California man victim of plot fit for T.V.

Paul Perry didn't know anyone in Fresno County Jail. So why was he getting mail from someone behind bars?

Inside the envelope was a piece of paper with two scribbled sentences that changed his life: "Your nothing but a piece of black s--- you stupid n------. Wait until I get out of here."

Perry's head started spinning: Who is this guy? How did he find out where I live? Is he coming after me?

Perry didn't know it at the time, but he had become the target of a plot better fit for a TV thriller. It was a scheme so bizarre that police and sheriff's investigators at first didn't believe Perry and brushed him aside.

Based on court records, police reports and dozens of interviews with investigators, attorneys and incarcerated gang members, The Fresno Bee pieced together his story. It went like this:

As Perry - a 41-year-old law-abiding citizen - went about his life, a guard at the Fresno County Jail spent his days plotting against him. The veteran correctional officer - a supervisor who had access to personal information for law enforcement eyes only - used his position to trick criminals into thinking Perry was their worst enemy.

His motive: to scare Perry out of suing him over a car accident. His method: a letter-writing campaign.

The 41-year-old guard, Alejandro Vital, spent nearly 10 months in 2005 and 2006 sending at least a dozen racially charged letters to violent gang members - and their wives and grandmothers - all in Perry's name.

First, he researched his targets. Then he wrote letters tailored to each criminal's background and made references to people they knew and incidents they were involved in.

The vulgar notes arrived on jail cell floors and in residential mailboxes. On each envelope was Perry's name and return address. Inside were unsigned letters Perry never wrote.

The letters were so full of insults that some inmates said they were ready to beat Perry if they could get their hands on him.

"We're going to take that stuff seriously," said Michael Johnwell, who received at least two of Vital's letters and said he is related to members of the notorious Muhammad family street gang.

Those who received the letters, Johnwell said, "could have killed that guy."

Jail officials said they've told inmates that Perry didn't write the letters.

But in a phone interview earlier this year from jail, Johnwell said that "a lot of people here still don't know that it was an officer. They still think it was Paul Perry. You're the only one who told us. It could have put that guy's life in jeopardy."

Other inmates interviewed said the same.

Some of the inmates said the letters insinuated that Perry was having an affair with a wife or significant other.

For example, one letter sent to Johnwell named his girlfriend: "don't worry i am taking care of deriece while you are locked up."

The inmates said they had no idea who Paul Perry was and were baffled by how much of their personal information he had.

"People are like, 'That's not cool. I'm going to get that Paul Perry,'" said Johnwell, who is awaiting a retrial on a murder charge.

Vital, the guard, apparently hoped the criminals would issue threats of their own in response to the letters.

His plan worked.

Perry lived in terror. And he worried about his loved ones - including his 70-year-old mother, his cousin, his fiancee and her two children - who were all caught in the fray.

Perry's and Vital's worlds collided in a car crash.

It was Feb. 25, 2005, and Perry was driving north on Highway 41 with his fiancee, Felicia Davis, on their way home from lunch.

Vital's stepson, Austin Villa, was speeding northbound on the same freeway heading to a funeral.

As Villa approached McKinley Avenue, he didn't realize the Ford Thunderbird in front of him had slowed.

At the last second, he swerved to the right to avoid the car, over-compensated and swung back into his lane.

The Kia Sedona minivan Villa was driving swiped the right side of the Thunderbird, sending both vehicles careening across the highway and slamming into the Cadillac Escalade carrying Perry and 36-year-old Davis.

All three cars spun into the center divider.

The Escalade slammed into the Thunderbird before coming to rest on its right side.

Perry was sent to the hospital with a broken right femur. After surgery and $35,000 in medical bills, he still walks with a limp. He had to take six months off from his job as a machine operator.

Villa, 19, was uninsured. He was driving Vital's car, which didn't have a policy that covered Villa. Perry's insurance covered only a fraction of the medical expenses.

Five months later, Perry sued Vital and offered to settle for $350,000. Vital turned down the deal.

He had other plans.

Vital, with salt-and-pepper hair, had spent 16 years working his way up the ranks as a Fresno County correctional officer. A fellow guard, Craig Sanders, said his former boss, "Al," had a reputation for being "evenhanded" and "likable."

Vital was a family man with no criminal history. His future looked steady.

But after he was sued in July 2005, he started worrying. A lot.

Vital's explanation a year later in court was blunt: "I just lost my mind."

A probation report says Vital "felt everyone was suing him, and the pressure and stress got to him" - even though he was facing just one suit from Perry.

"People at work knew he was being sued and everyone told him that he would lose his house, his cars, everything," the report said.

In response, Vital came up with the plan to turn the inmates he guarded into weapons. He later told investigators that he didn't want to lose "all that money."

Using information he gathered from news reports and jail records - such as gang affiliations, criminal histories, home addresses and visitor lists - Vital crafted his letters. On the envelopes, he put Perry's return address, which he got from the February 2005 accident report.

Vital wrote letters "every time the 'stress got' to him" and "he did not think of any of the consequences," the probation report said.

He later told investigators he targeted specific inmates: those who had caused the most trouble in jail.

Vital's first target was Ralph Prickett - a 6-foot-2, 300-pound former mental hospital patient with a tattoo of a skull and wings on his left arm.

In August 2005, Prickett wrote back.

Perry is the type of guy who likes to play dominoes with his friends after work and stays in close contact with his mother, who also lives in Fresno.

Before the car accident, he coached in the Fresno High School boys basketball program and volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club in east Fresno.

On Aug. 6, 2005, he was living with his fiancee at her northwest Fresno apartment. Davis has two sons: Frank, who was 17 at the time, and Ryan, who was 8.

That afternoon, Perry picked up Prickett's letter.

It included a chilling threat that never stopped echoing in Perry's head: "Wait until I get out."

After reading the note - and taking a deep breath - he and Davis put their heads together.

They noticed their address on the envelope didn't include an apartment number. It was their first clue that Vital was somehow behind the note.

Davis' mind raced back to the accident - and to the police report. She remembered: In the daze following the crash, she had forgotten to give her apartment number when an officer asked for her address. Now that same omission was on the envelope Prickett sent them.

Perry and Davis knew Vital was a jail guard, and they knew he had the accident report in his hands. They started to grow suspicious: Who else had the resources and the motive to get a locked-up criminal to send them a threat?

Perry looked up Prickett's inmate information online. It said he was getting out of jail the following month.

Then Perry called the Fresno Police Department. Officer Craig Howard picked up the letter.

But Howard forwarded the case to the Sheriff's Department four days later.

Melissa White, the Fresno Police Department's attorney, said her agency should have paid more attention to the letter instead of dumping it into the Sheriff's Department's hands.

Howard declined to comment.

The day after the case was sent to the Sheriff's Department, Perry went downtown and talked to John Copher, an Internal Affairs investigator in the Sheriff's Department who had been a jail sergeant only a month earlier.

Copher listened to Perry's story and gave him his business card. He said he'd look into it.

But he didn't.

In response to questions from The Fresno Bee, Sheriff Margaret Mims earlier this year ordered department officials to interview Copher and write a report on his handling of Perry's case.

The report - which Mims said was nothing more than Copher's explanation of the events - was not made public.

But in an interview, Mims summarized its findings.

The report said that even though Perry and Copher spoke over the phone at least four times in August 2005, Copher never initiated an official investigation and he failed to take basic steps that could have verified Perry's story.

According to the report:

Copher never talked with Prickett, though he did tell a jail sergeant to ask Prickett whether he wrote the letter, which Prickett denied.

Copher didn't look at the letter Prickett wrote, which White said was never checked out of the Fresno Police Department's evidence room until Perry asked for it more than eight months later.

Even though Perry told Copher he suspected Vital was involved, Copher never questioned Vital. An Internal Affairs policy says that investigators must interview Sheriff's Department employees "in cases wherein the seriousness of the allegations or the complexity of the case warrants a personal interview."

Mims said it was not a "shining moment" for the agency and that Copher should have started an official investigation. But Mims said she blames Copher's failures on a lack of training and said he won't be reprimanded.

Mims said she may decide in the future not to allow former jail sergeants - including Copher - to work in Internal Affairs if they are not trained investigators.

In a brief interview, Copher bristled at the suggestion he ignored Perry.

"I can't explain anything to you," he said. "I don't know what you're talking about. I hope that's not floating out there."

Perry didn't know what else to do. The only people who believed him were his family.

Perry's attorney, Jacob Weisberg, was skeptical. His friends found his story hard to believe. Everyone else blew him off.

Perry said he called The Fresno Bee and local TV stations. He told them a corrupt guard was working at the jail. He said his calls were never returned.

Perry's world suddenly became frighteningly small.

Two weeks after the first letter from Prickett arrived, Perry got another note from Prickett with a similar threat. He tore it up and threw it away.

Prickett was scheduled to get out of jail in a month, so Perry and his fiancee and her sons moved out of their apartment and rented a house in northwest Fresno. They installed an alarm system and bought a pit bull.

Perry woke up every morning wondering whether this was the day he or his loved ones would be gunned down by a violent criminal with a misguided grudge.

He peered over his shoulder. He told his fiancee's kids not to play outside.

But either Prickett couldn't find Perry at his new address or he never followed through on his threat. A month passed and nothing happened. Perry wondered whether they were in the clear.

Then, in October, a letter arrived at the home of Perry's 70-year-old mother, Orene Perry. It was a returned letter - one that never got into the hands of the inmate it was sent to. It was written by Vital, but had Orene's return address and Paul Perry's name on it.

Perry quickly figured out how Vital got his mother's address: His medical bills, which listed Orene's home as the billing address, were in Vital's hands by now. The lawsuit process required Perry and Vital to exchange such documents.

Vital was tracking them down - again.

No more letters came for five months. But then in mid-March 2006, another returned letter arrived in Orene's mailbox. Perry threw it away.

The next day, he got a call from Fresno High School, where he once was an assistant coach for the boys varsity basketball team. The school wanted to know whether Perry knew anything about an anonymous letter it received in the mail.

Vital was getting creative.

In all lower-case letters, the letter read: "my life is ruined thanks to coach paul perry. he sexually assaulted me a few years ago when i was a freshman there playing basketball. my family and i have since transferred to another city due to my dad's occupation. i am so afraid to reveal my name due to my shame. i just don't want this to happen to someone else."

Days later, Orene Perry started getting more returned letters. Her doctor asked her why her blood pressure was so high.

Paul Perry wondered how many letters were actually making their way into the hands of criminals.

He tracked down an acquaintance who worked at the county jail and told her about the letters. She told Perry she'd ask her boss to look into it.

Perry's story was told up the chain of command. By mid-April 2006, the Sheriff's Department's Internal Affairs investigators started tracking Vital.

In May, investigators intercepted a letter Vital sent inmate Willis Mucelroy, a 33-year-old gang member who had served six years in prison for drug possession and had "diamond crip" tattooed on his right arm.

Written in all caps, Vital's letter called Mucelroy racist names and blamed him for "RAT PACKING MY HOMIE LIKE THAT" - a reference to an altercation involving Mucelroy.

Investigators intercepted a handful of other letters. In May 2006, the Sheriff's Department launched a criminal investigation.

While detectives moved forward with their investigation, Vital continued sending letters. Because he had access to former inmates' personal information, he also sent letters to gang members on the streets.

In early June 2006, Perry's cousin, Paul Espinosa, was in a store parking lot when four young men came up to him. Espinosa recognized them from his neighborhood: They were part of the Muhammad gang.

The men apparently thought Espinosa was the Paul Perry who had written letters to their family members.

It was an understandable mistake: Espinosa, whose father's last name was Perry, is known around the neighborhood as Paul Perry.

Espinosa told them he didn't know what they were talking about.

"They had me surrounded. They kind of had me scared. My heart was pumping and everything," he said. "I had to talk my way out of it."

The men let him go, but not before telling him that they were planning to do a drive-by shooting that night on whoever sent the letters. They were going to start with the home listed on the return address - Orene Perry's house.

Two days after the drive-by threat, sheriff's detectives asked Vital whether he was responsible for sending the letters.

Vital denied everything. Then he pinned the blame on his stepson, Villa, who he said may have written the letters. Finally, he admitted he had done it.

Vital was put on paid administrative leave for more than a month. In August 2006, he was arrested, booked into jail and then released. The arrest never made the news.

Many law enforcement departments that have an employee facing the possibility of criminal charges often ask another agency to investigate the person. But despite the appearance of a conflict of interest, the Sheriff's Department decided to handle Vital's investigation on its own.

It recommended Vital be charged with two felonies. The District Attorney's Office charged him with eight.

Two months later, Vital pleaded no contest to one count of identity theft, one count of computer access and fraud and one count of intimidating a witness. In exchange, five other identity theft charges were dropped.

When he was sentenced in November, he told Judge Houry Sanderson: "I made a tremendous mistake here - the first mistake I made in my life."

In a letter to another judge, he said he was sorry and asked that he not be sent to jail.

Sanderson brushed aside Vital's pleas. She said Vital's sentencing was a "dark page" in the history of the Sheriff's Department. The friends and family who wrote letters vouching for Vital's character were "mistaken," Sanderson said.

"You're not a man of great integrity," she told Vital. "Instead of serving and protecting, you have harmed the public. There's not a single ounce of explanation to justify what you have done."

Sanderson ordered Vital to spend one year in the Fresno County Jail. He is scheduled to be released June 16 with credit for good behavior.

Perry plans to sue Vital - again - and the Sheriff's Department. A claim his attorney filed last year asks for $2 million each for Paul Perry, his fiancee and his mother. An attorney for Fresno County said the Sheriff's Department is not legally responsible for Vital's actions.

The car accident lawsuit is pending.