Early on the morning of Sunday, October 6, 2006, Officer Fernando Perez cruised the working-class apartments and modest neighborhoods near the intersection of North Central Expressway and Interstate 635 with a sense of purpose. there had been a rash of car break-ins in the area, and police were looking for a suspect or suspects on a motorcycle. It was quiet. Perez drove through the complexes, sometimes with his headlights off, sometimes lighting up shadowy corners with his spotlight.
He pulled into one parking lot behind a parked truck in which a Hispanic male was sitting in the driver’s seat. Perez spoke to him for a moment and then pulled out, drove south on Maham, through a red light at Midpark, turned north, and parked under a tree with his lights off. Seconds after he stopped, a motorcycle with two riders pulled onto Maham going north, about 100 yards ahead of him. It was 2:31 am, according to his dash-mounted camera.
Perez followed the motorcycle north on Maham and right onto Spring Valley Road. He reported over his radio that he was following—though not chasing—two possible “BMV suspects,” the acronym for burglary of a motor vehicle.
Nearby, Sergeant Rodney Haigh listened intently to the radio in his cruiser. If Perez said he was in a chase, Haigh was prepared to order the officer to stop. Because of the inherent dangers to officers and the public when police engage in high-speed pursuits, the Dallas Police Department had instituted a policy the previous summer that permitted such pursuits only when a violent felony was involved.
In this case, though, it didn’t even appear there was probable cause to initiate a stop.
Perez pushed his squad car up to nearly 60 mph on Spring Valley to catch the motorcycle. Its driver was apparently obeying traffic laws and wasn’t speeding. Perez was on them in no time and braked when he got within 20 yards. At 2:32 am, Perez hit his police lights, though he did not notify the dispatcher, as regulations require.
When the blue-and-reds started flashing, Taylor Hillis, 19, gunned his Harley Sportster and shot down Spring Valley. Behind him on the bike, Maksym Roshchyn, 21, held on tighter.
No one will ever know why Hillis ran. He did have two prior brushes with the law—a December 2003 arrest when he was a juvenile for possession of a prohibited weapon, a switchblade, and evading arrest. He was arrested again in May 2006 for evading arrest. Charges were dismissed in both cases, and he received deferred adjudication.
Hillis wasn’t a star student like his older brother, Justin. He planned one day to take over his father’s air-conditioning business in Farmers Branch. Since he’d graduated from high school, he’d worked alongside his father, five or six days a week, every week.
Roshchyn, known as “Max the Russian,” had three prior arrests—one for giving a false ID to police, one in September 2004 for possession of a controlled substance, and one in June 2005 for burglarizing a vehicle. The drug possession charges were dismissed by a grand jury. Roshchyn pleaded guilty to the other two charges.
Neither was a choirboy. Nor, though, were they violent felons.
When the motorcycle turned onto the southbound service road along Central, Perez was close enough to see the two riders clearly for the first time. Roshchyn, wearing a backpack, hugged Hillis tightly as Hillis put a foot down to keep from crashing the bike. They shot off, heading south onto Central.
At 2:33, the motorcycle and Perez took the High Five ramp to go east on LBJ Freeway at 114 mph. Seven seconds later, Hillis lost control of the motorcycle and hit the retaining wall on the outside lane of the ramp. The wall sent the bike skidding along the road, shooting sparks. But Hillis and Roshchyn went flying through the air, falling 100 feet to the road below, where they ended their lives—shoeless, bleeding, broken.
|The onboard camera in Officer Fernando Perez’s patrol car recorded the entire incident, from the start of the chase (top left) to Perez leaning over a wall on the High Five to see where the men landed (bottom left). He later lied about the chase. To see the video, go to dmagazine.com/perezvideo.
images courtesy of Dallas Police Department
Perez stopped along the ramp maybe 50 yards behind where the motorcycle slid to a stop. A white two-door pulled to a stop in front of Perez’s squad car, and the driver got out to see if he could help. Perez called in to the dispatcher that the motorcycle had crashed and he needed assistance. Then he got out and strolled up to the retaining wall where the two had gone over. He talked for a moment with the driver of the car.
After nearly a minute, Perez walked back to his unit. On the video shot from his dashboard camera, he looks nonchalant. Without looking down at his palms, Perez made a one-two hand wipe. Brushing off dirt. Saying, “That’s done.”
Except Perez wasn’t done for the night. After violating the department’s no-chase policy, he set to covering his tracks.
Perez told Lt. Jimmy Vaughan, lieutenant of police for the North Central division, that he wasn’t involved in a chase that night. Later, he told Vaughan that he hadn’t hit his overhead lights until he was approaching the LBJ ramp from Central Expressway and that he had never gotten close to the motorcycle.
After reviewing the footage from the dash camera, both Vaughan and Haigh said in sworn statements that Perez had violated the department’s chase policy. But Perez was not sanctioned, even after a December investigation found he had violated the policy and lied. Only after the city was notified in April 2007 that the Hillis family might sue was Perez suspended, for 10 days.
To a civilian, that seemingly lenient, long-delayed punishment might be hard to understand. But looking at Perez’s record over 18 years with the department creates a truly profound confusion. On nearly 30 occasions, he has received administrative or disciplinary punishment for, among other transgressions, use of excessive force, violating the deadly force policy, reckless driving, conduct discrediting the police department, compromising the safety of fellow officers, failing to aid other officers in distress, conducting an illegal search, and failing to report three traffic accidents in which he was involved.
The question that arises from all this: how did Perez ever get a badge in the first place?
And why does he still have it?
Fernando Perez was born July 21, 1966, and grew up in El Paso. He worked as a JCPenney clerk, a landscaper, and a security guard before coming to Dallas and joining the Dallas Police Department in 1990 as a recruit. He entered the three phases of post-academy field training the following year. His field training ratings rarely rose above the minimum acceptable level—often his ratings fell below that level. A series of memos from his training officers to their supervisors tell the story.
Kim Hammond was a senior corporal in May 1991 and served as Perez’s first-phase field training officer. He saw Perez do things like get lost during a foot chase and lose contact with dispatchers during a foot chase—both of which put him and other officers at risk. Once, Perez almost forgot to read two suspects their rights, despite being instructed to repeatedly. At the end of the first phase, Hammond reported: “In my opinion, Recruit Perez did not perform adequately at the end of Phase I. … I therefore recommend Recruit Perez be discontinued from the Field Training Program and terminated from the Department as a police officer.”
Robert Benitez, another of Perez’s training officers, wrote: “Recruit Perez will never be able to handle difficult situations or the reports required in these types of situations for police work.”
Yet Perez was passed through to the third phase.
His third-phase training officer, Roger Poupart, wrote that Perez was deficient in conflict control and fell short on calls requiring more than a basic level of performance. He found that Perez had poor investigative and problem-solving skills. He determined that Perez had a major deficiency in understanding and following department policies and procedures—and that he didn’t even seem to care. “It does not seem he really wants to be a police officer,” Poupart wrote in September 1991. “I do not believe Recruit Perez can improve enough in his final three weeks of training to perform the job of a Dallas Police Officer.”
On September 17, 1991, Perez was called to meet with his training officers, senior training coordinators, and senior supervisors. They told him he would be placed on administrative leave pending termination. Perez asked if he could resign, which he did. But two days later, Perez wrote a letter to then DPD Chief William Rathburn withdrawing his resignation and saying he had been coerced.
An almost cheeky memo from J.W. Page, sergeant of police for the Central division, strongly urged Rathburn not to allow Perez back as a recruit. “Due to Apprentice Police Officer Perez’s performance with this Department, I do not feel he is suited for police work and would benefit himself by pursuing another profession,” Page wrote. “I recommend that Apprentice Police Officer Perez not be considered for rehire as a Dallas Police Officer.”
But Perez was rehired at the urging of R.T. Diaz, then an assistant chief of police, following a 25-minute meeting. Over the next 17 years, Perez would live up to the expectations of his field training officers.
To be fair, since his hiring, Perez has received more than 70 internal and external commendations. His Internal Affairs file lists “job well done” and “personal appreciation” notations, and commendations for teamwork, making good arrests, investigative skill, and professionalism.
But the rest of his file paints a different picture. Almost right away, Perez had problems driving his squad car. In July 1992, he was reprimanded for hitting a parked car and failing to report the incident.
In December 1993, Perez was heavily sanctioned for what street cops consider among the worst offenses—failing to assist his fellow officers when they were attacked. Details of the incident weren’t available in the hundreds of pages of documents on Perez’s record that D Magazine obtained, but then Dallas Police Chief Ben Click suspended Perez for 10 days for conduct unbecoming an officer for “careless or irresponsible actions or negligence” that endangered his fellow officers.
In May 1994, Perez was AWOL from his court duties. The counseling that was ordered didn’t take. He was AWOL from his job in June 1995; more counseling. In October 1995 he was reprimanded for conducting an illegal search. The next month, his supervisor wrote a memo to the deputy chief of the Northwest Operations division: “Recently his co-workers … expressed a concern for their and officer Perez’s safety. They are concerned that Perez’s unsafe driving could one day result in serious injury to himself, his partner, or to a citizen.”
July 23, 1996: Perez’s second hit-and-run. August 6, 1996: Perez’s third AWOL charge.
In January 1997, Northwest Operations Division Sergeant of Police Simon Young wrote a memo to Deputy Chief Garcia asking that Perez to be transferred away from his assignment at the Northwest Neighborhood Assistance Center. “During Perez’s tenure with the Dallas Police Department,” Young wrote, “he has demonstrated that he has a discipline problem. He has been disciplined numerous times during his short career. There have been some violations of the same nature. Officer Perez’s most recent violation was the allegation that he took liberty to use corporal punishment on three students, they were hit with a belt. … [Perez] has had numerous opportunities to correct his behavior. However, he simply failed to do so.”
It gets worse.
In the early hours of September 21, 1997, Perez was working an off-duty security job at a club called Tha Mixx on Walnut Hill Lane with three other officers. Police officers frequently work such off-duty security jobs. As the club closed, an argument between two groups of club patrons spilled into the parking lot—name-calling but nothing that serious. The other off-duty officers approached the men, and one of the two groups ran from the scene. Oddly, witnesses said the three officers started high-fiving the first group of club patrons. Meanwhile, Perez—who was inside—was alerted by the manager that there was trouble in the parking lot, so he ran out of the club’s back entrance, where he saw one of the men who’d run.
Perez claimed the man, Daniel Rodriguez, took a swing at him, and Perez had to use a straight-arm takedown to immobilize Rodriguez. But Rodriguez said he was leaving when Perez jumped him. Perez questioned Rodriguez and then told him and his friends to “get the f--- out of here,” but not before slamming Rodriguez’s face onto the concrete and kicking him. Rodriguez and his friend headed straight to a convenience store, where they called the police.
Perez hung around the club while the staff did their closing duties. But when he heard on-duty officers were coming back to the manager’s office to discuss the altercation outside, he told the staff that if anyone asked about his car being in the parking lot, they should say he’d had car trouble. Then he snuck out the back and climbed through a ravine.
Witness accounts recorded in Public Integrity Unit documents labeled “Secret” are conflicting, but investigators found enough proof in the statements and in some damning text messages that showed collusion between Perez and another officer trying to cover his tracks. The Public Integrity Unit advised filing criminal charges of official oppression.
While Tha Mixx incident was working its way toward a conclusion, Perez didn’t exactly keep his nose clean. According to a Public Integrity Unit memo, a detective working vice in the Oak Lawn area said Perez nearly hit his car with his police unit on December 2, 1997. The detective followed Perez and saw him pick up a male in a park near Hedgerow Drive, then drive a short distance to a burned-out apartment complex on Kings Road. Perez backed into a secluded corner of the complex and parked. The detective got out of his car and walked around to where Perez’s squad car was parked, and he noticed the male passenger wasn’t visible—just Perez. As the detective approached, Perez must have seen him. Perez shined his spotlight on the detective, put his car in gear, and took off. As the squad car passed the detective, he saw the passenger’s head pop up.
A week later, the detective was near the same apartment complex with an immigration agent in an unmarked car. Perez came up on the two as if preparing to stop them, pulled alongside to look at the officers, and then took off.
Because no phone records at the time looked suspicious and because five days of surveillance at the empty apartment complex didn’t show Perez returning to the area, in January the Public Integrity Unit dropped the matter.
But investigators looking into the incident at Tha Mixx eventually did find Perez guilty—of improperly releasing a prisoner in the field, physical abuse, mistreatment, giving misleading statements, and other administrative violations. Acting Police Chief Robert Jackson fired Perez in October 1998.
The city manager upheld the firing when Perez filed an appeal. But in April 1999, an administrative judge reduced the termination to a 25-day suspension.
After Perez nearly lost his job, one might think he’d be on his best behavior—at least for a while. But two months after being reinstated, Perez once again found himself in trouble. He had been transferred to communications, where he worked dispatch. In June 1999, North Central Operations Sergeant of Police Kurt Bjornson wrote a memo to Captain Pam Walt, head of communications: “I believe Officer Perez’s dispatching is placing field elements in danger.” Bjornson cited several incidents in which Perez couldn’t keep up with where officers were deployed, failed to provide backup for officers, and couldn’t understand basic radio procedures. “Officer Perez is compromising officers’ safety, and this needs addressing before someone is seriously injured or worse,” Bjornson wrote.
For almost a year—10 months—Perez didn’t provide Internal Affairs with any material for his file. In April 2000, though, he again went AWOL. Then, on April 13, he had a banner day. While on duty in the communications division, Perez made a personal 20-minute phone call instead of assisting other dispatchers and used the city computer system to check for outstanding warrants for a friend. While there, his comments were peppered with the n-word and profanity.
For this, and given Perez’s record to that point, Chief Terrell Bolton fired him. But an administrative judge again reduced the punishment, this time to just a 10-day suspension.
The next three years were comparatively quiet:
Disobeyed a direct order in April 2002.
Suspended for a day in June 2002 for conduct that discredited the department.
Suspended in January 2003 for unauthorized use of city equipment.
May 2, 2003, another AWOL charge.
May 30, 2003, another preventable traffic accident.
Sanctioned in July 2003 for violating the off-duty employment policy.
In June 2004, Perez used his service weapon to fire at a moving vehicle that posed no threat to him or anyone else. He got just a one-day suspension for violating the department’s deadly force policy.
June 2005, another AWOL.
July 2005, AWOL. Again.
And there are a couple of apparently unresolved internal investigations, one from June 2006 for use of excessive force and another simply labeled “internal”—noted three weeks before the night Hillis and Roshchyn died on the High Five.
In October 2007, the Hillis family met with Dallas City Attorney Tom Perkins and Mayor Tom Leppert. They say they merely wanted an acknowledgement that Perez had violated the city’s chase policy. And they wanted him fired—for good. Mayor Tom Leppert, they say, told them there was nothing he could do. Which, of course, is true. The city manager, not the mayor, oversees the Police Department.
So the Hillis family eventually filed a lawsuit, seeking damages, costs, and other compensation. Jeffrey Simon, the Hillises’ attorney, says, “The department has known since 1991 that this officer is a danger to himself, to other officers, and to the public. He was passed through training despite the unanimous opinion of his trainers and supervisors, and he’s been trouble for the department and for private citizens ever since. He’s reckless, incompetent, and dangerous, and the city knows it.”
The lawsuit also attacks the police performance reviews and other policies that seem to give a pass to officers despite shortcomings. For instance, Simon notes that on October 19, 2006, Perez was given the highest rating for overall performance despite the same form saying that Perez lacked integrity.
The plaintiffs are now waiting for the city of Dallas’ response, which could come as late as June, owing to the discovery process.
Perhaps the most puzzling thing about Perez’s continued employment is the fact that his boss is Chief David Kunkle. This is a chief who has fired officers for stealing toilet paper from precinct bathrooms, after all. Kunkle says he has to balance the recommendations of his supervising officers against the evidence and against other factors.
“Before I became chief, I read the newspaper articles and saw situations where Dallas officers were arrested or accused of misconduct, and I guess the general impression I had were there were substantial numbers of officers that should not have been hired,” he says. “But when you start dealing with these disciplinary cases, at least in my view, they don’t look that way. The people that I see get in trouble in most cases are good, decent people. We tend to deal with the officers of what they are accused of and their failures and don’t talk about all the subtlety to the circumstances that are involved.”
Kunkle says that in Perez’s case, he weighed the officer’s disciplinary record against his commendations, and that there were other factors. “[Perez] has done a lot of work on reaching out to at-risk kids, and that was one of the mitigating circumstances,” Kunkle says. “According to his supervisor, he has a very high work ethic. And the third one was that it was the first big disciplinary action once the pursuit policy change was implemented, which my guys very much didn’t like. And the fact that officers were out specifically looking for suspects on motorcycles breaking into cars.”
None of that makes sense to Taylor Hillis’ father, Phil. He has the stout build of a man who’s accustomed to physical labor, but at his lawyer’s office, speaking about his dead son, it’s an effort for him just to shake hands and even sit up straight. He seems empty. He says that when he goes on service calls for his air-conditioning business, he remembers whether Taylor worked a particular address with him. It feels strange to him to know that his son’s hands were the last to touch an AC unit.
Phil says he’s confused about his son’s behavior that night, but he’s sure Taylor wasn’t up to anything criminal. “They say that the officer saw them with chains on their hands which make it easy to break windows. That’s bull. You saw the tape. They were never close enough for anything like that, and they’ve never found these chains,” he says.
Maybe Phil is right. Maksym Rushchyn has a relative that lives a block away from where Perez first spotted the pair that night. There could have been a good reason why the two were in the neighborhood.
Then again, maybe Taylor and Rushchyn were burglarizing cars that night. They certainly ran from a cop.
Either way, the simple fact remains: Officer Fernando Perez never should have given chase, not unless he had reason to suspect them of having committed a violent felony. That’s the department’s policy, instituted to prevent exactly the sort of thing that happened. Two men lost their lives that night because a cop broke a rule. A cop with long record of incompetence and willful misconduct. A cop who never should have gotten a badge in the first place.
“My son didn’t have to die,” Phil Hillis says. “And they don’t have to keep lying about why he did.”
Trey Garrison is a contributing editor to D Magazine. Write to [email protected].