California man wins $1m after 17-hour police interrogation falsely accusing him of killing father, who was alive

A California man has won a lawsuit against a city police department whose officers interrogated him for 17 hours, threatened to kill his dog, and pressured him to confess to murdering his own father, who was still alive.

The city of Fontana, some 50 miles east of Los Angeles, was ordered to pay Thomas Perez Jr $898,000 in damages, following the incident in 2018. A judge said that questioning from officers had appeared to be a form of “psychological torture”.

Surveillance footage of the interrogation, taken from the Fontana Police Department and shared with The Independent, showed Mr Perez in extreme emotional distress. At points, he is seen screaming out loud and attempting to rip his own hair out and pull off his shirt.

Officers also brought his pet Labrador Retriever into the room and said the dog, named Margosha, would need to be put down due to “depression” from witnessing a murder that had not actually occurred. They told him to “say goodbye” to the animal.

According to court documents obtained by The Independent, Mr Perez Jr had called police on August 7, 2018, after his father, 71-year-old Thomas Perez Sr, went out for a walk with the family dog at around 10pm. The dog had returned without Mr Perez’s father.

california man wins $1m after 17-hour police interrogation falsely accusing him of killing father, who was alive

In police video of the 17-hour interrogation, Mr Perez could be seen screaming out and attempting to rip his own hair out (Fontana Police Department, via Jerry Steering)

Detectives’ suspicions had been aroused because Mr Perez had seemed “distracted and unconcerned” with his father’s disappearance, the documents said.

Detectives told Mr Perez that his father was dead, that they had recovered his body and had evidence that he had killed him. They pressured him to confess to the crime.

Mr Perez insisted he didn’t remember killing anyone, but detectives allegedly told him that the human mind often tries to suppress troubling memories, the records showed.

At one point during the interrogation, the investigators even threatened to have Margosha euthanized as a stray, and brought the dog into the room so he could say goodbye. Mr Perez can be seen getting down on the floor of the interrogation room to lie next to his dog.

california man wins $1m after 17-hour police interrogation falsely accusing him of killing father, who was alive

At one point Mr Perez is seeing getting down on the floor of the interrogation room to lie next to his dog, Margosha (Fontana Police Department, via Jerry Steering)

“OK? Your dog’s now gone, forget about it,” said an investigator in the footage, after taking the animal out of the room again.

According to the legal complaint, Mr Perez was also denied access to his prescription medication that he was taking for conditions including depression, stress, asthma and high blood pressure.

While interrogations of Mr Perez were going on, officers visited his home, where they found bloodstains and used a K-9 dog unit, which allegedly alerted them to “the presence of deceased human remains in Perez’s father’s upstairs bedroom,” according to the documents.

california man wins $1m after 17-hour police interrogation falsely accusing him of killing father, who was alive

The city of Fontana was ordered to pay Thomas Perez Jr $898,000 in damages, following the incident in 2018 (Fontana Police Department, via Jerry Steering)

Lawyers for Mr Perez told The Independent that the photos of the alleged bloodstains were “fabricated”.

According to Mr Perez’s lawyer, Jerry Steering, his client was “severely traumatized” by the incident to the point where shortly after, he attempted to take his own life in the interrogation room.

The whereabouts of Thomas Perez Sr was later confirmed by Mr Perez’s sister, who called the police station after her brother had been in police custody for 17 hours.

Their father, she said, had gone to the house of a female friend in El Monte on the day of his “disappearance” and had then traveled to Los Angeles International Airport to catch a plane to visit her in Northern California.

In an Order on Summary Judgment in the case, passed on 15 June 2023, United States District Judge Dolly Gee found that “a reasonable juror could conclude that the Detectives inflicted unconstitutional psychological torture on Perez.”

“There is no legitimate government interest that would justify treating Perez in this manner while he was in medical distress, since the FPD already had two warrants to search his person and property, and he was already essentially in custody and unable to flee or tamper with any evidence,” she wrote.

The Independent has contacted the City of Fontana for comment about the incident and subsequent settlement with Mr Perez.

Publishing from 12 countries and in six languages, The Independent is a truly international news organisation. The first of the quality news brands to embrace a fully digital future in 2016, The Independent is the UK's largest quality digital news brand, and a top ten news brand by reach in the US.

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