Identity

A Long Night in a Small Cell: How One Cop Got Off the Hook for Raping an Inmate

In 2014, a police officer was accused of sexually assaulting an inmate in her cell—and the encounter was caught on camera. Yet the officer only served two years and did not have to register as a sex offender.

by Amy Martyn
Jul 27 2016, 3:05pm

Illustrations by Alisha Sofia

Felipe Peralez, 23 at the time, is on one knee, clutching a jail-cell bar with his left hand. It's 8:57 PM on May 29, 2014, a Thursday. On the other side of those cell bars, his right hand is inside Autumn Renee*, 34. She's a prisoner on a petty offense in a desolate border town in Texas. Her rape is being recorded by a jailhouse camera.

The ugly episode involving a Mission, Texas, mom and a La Joya, Texas, police dispatcher starts back in 2008. That's when the driver of the car Renee was riding in was pulled over in a dusty Walmart parking lot. Renee was known for keeping bags of cocaine in her bra, according to a Mission Police Department arrest report, and sure enough, as police searched her that night, 13 plastic baggies of coke fell out of her top. The felony possession charge carried up to 10 years in prison. At Renee's hearing in 2009, the State of Texas instead agreed to give her five years of probation.

Read More: When a Woman is Raped in Rural Alaska Does Anyone Care?

She'd had run-ins since, skating by without serious jail time for trying to sneak $50 worth of batteries into her purse, for being delinquent on court fees. But by May 29, 2014, her luck ran out. Renee was pulled over—once again in a Walmart parking lot—and arrested for failing to provide identification to the Penitas Police Department officer who had stopped her. This seemingly inconsequential arrest would lead to the traumatizing sexual assault, and then six months in jail.

"I know you are not going to believe me," Renee told a female police officer after the assault, according to a statement obtained from the officer by the Texas Ranger investigating the case. "I know I made mistakes but no one deserves to have that happen to them."

"I asked what happened," Penitas Police Officer Elizabeth Garza told investigators, "and her exact words were, 'I got fucked in jail.'"

The Penitas jail that night in 2014 was full. So officers took Renee to the jail in La Joya, a town three miles away. It was early evening in the small Texas town, just minutes from the Mexican border. Hidalgo County is one of the poorest counties in the state of Texas, with over 33 percent of its population below the poverty line and a long history of corruption.

Renee was led into her cell, which had a cement bench along one of its walls. She wanted to rest on the makeshift bed, but—as is detailed in police reports and a recently-filed lawsuit seeking millions in damages—Peralez, the communications officer, soon made that impossible.

"He said I was pretty and he kept trying to talk to me and he then said that 'I have to do what he said,'" Renee said in her statement to the Texas Rangers, the state agency that investigates police wrongdoing. "I had no power, I felt powerless because he [had] the keys to the building around his neck."

The lawsuit, filed on May 27, alleges that Renee was raped for hours by Peralez. Her statement to the Texas Rangers includes harrowing details:

He continued putting his arms through the cell and as I lay on the concrete bed, he fingered my vagina with his fingers. He also asked me one time to turn around and put his hand in my vagina, he actually put his entire hand into my vagina and I felt tremendous pain and pressure, I never believed that could be done. He then put his fingers in my ass. I was crying because he kept abusing me for hours and no one came in.

In the course of the night, Peralez coerced Renee to stroke his penis several times. According to the lawsuit, he then forced her to give him oral sex. In the morning, according to Renee's statement, she was bleeding from her vagina.

When Renee reported the attack to the La Joya Police Department lieutenant on duty, he offered her tacos, showed her surveillance video from the night before, and failed to offer her medical services, according to the lawsuit and Renee's statement to the Texas Rangers.

Though, Peralez, the police dispatcher accused of the rape, was eventually indicted and pleaded guilty to a crime relating to abusing his duties as a civil servant, La Joya City Manager Mike Alaniz (who is named personally in the lawsuit) continued to downplay the alleged attack in a brief statement on the telephone to Broadly. "It's an unfortunate situation, but I can honestly tell you the video will tell you who is the instigator," Alaniz tells Broadly, implying that Renee started the sexual contact with Peralez. Alaniz declined to elaborate. "Did he do wrong? Yes, he did. Did he pay the price, the penalty? Yes, he did."

I know you are not going to believe me. I know I made mistakes but no one deserves to have that happen to them.

On June 3, 2014, five days after being arrested and assaulted, Renee was brought back to court. The City of Penitas had dropped its complaint against her, the one charging that she failed to produce ID in the Walmart parking lot, but the State of Texas maintained that Renee had violated her probation, based on a warrant for her arrest from the previous year. Renee had violated six counts of her probation, the state said, finding that "the Defendant violated the conditions of community supervision" and sentenced Renee to thirty months in state prison of which she served six.

With Renee locked up, the case against her attacker appeared to languish. The La Joya Police Department's Ramon Gonzalez visited her address as promised, according to a report he later wrote, included in Peralez's criminal case, but Renee's sister told him she was in prison.

La Joya's then-Police Chief Geovani Hernandez allowed Peralez to resign, and at his direction, no follow-up investigation was conducted, according to the Texas Rangers report.

"For personal reasons I will not state, I Felipe Peralez am choosing to resign from Telecommunications Officer," says a letter he scrawled in messy handwriting, now part of his criminal case record.

But word of the assault eventually reached Texas Ranger Bobby Garcia anyway, when he was investigating another case. Garcia's report does not explain how he got the tip, and through a Ranger's spokesman Garcia declined to answer questions about the case.

Garcia opened his case in February 2015, eight months after the assault. As Garcia collected affidavits from officers in the La Joya and Penitas police departments, it became clear in his report that several officers could tell Peralez's behavior was off that evening.

Yeah she is the one that actually started it, she was trying to get me to go inside the cell with her.

Renee was released from prison early, in January 2015, and when Garcia made contact with her she was nervous, he writes in his report, prompting her to hire an attorney. She then agreed to give Garcia the account of her assault. Jail surveillance video that Garcia describes in his investigative report—footage showing Renee crying, undressing, and Peralez repeatedly touching her through the cell bars—appears to confirm Renee's story.

Armed with his detailed report, Garcia obtained a warrant to arrest Peralez, whose criminal defense attorney did not return Broadly's messages requesting an interview with his client. Shortly after being arrested, Peralez claimed in his interview with Garcia not to recognize himself in the surveillance video. "Not really, I suppressed a lot," he said in Garcia's Rangers report.

Peralez then offered this, before nervously asking for a lawyer: "Yeah she is the one that actually started it, she was trying to get me to go inside the cell with her, like stuff and talking to me, she is the one that told me to do everything that I was doing, and stuff."

With the Rangers' investigation complete, the state agreed to prosecute the case, and a grand jury not long after indicted Peralez on three counts of violating the sexual and civil rights of a person in custody, a state jail felony, and one count of official oppression, a misdemeanor. Peralez pleaded guilty to the charges.

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In exchange for pleading guilty, the Hidalgo County District Attorney's office agreed to drop the three felony counts of violating an inmate's civil rights and instead only convicted Peralez of official oppression, the misdemeanor. Peralez was sentenced to 180 days in state prison and 30 days in county jail, according to court documents. He was credited 27 days for time already spent.

But, to the surprise of some officials in the county, none of the counts Peralez was charged with are considered sexual assault under the law. The counts, experts say, are intended for guards that have consensual sex with inmates.

Peralez is not required to register as a sex offender.

Gonzales, the La Joya police chief and former lieutenant who initially investigated the case, says he cannot say why Peralez was not convicted with any sexual assault crime or required to register as a sex offender. "That's valid, that's one of the questions that I have asked myself," he tells Broadly.

"I certainly think that this individual should have to register," says Hope Palacios, the Hidalgo County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case. She says her office decided on the charges in the indictment before she got involved with the case.

Renee's attorney Tammy Peden, who did not want her client giving interviews while the lawsuit is pending, claims that no one from the Hidalgo County District Attorney's office ever contacted Renee before Peralez's sentencing. Though Peralez took a plea deal and waved his right to a jury trial, a victim impact statement could have encouraged prosecutors or the judge to give Peralez a harsher sentence, Peden reasons. Official oppression carries a maximum of two years in prison and a felony on the offender's criminal record.

Hope Palacios, the Hidalgo County district attorney prosecutor, flat-out denies that her office dropped the ball in reaching Renee. "She was contacted and she didn't respond to our phone calls," Palacios says. "Our office has crime victim advocates and they mailed a copy of the indictment to her and a notice of her court hearing."

But in Hidalgo County's victim advocacy office, a woman who answered the phone and declined to give her name said that her office did not assist Renee. "Nobody worked with the victim on the case," the woman said. Under Hidalgo County's previous long-standing administration, no victim advocacy unit existed, the woman said, and her unit had got off the ground only recently. "Before that, there was nobody in here providing victim services."

The Penitas and La Joya Police Department officers who acted something like Renee's advocates or confidants, or the closest thing to an advocate that existed, said that Renee was already frightened to come forward. After Renee wrote a statement for the La Joya Lieutenant Gonzales describing what happened, he asked a female officer to take Renee to the restroom, to see if Renee mentioned anything else about the alleged assault.

Leaving the restroom, La Joya Police Department Officer Julia Cruz told the Rangers, Renee asked for the name of the man who pushed the buttons in the communications office. Renee asked Cruz not to say anything about it. Perhaps believing the two women were friends, Renee mentioned to Cruz that she had kids of her own. Then she told Cruz about her time being abused in a bus at some other prison facility, by guards taking turns between Renee and another woman. Cruz recalled the exact quotes Renee used to justify the attacks she allegedly lived through. "As girls, we are supposed to take this," she said, "and I've been abused at other jails before."


*This pseudonym was given to victim by Texas Rangers, the agency that investigated case.

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