Riley Perez went to prison for the robbery and attempted extortion of Joe Francis, the founder of Girls Gone Wild. It was a job he was hired to do by the mob. In What Is Real: The Life and Crimes of Darnell Riley, the author brings the reader into his world, one in which the rules of engagement make sense only to those whose lives depend on living by these complex. An excerpt and Q&A between the author and AFLW Senior Nonfiction Editor Christina Simon, on writing and life in and out of jail.
I was accustomed to waking five minutes before the three calls of pan-pan heralds in the new day. Being an early riser had become a badge of honor, which allowed me to flirt with the notion that my early rise provided me an advantage in whatever task that landed on my calendar.
Being an early riser allowed me time to study L as she slept. She was always naked, and where I enjoyed the comfort of layers of blankets, L only required a pillow positioned between her legs. Even on the nights when she would engage in battle with imaginary enemies, the pillow remained in place. I would wake her by tugging at the pillow, to see if it was cemented to her knees, but on this day, I didn’t.
L was an easy read. Her permagrin, I knew it was the result of an affair she was contemplating. Once, I flippantly remarked that the smile was the result of a fantasy where she was being pleased by a Spanish Fighting Bull—L did not take kindly to my joke.
Thankfully the showerhead was positioned at a conventional height so that the water could be distributed across my body without me having to stoop down. I recited my customary prayer in thanks of the maintenance man charged with the water heater’s upkeep.
The day progressed the same as every other. I chose not to wake L as I left; the smile remained fixed to her face and the pillow continued to provide proper hip balance. L was safe and secure as she wandered in thought.
Driving Franklin Avenue is usually a sign of being a voyeur or an exhibitionist, but at 5:30 a.m. I’m spared the fishbowl feeling that accompanies Hollywood traffic. On my
drive west, I considered the mantra that I had adopted: 2005 is my year and nothing else exists. Prior to the calendar turning its back on 2004, every day of my life had been filled with the planning, the execution, or the covering up of one crime or another—2005 was the year I would walk away from all that.
I wasn’t beholden to anyone and I knew that I wouldn’t be lured back into any schemes by an old associate. Anyone who believed that they owed me a debt, I considered the debt forgiven. It was the only way to disconnect: I had to forgive all debts, or I would never be free of crime.
I was a year removed from my last criminal act and as far as I knew it was a cold case. I committed the crime in the exclusive community of Bel Air, California. No doors or windows were busted, no alarms were set off during entrance or exit. The marked man returned as expected and was quickly subdued. He never saw my face, never heard my voice. I wore gloves, and no prints were left. There was nothing to lead the authorities to me.
Frankie and I had been consulting for a wealthy housewife locked in a protracted war more officially referred to as a divorce. All we had to do was get the soon-to-be ex to understand that the amount the housewife was entitled to and the amount that she was requesting really weren’t that far apart, and if an agreement could be made without both sides losing out in attorney’s fees—well, wouldn’t that be a whole lot easier? The housewife lived in Bel Air, just blocks away from the scene of my last crime. I drove by the home daily. In fact, I knew the victim; he patronized my gambling business, and I had been an invited guest at his home on occasion. My familiarity with him was the reason that I was chosen to carry out the crime.
After hours of debate, I left Bel Air, and as I drove past the well-manicured lawns and stately homes—a particular one was familiar—I thought of how fooled the entire community had been by the illusion of security. Even with cameras, iron gates, and armed men, there always existed the chance for technological or human error. Couple those possibilities with an ambitious and creative mind, and the security practically vanishes before your eyes. But those concerns were now behind me.
I’d thought about being free from criminal association a lot lately. At a red light or in an elevator, whenever there was a moment to myself, I thought of how foreign my former life had become. I had finally aligned my actions with the image that everyone had of me: a citizen. A John Doe. A Mr. So-and-So from up the street.
I pulled into the driveway, hoping to surprise L. Unlike in the past, I didn’t retrieve my pistol from my glove compartment—the thought didn’t cross my mind. Before I was up the porch stairs, I noticed a van racing up the cobblestone driveway, stopping less than ten feet from me. Two middle-aged men exited the van barking orders, though I couldn’t hear the words their mouths formed— it was as if they were mutes. An army of bodies appeared in my peripheral view and before I could turn and focus, the two men in front of me had their handguns trained on me.
The sound began to come back: “Do not move. We are US Marshalls!”
The feel of the metal tightening on my wrist intensified as I focused on the clanking of the five ridges needed to properly secure me. The sound overpowered the questions being posed to me as I slowly laid face down on the ground. Two of the men consulted some paperwork. The smaller of the two men stepped forward, pushing the other men to the side.
“You’re Darnell Riley.” He nodded his head yes, wanting me to agree with his statement. I didn’t answer, so he turned the page so that my image was staring back at me.
While sitting in the back of the van, I asked the older man that sat behind the wheel, “What is this for?”
You’re just another body, the first one this week,” he replied without much concern for how I would receive the news. “We are just body baggers.”
My grandfather had officially adopted me and my name is Darnell Riley Perez, but he and everyone in my life referred to me as Riley. The name Darnell was rarely uttered.
Riley Perez had no criminal interaction. Riley Perez was without sin. And that is how most people knew me.
As we backed out of the driveway, the officer asked me once again, “Are you Darnell Riley?”
Whatever name they wanted to call me wasn’t going to delay me getting to the next stage of this journey. I responded, “Yes.”
Except courtesy of the author and Rare Bird Books.
Q&A between Riley Perez and AFLW Senior Nonfiction Editor Christina Simon: On writing and life in and out of prison
Christina Simon: When did you first decide to write this book and what was your writing process like?
Riley Perez: I started writing What Is Real? After my first conversation with my friend Scott Caan. I was two years into my ten year sentence and I called Scott. After a five minute tongue-lashing and answering the standard questions that civilians have to someone incarcerated, Scott asked me, “what are you working on … what are you writing?” Every six months that I called Scott for the next seven years he asked “what are you writing; you will want to tell your story.” Over those years, I was recording the events that I was living on the back of legal papers, the advertisement cards from magazines or any free surface that allowed me to be able to write a name, date and description so that I could refer back to.
Once released in 2014, I organized my notes and set a schedule that allowed me to write in long-hand What Is Real? I then handed the first draft to family and friends and I received the same response from buddies that were 39 and from associates in their 70’s; they all said that I connected the human experience, even with it being set in a foreign society–prison.
CS: Facing two possible life sentences, the District Attorney offered you a plea bargain of ten years. You write, “Ten years was acceptable for me, considering that I did everything that was listed in the indictment.” Did you ever seriously consider turning down the plea bargain and going before a jury?
RP: I did consider turning down the plea offer in part to the collateral damage that my legal team inflicted against my accuser. My attorney, Ronald Richard, seized on the slightest lie, inconsistency and anything that existed that exposed my accuser’s character.
Ultimately, I accepted a deal that I believed I could live with. I was guilty. I did not want to spend the remainder of my life in prison and like any strategists whom has ever handicapped a sports game, a military operation or a negotiation with a toddler, I knew that at some point, I’d have to hold the cards and test my counter narrative or fold’em, a decision that afforded me a life.
CS: Time plays such an important role in this book. You devote a brief, but intense section of the book to the crime for which you were convicted. Why did you decide to slow down time for these critical scenes at the Bel-Air home of Joe Francis?
RP: In writing about my experience while incarcerated, I knew that I needed to give the reader an understanding of the crime that led me to prison. Providing the backstory should serve to let the reader know that I didn’t magically transport myself to jail on a mistake, but, because I violated someones rights to be secured in their home, I rightfully belonged where I was–amongst other criminals.
CS: You describe life at Cochran State Prison as harrowing and brutal, controlled by prison gangs, yet interspersed with ordinary aspects of daily life like exercise and television. You quickly realize what you’ll need to do in order to stay alive. What was that like?
RP: I knew that if I followed the rules of the institution then I could keep the attention of the officers away from me. If I followed the basic of rules that the inmates population placed on one-another and limit my interaction with individuals and shunned activities like table games, basketball, gambling, tobacco and drug use then I will have avoided a range of problems that lead to violence. But, the unfortunate situation is that even if I shunned those activities, other peoples’ pleasure-seeking activities could draw the group into conflict.
CS: One of the most heartbreaking parts of your story is the guilt you felt over the loss of your relationships–with your girlfriend, friends and even family members. Have you been able to re-establish any of those relationships? Have you kept in contact with any of the guys from prison?
RP: My ex-girlfriend L ignored all attempts that I made to have contact. She offered no reasoning for ending the relationship. Few friends ended friendships. I was fortunate in having a core group of friends that back to my teen years, most that I knew from the boxing community.
I lost my grandfather three years into my sentence, but because of my transgressions I realized that I had lost him years prior.
CS: During your incarceration, you question what is real. Do you still ask yourself that same question?
RP: Today, my questions of what is real mainly come from people’s reaction to finding out that I have a criminal past and witnessing them play the part of the hypocrite. I’ve watched self-professed open-minded people react to the knowledge of my now 15-year-old transgression as if I had just committed them and as if my crimes were against them.
Early on my fiancé consulted a professional who told her that she had no obligation to tell anyone of my past, in large part because people aren’t as open-minded and forgiving as they proclaim to be.
What Is Real for me is present when I interact with someone for the first time and there hasn’t been an interrogation into careers, financial status or past transgressions, all that exists is a veil of ignorance and the opportunity to be whatever you believe the other person should know you to be.
CS: You had a party and reading at Diesel bookstore in Brentwood with Peter Conti in August to celebrate the launch of your book. It was overflowing and the audience was rapt. Was the thought of such a day something to keep you going throughout your sentence? Can you believe this is real?
RP: In the second year of my sentence I drew a line down a sheet of paper and on one side I wrote, ANONYMOUS, and wrote all of the I could pursue that would afford me the opportunity to earn a living, start a business and hopefully never discuss my past. The professions were construction, real estate, production work behind the scenes, etc. On the other side it said, ART, and the title was singular: writer.
I knew that if I chose to tell my story then I would have to write it out in the vein of Malcolm X, Thoreau, Arthur Ashe–men that had lived situations that the rest of the world needed to know existed.
I envisioned an audience judging my work and allowing my work to speak to my commitment to a life free of crime.
CS: What’s it been like seeing your book and name in the news again, like on Page 6, and other gossip tabloids?
RP: Seeing my name in the press, attached to the crime reminds me that I have to be very clear with whomever I’m speaking to that I have no pride in my past … I take no pleasure in having exacted revenge on Joe Francis and I work to be careful that at no time does it appear that I’m spiking the ball–as I told the New York Post‘s, Page Six, “He was the victim and I was the perpetrator.”
CS: What do you hope is the lesson of your story?
RP: I hope that the reader will see that I was honest in my telling of my experience. I hope that the literary community will see my style to be worthy of review. At the end of the day, many people will take away what they want. I wrote about a fully functioning society and like in any society, the reader will witness despair, violence, hope, loss of love, acceptance and camaraderie. What one does with those moments is up to them.
CS: What’s next for you and for the book?
RP: Next, I am working to adapt What Is Real to television, a mix of “Oz” meets “The Night Of.”
Riley Perez was raised in L.A by his grandfather who instilled in him his Jewish faith. He was a multi-sport athlete who gravitated to boxing. His passion for the sport took him from the comfort of his Hancock Park neighborhood to train at gyms around L.A, eventually settling at Broadway Gym in South Central where he trained under Bill Slayton. The combination of being a straight-A student and the first-rate education on the L.A streets caught the attention of Robert “Puggy” Zeichick, one half of a Jewish-Italian bookmaking team. Riley started doing pick-ups and quickly graduated to felonious capers. After a stint in juvenile reform school, Riley resumed his gambling association, which had grown to working for Matthew “Matty the Horse” Ianniello. He balanced his bookmaking business with his travels as an employee for TWA. Briefly, Riley settled on University studies in Germany, but returned to L.A. full time after capitalizing on the tech boom of the 90s in part by day trading stocks and then creating software that he licensed to Washington Mutual Bank, a company he worked for, which allowed him a solid foundational understanding of banking regulations, which he took with him into his online gaming ventures. What Is Real: The Life and Crimes of Darnell Riley, published by Rare Bird Books, is his first book. To learn more about Riley, please visit www.rileyperez.com.
Riley Perez will be reading from WHAT IS REAL with fellow authors Peter Conti, Rob Weiss and Andy Fiscella, with Coby Connell moderating, TONIGHT, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 7-9 p.m. at The Dime, 442 N. Fairfax Ave., LA. Free and open to the public. RSVP here.