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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cellmate of transgender murder suspect says Donna Perry claimed to have killed dozens

Donna R. Perry, center, is handcuffed to leave during a break in her murder trial Friday  at the Spokane County courthouse. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The triple-murder trial of Donna R. Perry entered the realm of the surreal Friday as a mentally ill jailhouse informant claimed that Perry took credit for as many as 30 killings and tried in prison to convert her into Perry’s apprentice assassin.

The court day started late because the witness, Chero Fread, initially refused to come out of her hotel room, prompting Spokane County prosecutors to scramble to secure a material witness warrant that was scrapped when Fread finally agreed to testify before Superior Court Judge Michael Price.

Fread took most of the morning to detail her month-and-a-half-long interaction with Perry, who was housed in the same federal prison near Fort Worth, Texas, that caters to mentally ill inmates. Fread said she befriended Perry, who then began telling her how she killed prostitutes, became a contract killer and fashioned herself as a real-life Hannibal Lecter.

“We discussed many things. I would say the focus was recruiting me or turning me into a killer,” Fread testified. “He told me … becoming a woman was a disguise to take the heat off of him, that an elderly lady with mental illness would never get caught.”

Donna R. Perry was Douglas R. Perry until making a trip to Thailand in 2000 for gender reassignment surgery. Prosecutors earlier presented DNA evidence that they say links Perry to the killings in 1990 of Yolanda A. Sapp and Kathleen A. Brisbois. Perry’s fingerprint was found on a vial of lubricant they believe was previously in the possession of Nickie I. Lowe.

All three women were found shot to death within about a month of each other and their bodies were dumped in different locations on the banks of the Spokane River. The cases remained cold until 2012 when Perry again was convicted on a weapons charge. Her DNA was entered into a national database and came back as a match to DNA found under the fingernail of Brisbois.

Prosecutors charged Perry in 2014 with three counts of first-degree murder. The current trial started June 5 and is expected to go to the jury as early as Wednesday.

But on Friday, Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Rachael Curtis asked Fread about her interactions with Perry in 2013, after Perry was sent to that prison in Texas.

Fread continually referred to Perry as a man during her testimony, and explained how Perry told her that she had lived with a prostitute named Clairann Gallaway and that she had other prostitutes whom she fed, cuddled and “let them sit on his lap.”

Perry said “that he was a schizophrenic, had hallucinations and was a sociopath,” Fread said. Perry “had no feelings or remorse for killing people.”

Fread said Perry compared herself to Lecter, a fictitious cannibalistic serial killer portrayed in a series of novels by Thomas Harris, and confessed to killing “at least nine prostitutes.”

Alarmed by the conversations, Fread said, she alerted her mother, who reached out to law enforcement. Fread said she began keeping a journal in prison to keep track of the stories coming from Perry. Law enforcement never promised or gave her anything in exchange for her testimony, Fread said.

After she met with Sheriff’s Detective James Dresback and Spokane police Detective Mark Burbridge on June 19, 2013, for an interview in the federal prison in Texas, Fread said Perry’s claims of killing people expanded.

“It could be as high as 20 to 30” people, she said.

Curtis asked Fread if Perry explained why she targeted prostitutes.

“They were nothing. They were pond scum,” Fread said of Perry’s explanation.“Because they could breed, they could have families. That was something (Perry) was jealous of.”

Fread also said she remembered Perry saying that she killed “two more individuals after the sex change.”

“I felt it was very important to get the information he was telling me to law enforcement. I felt it was very vital,” she said.

Curtis continued to ask Fread about her motivation for speaking out.

“He wasn’t done killing,” Fread replied. Perry’s ability to present as “an elderly woman … would be a disguise that she would be capable of hurting or killing other people.”

Under cross-examination, defense attorney Bryan Whitaker asked why Fread felt so compelled to take notes and alert law enforcement.

“My initial motives were to stop him from killing other people,” Fread said.

Whitaker asked her whether “it seemed reasonable that you were being recruited to become an assassin?” Fread replied: “Yes.”

“What skill set do you have?” Whitaker said.

“Mental illness,” Fread responded.

While Fread’s testimony seemed to raise more questions than answers – the credibility of the witness not the least among them – more potentially damaging testimony against Perry came in the afternoon from former Department of Social and Health Services employee Charlotte Nagrone.

She testified about befriending Perry in 2007 and 2008 when Perry would come to the DSHS offices for services.

“We were actually talking about her background,” Nagrone said, “and she said that she had been involved in shooting people. I said, ‘What do you mean? I thought you went to prison for other reasons.’ At that point, she made it clear she wanted to change the subject.”

Nagrone said she pressed the issue about what Perry referred to as her “gun-running days.”

“She said things had gotten wild and out of control” before her surgery to become a woman, Nagrone said. “She said, ‘I knew I was going to end up dead or in prison again if I didn’t do something. I got gelded just like a horse and got my life back under control.’”

Years later, after Perry was linked to the killings through DNA evidence, two sheriff’s deputies and a Spokane Police officer traveled to Texas in 2014 to fly Perry back to Spokane to face charges of first-degree murder.

During the trip, Deputy Jennifer Sutter said Perry began talking about the pending legal battle she was about to face.

“She said, ‘By the time I learned to control myself, it was too late,’” Sutter said. “When we arrived at the airport, (Perry) said it would be the last time she’d be outside of concrete walls.”