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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Daniel Perez was 15 when he killed a rival gang member in Yakima. Now he seeks a shot at redemption

Daniel Perez talks about how he left his former gang during an interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, at Yakima County Jail in Yakima, Wash.  (Evan Abell/Yakima Herald Republic)
By Phil Ferolito Yakima Herald-Republic

Daniel Perez was only 15 years old when he killed rival gang member Octavio Rangel at the Yakima Transit Center in downtown Yakima during evening commute hours.

Rangel was roughing up Irving Alvarez over a debt he owed when Perez pulled a .45 caliber handgun and fired three shots into Rangel’s thigh and torso.

Rangel fell face down when Perez fired two more shots into the back of his head. Rangel was pronounced dead at the scene. Responding police found Perez in a nearby alley sweating and breathing heavily.

That was 11 years ago.

Perez was tried as an adult in Yakima County Superior Court, where he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Perez, now 26, says he’s spent the better part of his incarceration seeking redemption. He’s denounced his Norteño gang affiliation and helped form a prison support program for those who have left gang life.

He’s now asking for a sentence reduction under a state Supreme Court ruling that allows for sentence reductions for juveniles who were tried as adults.

But Yakima County Deputy Prosecutor Michael Hart questioned whether Perez is eligible for such a sentence reduction and may seek a reference hearing to determine that.

Perez’s defense attorney Gregory Scott said he believes his client is entitled to a resentencing hearing but wants to clear up any legal arguments Hart has raised to prevent any further appeal in the matter.

During a hearing Monday, Judge Ruth Reukauf continued the matter until Jan. 5. That hearing could determine whether a reference hearing is necessary or if Perez should be given a resentencing hearing.

Perez says he plans to stay the course of redemption no matter the outcome.

“And larger than that, honestly, is my personal agenda. I want to promote and really put in the amount of remorse that I have for the Rangel family from what happened that day,” Perez said one recent afternoon at the Yakima County Jail.

Perez has been in the Yakima jail 1.5 months awaiting a resentencing hearing. Monday’s continuance will see him returned to Monroe Corrections Complex until January.

Gang life

Perez’s first known brush with the law came in 2008, when he was 11. He struck another boy in the face with brass knuckles in Bend, Ore. Police found the boy bloodied and bleeding from the mouth.

Police said the victim gave Perez’s friend a dirty look and Perez intervened when he thought they were going to fight. The case was dismissed by Deschutes County Juvenile Court because of Perez’s age and his residence in Washington.

Perez looked up to his older brother, Leonardo Perez, a La Raza Norteño gang member. Leonardo was killed in a 2009 gang shooting, and Perez took it hard. His older brother went by his street name Listo, Spanish for “ready.”

After his death, Perez emerged as Lil Listo. And his brushes with the law became more frequent.

“We were very close,” Perez said of his brother. “He was a role model of mine. Essentially, I saw him as some sort of superhero.”

Distraught, Perez’s parents complained to authorities that he was constantly running away, using drugs and alcohol and had not been to school. They twice filed an at-risk youth petition with the juvenile court in hopes of getting their son under control.

Perez didn’t face any real consequences until he killed Rangel.

A sense of power comes with being in a gang and packing a pistol, Perez said.

“Man, that’s a big deal,” he said. “Standing as a teenage individual (alone), you don’t feel like you have much of a place or ground whereas you’re a teenage individual who has the power and backing of a group … you could take matters into your own hands with a simple item, which is obviously a weapon.”

Twice Perez intervened violently when his fellow gang members were threatened by others.

“I would say unbeholden to myself in the moment, it was just that need to provide that sense of security for those behind me at any cost,” he said. “I had an obscured view of what loyalty was and what not.”

A shot at redemption

Stepping away from gang life isn’t easy or safe, especially when a person is involved as deeply as Perez.

But that’s what he did. In 2017, he denounced his gang affiliation.

When he was convicted 11 years ago, he proudly wore four dots tattooed under his left eye and one dot tattooed under his right eye. Those markings symbolized the Norteño number, 14.

Now, the four dots are covered by a small tattoo of the state of Washington.

Perez once had a bird that represents the Norteño gang tattooed on his right hand. He covered it with a tattoo of Ollin, an Aztec symbol depicting movement or a day of action.

“I didn’t want any gang-related tattoos on my body,” he said.

Perez said he began withdrawing from his gang while still incarcerated in an area of prison where juveniles are held. There, he helped start a boys council advocating for youth rehabilitation rather than simply incarceration.

He didn’t formally denounce his gang affiliation until 2017, when he was moved to a safe harbor yard on the adult side of the prison. That yard provides a safe place for those who leave gangs, Perez said.

Stepping away from gang life can land you in an identity crisis, he said.

“So I had to reconstruct myself as an individual, as a man,” he said. “The best way to do that was through learning, through reading, through figuring things out. And that led me to understand we all share — as humans — trauma. I’m not the only one fighting these things.”

Perez said he helped form a support group called Freedom to help former gang members transition out of gang life.

“Whether you were from a white supremacy gang, black gang, Mexican gang, whatever you denounced yourself from you were able to come here and share and be in a circle with others wanting the same thing — change,” he said. “It was like a NA or an AA meeting for gang members.”

Perez said Rangel’s death and its impact on his family is the driving force behind his change.

“It’s a very sad instance, not just for myself but for the family of my victim,” he said. “He is the biggest motivator for wanting to continue to pursue this advocacy work because essentially I could prevent another youth like myself from committing the same act.”