the feds actually smuggled $500,000 in cash from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic but didn't get a single arrest out of it.
Somehow, the full breadth of this story never came out, neither here nor in Miami, until the Voice recently obtained a sentencing memo in the Garcia case that laid out the bones of Perez's involvement with the government.
One central question is: Why did the government allow Perez to remain an informant? Here are two more: Was Perez running a scam on the feds over a period of years, and were the feds so desperate to keep an informant that they put up with his illegal behavior and lack of credibility?
But Perez appears to be so toxic that prosecutors, defense lawyers, investigators, and federal agents alike either didn't respond to Voice inquiries or refused to comment. (Garcia also did not respond to inquiries.) Sealing more than a dozen official documents in the Garcia case file, prosecutors also went to some lengths to hide a full account of Perez's involvement with the feds.
The feds would not answer any questions, such as: How much was Perez paid? Why did they keep using him? Did they know he was committing crimes? Did he ever provide any useful information?
"We don't discuss our investigative techniques," says Nestor Yglesias, a spokesman for the ICE Miami field office. (Yglesias did not deny any of the facts in the Voice inquiry.)
But in the sentencing memo, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Everdell cast doubt on Perez's value as an informant by writing, "Perez's work as a confidential informant had produced mixed results in various investigations."
Irving Cohen, Perez's lawyer, declined to comment except to say, "We will be contesting the government's claim about his gambling and the costs they claim for relocating his family members."
Perez himself wasn't available for an interview, but, defending himself and saying he never lied to the government, he made two statements in court last year.
A Miami defense attorney familiar with Perez's activities over the years says: "We've got this system that rewards people for cooperating and creates a huge incentive for individuals like Perez to fabricate and implicate people. Moreover, he continues to commit crimes knowing that he has a safety valve, and the government seems to turn a blind eye to what he's doing."
Says Jose Herrera, a Miami defense attorney familiar with Perez's history: "Good investigators got manipulated by this man, but someone higher up was making the decisions. Once you deactivate an informant, you don't reactivate him. But they did it for him a couple of times, even though it was clear that he wasn't providing reliable information, and he was running a parallel fraud scheme."
If the government enabled a criminal, it could be argued that law-enforcement officials have to do that at times to go after even bigger criminals. But on the other hand, the use of people with shady backgrounds has been a matter of controversy in recent years, especially in terrorism investigations.
Roberto Acosta infiltrated the notorious MS-13 gang and developed information that led to the arrests of 30 members. But in July, federal prosecutors in San Francisco tried him for lying about his arrest history and the fact that he'd murdered eight people in his native Honduras. Acosta also continued to commit felonies as an informant, telling gang members to rob drug dealers. Another San Francisco–based MS-13 gang-leader-turned-informant, Jaime Martinez, directed robberies and murders and stole cars while working with the feds.
Federal rules allow informants to engage in certain nonviolent criminal acts—such as drug dealing—to maintain their covers as long as they get prior authorization from agents. But it's doubtful the people who wrote that rule had Perez's scale of wrongdoing in mind.
Angel Jose Perez arrived to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic around 1999 at the age of 20. In 2000, he was arrested four different times. He was charged with felony sexual battery, felony false imprisonment, obstruction of justice, six probation violations, and giving a false name. He also pleaded guilty to falsely impersonating a U.S. citizen and lying on a passport application.
He was convicted on the sexual battery and false imprisonment charges. He was ordered to register as a sex offender, which he failed to do.
Perez continued committing crimes in 2002. He was charged with six offenses, including probation violations and fleeing police.
In 2003, ICE, the federal immigration agency, signed Perez as a confidential informant, records show. It's unclear whether he was recruited or approached authorities, as well as what information he provided.
In 2005, Perez was arrested on fraud of more than $50,000, 10 counts of fraud worth up to $100,000 per count, and one count of auto theft. Each of the offenses took place on different dates spread throughout the year.
In 2006, he was charged with felony weapons possession and carrying a concealed weapon. Also that year, he was arrested by state authorities for carjacking, grand larceny, firearms possession, and failure to register as a sex offender.
ICE "deactivated" Perez in 2006 as an informant not because of his arrests, but "based on his failure to provide any useful information."
While he was in jail on the state charges, Perez contacted ICE agents and claimed that someone named Miguel Pou had called him wanting to launder some money. Pou, Perez claimed, was the head of a major Dominican drug organization.
Perez claimed Pou wanted help moving $10 million from Spain to the Dominican Republic. ICE recorded some calls and then reactivated Perez as an informant.
"The Pou investigation led to a series of failed meetings in Spain with people Perez identified as representatives of the Pou organization," the sentencing memo states.
Then, in October 2007, Perez set up a seemingly successful undercover money-laundering operation. He claimed Pou asked him to smuggle $500,000 to someone in Miami and someone else in the Dominican Republic and convinced ICE agents to get involved in the illegal operation.
On October 26, 2007, ICE agents got $500,000 cash in Puerto Rico from someone Perez claimed was a member of the Pou drug organization, and agents, including Detective Oscar Fernandez, working undercover as "Don Guillermo," delivered half the cash to someone in Miami and the other half to an Edwin Pou in the Dominican Republic.
The guy in the Dominican Republic, "Edwin Pou," turned out to be an Edwin Tejada. As the feds didn't know then but would learn, Tejada was a friend of Perez's own family and, at least according to his lawyers, was never involved in any illegal activity.
After that money was delivered, Perez's contacts mysteriously broke off. And here's the key part: "ICE was unable to identify or arrest any of the purported members of his organization," the sentencing memo reads.
So, in essence, federal agents illegally smuggled $500,000 across three national borders on Perez's behalf and didn't get a single arrest out of it, nor did they develop any useful information. Moreover, the feds postponed Perez's sentencing on state charges.
On a smaller scale, the operation recalls the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms "Fast and Furious" investigation, in which federal agents moved more than 2,000 firearms into Mexico for gunrunners, leading to the murder of a border agent.
Federal law-enforcement authorities are prohibited from authorizing an informant to commit crimes unless it is approved by a superior and a federal prosecutor. One wonders whether that was done here and whether anyone raised ethical questions about the operation.
Also in 2007, Perez was arrested for carjacking with a firearm, robbery, theft, grand theft, and attempting to intimidate a witness. He eventually pleaded guilty to carjacking, grand theft, forged use of a personal identification card, and fraud worth more than $50,000. He was also arrested for driving with a suspended license and driving with a counterfeit license. But his sentencing was put off, probably because of his work as an informant.
At any rate, in October 2008, a year after the botched money-laundering operation, ICE once again deactivated Perez as an informant, but he might have continued to work as an informant for state authorities. He was arrested that year for failing to register as a sex offender and habitually driving with a suspended license.
The bizarre thing is that, despite his convictions and all the arrests, Perez served zero time in prison. "Perez had been cooperating for years, essentially working off cases in the state court in Florida," prosecutors wrote.
Perez also used his time outside of prison to gamble heavily, even though he had no legitimate means of income. Seminole Gaming records show that he gambled in the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida, almost every day between June 22, 2008, and May 15, 2009. He bought $464,760 worth of chips during this binge, losing $151,510 total in just nine months. And he was such a fixture in the casino that he got comped for rooms and meals to the tune of $8,000.
Where did he get all that money? Did it come from illegal sources? Did the feds know where it came from? Did the feds know he was gambling? Did he use federal money to gamble? How could the authorities let him get away with that, since he was out of prison on their dime? Shouldn't the government have kept better tabs on him?
Perez was required to disclose his betting to the feds, but they claim he did not. Anyway, his gambling put him in debt, and that was the true motive for what happened next, the feds claim.
On March 25, 2009, Perez contacted his handlers at ICE and brought them a disturbing tip. At the time, the Garcia indictment says, Perez was working as a confidential informant for ICE "to reduce criminal exposure in a state case."
Perez claimed he had word of a plot to murder Michael Garcia, the former U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, and he offered to help catch the conspirators. Two men wanted Garcia "eliminated" and "put into the ground." The source of the assassination plot was "Edwin Pou," who supposedly worked for Ernesto Castillo, the leader of the largest drug-trafficking organization in the Dominican Republic. Castillo had been indicted and convicted in New York by Garcia's office in 2005.
The U.S. Marshals Service placed Garcia and his family under 24-hour protection. His security detail also included FBI agents and police. "Garcia was forced to experience a unique psychological and emotional stress associated with believing that a team of assassins, hired by a powerful overseas criminal organization, was hunting him at the location where he lived with his family," prosecutors wrote.
Despite Perez's record as an informant, the feds bit. FBI agents gave him a cell phone to communicate with the supposed hit men. Agents issued numerous orders for pen registers, cell sites, and wiretaps. Perez introduced the two supposed plotters, who were in the Dominican Republic, to an undercover FBI agent. That meeting was videotaped.
Then, in April 2009, ICE agents who were tasked with handling Perez discovered that he was carrying a secret second cell phone also to repeatedly contact the two hit men, Edwin Tejada and Marco Antonio Abad de la Cruz. (Tejada was "Edwin Pou" in the 2007 money-laundering operation.)
Suspicious that Perez had breached his agreement, the feds confronted him. Although he admitted that he did speak with them on the second cell phone, he denied they talked about the case and refused to admit to making unauthorized calls.
Meanwhile, Perez demanded money for his assistance and insisted that the government move 27 of his relatives from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. Getting them visas and temporary homes, ICE started that process.
The FBI analyzed the calls to and from the unauthorized cell phone and learned that it was activated on March 29, the same day that Perez approached ICE with his claims about the Garcia hit. They found numerous calls between March 29 and April 21. Incredibly, Perez kept using the second cell phone even after agents found out about it.
De la Cruz and Tejada were arrested in the Dominican Republic on May 15 and 16. Until that point, the feds believed a plot was in motion and Perez was involved in it. And then de la Cruz and Tejada sat down with investigators in Santo Domingo.
Both men separately told investigators that the whole thing was a hoax. Perez had promised to pay de la Cruz, who, like Tejada, was unemployed and poor, $5,000 to go along with the scheme. Perez's goal was to make money from the U.S. government and get the feds to pay to move Perez's relatives to the United States.
Perez would call each man in advance of making a recorded call and tell them exactly what to say to appear convincing as assassins after Garcia.
When the feds sent an undercover with Perez to meet with the assassins in the Dominican Republic, Perez not only revealed the agent's status, but he also secretly briefed the "hit men" before the meeting on what to say. "Tell him you want to kill Garcia," he must have said.
It turned out that Perez and Tejada were family friends. Tejada told investigators that Perez touted his informant status but needed to make up a story to avoid returning to jail and to bring his family to the States.
Perez, de la Cruz, and Tejada were charged with conspiracy, impeding official function, and wire fraud. They faced up to 30 years in federal prison. On June 18, 2009, the trio was arraigned, and all three pleaded not guilty. Perez claimed that he made $10,000 a year in Miami, had no savings or checking accounts, and lived with his mother.
Prosecutors estimated that Perez's phony tip cost $2.5 million in investigation expenses, including the work of several ICE agents handling Perez, "numerous" FBI agents, the Dominican police, the U.S. Marshals protecting Garcia, and the prosecutors. Relocating Perez's relatives would have cost $1.2 million a year.
"As a sophisticated individual and a long-time informant, Perez was doubtless aware that the U.S. Government has offered and awarded millions of dollars in rewards," prosecutors wrote. "It was precisely Perez's status as a longtime informant, given access to ICE's facilities, lines of communication with the agents, and knowledge about the agents' methods and means, that allowed Perez to perpetrate the fraud."
At the time, Perez still had open cases in Florida, and he had been accused of violating his confidentiality agreement there. New York and Florida officials went back and forth over which case should go first.
That set the stage for a hearing on November 24, 2009, in which Perez gave a soliloquy to the judge: "I live in Florida, and I am working for the government," he began. "My family is in danger in Florida; somebody tried to kill my family in Florida. . . . Why am I here? I need time to speak to my office [ICE handler] to explain exactly what happened. I want to explain to the FBI, call to National Security. I never lied to the government. Never. Nobody here wants to talk to nobody over there."
"I need to speak to the prosecutor or the FBI to give some information—the true information nobody knows for this case," Perez said.
That cryptic, intriguing statement was quickly ignored by the lawyers in the room, along with the judge, who cautioned Perez about incriminating himself.
Little further of note happened in the case until September 9, 2010, when Perez, in another monologue to the judge, stated: "I was approximately nine years working for the government. In all the cases, I never lied to the government, and I don't understand why I won't get the opportunity to explain."
And then, Perez said this: "I understand there are a lot of corrupt officers in Miami and Santo Domingo, and it's no good for them if I open my mouth."
This statement, as intriguing as it is, was once again ignored in court. We asked Perez's New York and Florida lawyers what he meant, but they declined to comment.
For attorney Sabrina Schroff, who represented de la Cruz, the case was a mess, and her client was treated terribly by the federal government and prosecutors.
"He's 58 years old, no prior arrests, poor, and he was totally ensnared," Schroff says. "These guys got totally screwed by Angel Perez and the government."
Schroff added that the worst thing the government did was promise him that he would only be charged with obstruction if he came to New York. Instead, she says, they also insisted the near-destitute man repay the costs of the investigation and then repeatedly delayed the progress of the case.
"The whole thing was so infuriating," Schroff says. As for using an informant while he was also committing crimes, she says "the government doesn't seem to care."
Adam Perlmutter, Tejada's attorney, also said the government promised Tejada that if he were willing to go to the United States, he wouldn't be prosecuted. "Of course, he was prosecuted as soon as he hit U.S. territory," Perlmutter says. "This was a terrible thing to do to [Tejada and de la Cruz] because these were law-abiding people who got sucked into it."
Perez, he says, told the two men, "Follow along, and do what I do, and you, too, can become an agent for the government, and that will give you the right to go to the U.S., to bring your family here, and be paid by the U.S. as an informant."
In October 2010, de la Cruz and Tejada argued that no crime had actually occurred. Meanwhile, Perez insisted that there was an actual plot. The federal judge in the case ordered the case severed—de la Cruz and Tejada in one, and Perez in the other.
"Our defense," Perlmutter said in court, "is to attack Perez, a government informant who was basically run amok on the government and lied to both the government and my client."
Eight days after that hearing, Tejada pleaded guilty, telling the judge he agreed with Perez and de la Cruz "to pretend to make-believe" they would kill a former federal prosecutor for a drug organization in the Dominican Republic. The following day, de la Cruz pleaded guilty.
On November 8, 2010, the day of trial, Perez pleaded guilty. He admitted his lie to the judge. "I thought they [the feds] would pay me for this information," he said.
De la Cruz was sentenced to time served plus 21 days; Tejada, to time served. In the end, after their long ordeal, the judge was merciful. Perez, meanwhile, is awaiting sentencing, with a hearing scheduled for next month.
But Perez, who seems to be kind of the Zelig of Miami criminal activity, also shows up in the prosecution of three Miami men for defrauding Bank of America customers by stealing money from their accounts. One of those men, Juan Diaz, claimed that it was Perez who conceived the scheme and secretly got money from it.
The government named Perez as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case but never charged him. Through his lawyer, Jose Herrera, Diaz claimed that in fact, Perez recruited him, trained him, and used him as "a conduit to accomplish the scheme."
"The government is aware that the current 'scheme' was conceived by Angel Jose Perez, an individual who, at that time, was working under the supervision of law enforcement," Herrera argued in a brief. "Diaz was snookered by this professional con man, Angel Jose Perez, whose ability to deceive seasoned law-enforcement officers speaks for itself."
Despite the fact that Perez was never charged, U.S. Secret Service records obtained by the Voice show that one of the hacked accounts was traced to a Comcast e-mail account in Perez's name. Perez was in a house when the feds served a search warrant in March 2009. After the raid, Perez told investigators he had knowledge of Diaz's illegal activity.
Perez lived with Diaz for six months during the period. Another defendant in addition to Diaz claimed Perez recruited her into the fraud. And the federal prosecutor herself, Aurora Fagan, wrote, "Arguably, Angel Perez can be considered a seventh defendant."
Moreover, withdrawals from the hacked account were made at the Seminole casino, the same place where Perez gambled all that money.
So, if you believe Diaz, Perez was involved in a multimillion-dollar fraud, and the government didn't lift a finger to stop him. "Perez is conspicuously absent from this case and only the government is able to explain why," Herrera wrote.
The government described Perez as a minor player.
When Diaz sought to depose ICE agent Mack Strong, one of Perez's government handlers, the feds objected, refusing to authorize Strong to testify about Perez's work as an informant or his criminal activity.
In a letter to Strong, Howard Marbury, a lawyer for ICE, wrote, "You are not authorized to discuss whether Perez was in fact a confidential informant for ICE or any information regarding misconduct by Mr. Perez that is not directly linked to defendant Diaz."
Incredibly, the feds argued the "public interest" in not disclosing information about Perez's work was more important than Diaz's need for a fair trial. It sounded like the government was trying to avoid embarrassing revelations in the press.
"The public interest in not disclosing information regarding whether Perez was an informant is exceedingly strong," prosecutors wrote.
Summing up Perez's career, prosecutor Everdell wrote: "Perez is a recidivist who has been repeatedly convicted of various serious crimes and has not been deterred from further engaging in the most outlandish type of criminal activity. In the past, he has engaged in nearly every category of criminal depravity.
"Perez is a convicted rapist. He has falsified immigration documents. He has orchestrated the theft of automobiles and defrauded automobile dealers. He has repeatedly defrauded individuals of funds from their bank accounts. He is a carjacker. There are numerous other arrests for which no disposition was reached." He was in the U.S. only 10 years when he did all of this.
Everdell adds, "In spite of his only reported sources of income being two questionable businesses, he purchased hundreds of thousands of dollars in casino chips in less than a year."
And what's the lesson of this case? "The moral to the story is, regrettably, it happens too often," Herrera says. "You're dealing with people you want to be manipulative, while at the same time, you want them to remain honest to your needs. That's an oxymoron. It's impossible. When you jump in bed with dogs, you get up with fleas."
What's Perez doing right now? Well, he's on the witness list in the upcoming trial of one Travis Stubbs, a convicted murderer who is—and this might sound familiar—accused of plotting to murder two Miami prosecutors.
In other words, a guy who made up a phony plot to kill a federal prosecutor is now considered a useful witness in a real plot to kill state prosecutors.
As another immigrant was known for saying, what a country.
It's a strange leap to say that it must be because a client is "toxic" that his defense attorneys wouldn't speak to the media. There are many more obvious reasons why conscientious, wise attorneys wouldn't speak to the media, and the author should be very aware of them.
It's not so simple. Attorneys are working hard to discredit the case against Stubbs. They might just do it.