Tony Lopez Perez, a 36-year-old Mira Costa High School graduate and Redondo Beach resident was found guilty Wednesday of murdering local bartender Cori Desmond on Valentine’s Day 2009 on a North Redondo Beach side street. The jury in the week long trial, conducted in San Bernardino County where Desmond’s body was found, began deliberations Tuesday afternoon. It took the jury just one day to return a verdict of first degree murder.
Perez betrayed no emotion throughout the trial. And he remained emotionless as the jury foreman read the verdict of first degree murder late Wednesday afternoon.
One of the jurors quietly began crying.
Cori’s father Mark Desmond said he’s thankful it’s over.
“It’s been a long fight for Cori,” he said in an interview minutes after the verdict was read. “I feel grateful he’s off the streets and he won’t harm anyone else, now or in the future.”
A dozen of Desmond’s friends and family members made the daily, 90 minute drive from the South Bay to the San Bernardino courtroom to witness the trial. They said they wanted to to honor Desmond and bring closure for themselves.
Maryann Holman, a family friend, said she wouldn’t have missed the trial for the world. “It was really important to be here for support,” Holman said. “Even though everything felt really concrete you just don’t know what a jury is going to do.”
On several occasions, because of the graphic details of the evidence, the prosecutor asked Desmond’s supporters to leave the courtroom. She was fearful their emotional reactions might unduly influence the jurors.
Desmond, 28, was a graduate of North Torrance High School, with a promising career as a teacher. Just a few days after she died, her teaching credentials arrived in the mail. She also had a master’s degree in criminal justice from Long Beach State University.
After the trial was over, Mark Desmond and other family members expressed their gratitude toward the jury. During breaks throughout the trial, jurors often mingled in the hall among the family, but never spoke to them, in compliance with the judge’s orders. Late Wednesday afternoon, they broke the silence.
“I am so thankful,” Desmond told them.
Closing arguments in the trial concluded dramatically Tuesday.
For three long minutes, San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Karen Khim re-enacted the alleged strangulation of the popular Manhattan Beach bartender on a North Redondo Beach side street.
Khim paced before the jury holding her right hand as though squeezing an imaginary neck.
“Live or die,” she repeated. “Kill or not kill. Let her breathe or squeeze harder?”
Khim argued throughout the weeklong trial that defendant Tony Lopez Perez, a 36-year-old former restaurant manager and Mira Costa High School graduate, deliberately killed Desmond on Valentines Day 2009 in an attempted rape gone wrong.
It takes 15-20 seconds for a strangulation victim to lose consciousness and another three-to-four minutes for a person to die, according to San Bernardino County coroner Frank Sheridan, who testified last week.
“He certainly had enough time to decide whether she should live or die,” Khim told the six-man six-woman jury, which went into deliberations Tuesday.
Because of the time it took to kill Desmond, Khim said Perez should be found guilty of first-degree murder, which carries a possible life sentence.
Defense attorney Andrew Haynal, in his closing argument, said Perez killed Desmond accidently. He said his client found her passed out on the sidewalk. When Perez woke Desmond up she started screaming. He was only trying to calm her down, he said. The defense attorney acknowledged that Perez drove around with Desmond’s body in the back seat of his Dodge Durango for a day, before dumping her body in the San Bernardino Mountains.
“In this day and age you’ve all heard of things more bizarre than that in your life,” Haynal told the jury. “Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.”
Haynal asked the jury to consider reasonable doubt and instead find his client guilty of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum of four years in prison.
“Perhaps you or I would not have acted in such a manner,” Haynal said. “This doesn’t get him off the hook. Not by a long shot.”
Khim called the defendant’s story a “web of lies.” In her retelling of the chilling details, Khim repeatedly asked the jury to consider whether the events were reasonable or unreasonable.
“If you, reasonable people, encounter someone passed out on the sidewalk and they start screaming would you place your hand on their mouth?” Khim asked the jury. She said Desmond’s injuries – the bruises to her face, neck and head and a broken hyoid bone in her neck – proved there was a struggle. “He’s guilty,” she said.
Former girlfriend testifies
The most dramatic day of the trial occurred last week when the defendant’s live-in girlfriend said Perez became increasingly more aggressive sexually in the months before the homicide. Tiffany Ware testified that Perez had an insatiable appetite for sex in January and February of 2009. Even though they were making love almost every day, Ware said he was still not satisfied.
“He wanted sex more and more,” she said of Perez.
The two lived together for about four years and share a 6-year-old son, though they were never married.
In the eight months between the time of the murder and Perez’s arrest, more than 50 billboards blanketed theLos Angelesarea asking for tips in the case. Spurred perhaps by one particular billboard near theRedondo Beach apartment the couple shared, Ware called in a tip in May 2009.
The slim blonde-haired woman wore large sunglasses as armed Sheriff’s deputies escorted her to court. On the stand, Ware said the couple had a rocky relationship. Sometime in 2006, after their son was born, Ware said that Perez raped her on two occasions, about a month apart. Both incidents occurred when Ware was asleep on the couch after taking the painkiller Flexeril for severe back pain, she said.
The second time, she kicked him out. Ware moved to Colorado for about a year, but eventually they got back together and moved back into the same place onCarnegie LaneinNorth Redondowhere Perez claims to have found Desmond lying on the sidewalk.
Ware told police about Perez’s late nights the weekend of the murder, detailing his SUV shortly after the murder, selling the SUV with just two payments left, changing his cell phone number for no apparent reason, and taking a trip with Ware near to where he’d dumped the body during which he made a strange, unsolicited comment about Desmond’s disappearance.
Sgt. Trevis Newport, lead investigator, said he wouldn’t let the case go cold. It was the first murder case in whichNewporthad taken the lead. Four investigators interviewed nearly 100 people, he said, following up on weekly tips with cooperation from the Redondo Beach Police Department.
In August, detectives located Perez’s white DodgeDurango, the one he detailed and sold shortly after the murder. It wasn’t the first car detectives tested for trace particles of blood.Newportsaid on several occasions, they checked other suspected vehicles for DNA only to come up empty. But when they found Desmond’s DNA in a small spot of carpet nearly eight months after the murder, the team got a dramatic break.
The story they eventually heard from Perez shocked even the most veteran cop among them.Newportsaid it was the oddest tale he’s ever heard from a suspected murderer.
“To actually find a person on the street and put them in your car and hold onto them for a few days. That’s pretty odd,” Newportsaid. “I’ve never in my career heard such a story.”
Shock to defendant’s family
The sole relative of Perez in attendance throughout trial portrayed a starkly different character in an exclusive interview with Easy Reader. The woman, who asked that her name not be used, said Perez was a hard worker and great with kids. He often took his nieces and nephews on fishing trips.
“They love their Uncle Tony,” she said.
Perez came from a family with eight siblings. His parents grew up in theL.A.area, and Perez attendedMiraCostaHigh SchoolinManhattan Beach. The relative said she knew little about him because he worked so much, but she did not recall any stories of him being violent. His only criminal record was a DUI.
“He would give you the shirt off his back,” she said. “I’m here so he knows we still love him. I’m not here to judge him. There’s a God and a judicial system to place judgment.”
Two other relatives, his sister and a sister-in-law, also testified during the trial that Perez was never known to be violent. The prosecution failed to question any witnesses, other than Ware, who had anything bad to say about the man.
Throughout the trial, Perez showed no emotion, his gaze fixed straight ahead. He wore a dress shirt and tie, his hair closely cropped. Perez also shaved his goatee after the first day and rarely made eye contact with any of the witnesses or the jury. He never testified or looked behind him and barely even spoke to his attorney.
In his own words
Even though he never took the stand, jurors watched three videos last week taken by detectives in October 2009 in which Perez gives his explanations for how Desmond died.
The first video shows Perez on the street with two detectives around 9:30 at night outside his apartment, wearing an unbuttoned plaid shirt over a white T-shirt. He’s got a large potbelly and his hair is cut almost in a Mohawk. Throughout the videos, Perez is polite to detectives, obediently following their requests and willfully submitting to the re-enactment.
In the second of three versions screened for the jurors Perez claims he found Desmond lying on the sidewalk dead and decided to dispose of her body without calling police. He later confessed to killing her in an attempt to calm her down. He claims he was intoxicated, scared, and panicked.
“It looked like she was crossed up,” Perez is heard telling detectives in the video. “So I shook her and she felt cold. Oh shit, I thought. Is she dead? Wait a minute I’m drunk,” he says. “Somebody’s going to think I did it. I got scared and I panicked. That’s when I put her in the car.”
Once he finally got to bed, Perez said he woke up during the night and went outside to check “to see if it was a nightmare.”
“I opened the door and it was not a nightmare,” Perez told detectives. “It was true.”
Perez said he went back inside and tried to sleep, then went to work the next morning with Desmond’s body still in the backseat of hisDurango.
In video shot later that same night outside the Spitfire Grill at theSanta Monicaairport, Perez showed detectives where he parked his SUV for work. Perez worked at the restaurant as a general manager and part-time chef.
Sometime during his shift on Feb. 15, he said, he covered Desmond’s body with two trash bags. He said he then ran an errand to replace a 12-pack of Bud Light he had previously taken from the bar.
In the final scene, shot the following day after his arrest, Perez is wearing an orange prison suit and ankle chains.
He’s seen standing with detectives on the mountain turnout below Big Bear where he disposed of Desmond’s body. Detectives parked a silver Ford Taurus in the spot Perez said he parked his own car. He then motioned how he pulled her from the vehicle.
“I was nervous,” he said on camera. “I almost ran.”
Desmond’s body landed several yards down the embankment covered in two dark trash bags. He said he might have dragged her a little as he pulled her to the edge. “I think I flung her kind of,” he said. “That was basically it. Then I sprinted back to the car.”
In taped interviews the jury heard later Perez describes the story that was presented by his defense attorney in court. Sgt. Newport told the Easy Reader he thought Perez likely spent a good deal of time researching the law and had planned for a manslaughter defense.
“He thought he was going to be smarter than us,”Newportsaid.
Reaching a murder conviction
There was no evidence presented at the trial that Perez ever met Desmond. According to prosecutors, he attacked and tried to rape her after she left the BAC Street bar in the 2400 block of Artesia Blvd at 2:30 in the early morning hours of Valentine’s Day 2009. Desmond had a blood alcohol content of 0.35 percent, more than four times the legal limit to drive.
Khim told the jury they could reach a guilty verdict on first degree murder by either of two ways. They could find that Perez killed Desmond during an attempted rape – which would be ruled a murder because the death occurred in the commission of a felony; or he acted with “willful, deliberate premeditation.” Khim said premeditation did not require months of planning.
“The amount of time may differ,” Khim said. “A cold and calculated decision can be reached quickly.”
Haynal argued the jury should instead find Perez guilty of involuntary manslaughter, meaning the crime was an accident while committing a misdemeanor or otherwise lawful act. Judge David Mazurek would not allow the jury to consider voluntary manslaughter, a murder in the heat of passion, as Haynal had argued in opening statements because the judge said it did not apply to the case.
Defense attorney Haynal, during his closing argument, said Perez was “intoxicated, scared and panicked.” He said it was possible, based on how much alcohol Desmond had to drink that he did in fact find her lying on the sidewalk.
None of Perez’s DNA was found on her remains, Haynal said.
“This is a case that shows what can happen when people have way too much to drink,” Haynal told the jury. “At the very least there is abundant reasonable doubt as to whether there was an attempted rape.”
Khim said the evidence speaks for itself. Desmond was beaten up and her body was found with her pants around her knees with no underwear, shoes or purse.
“Cori Desmond deserved justice and nothing less,” Khim said in her final words to the jury on Tuesday.
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