Prison gang chief linked to numerous killings set to die Tuesday

HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- At 5-foot-5, Robert Perez hardly would stand out in a crowd. A former prosecutor who helped send him to death row knows better.

"He looms larger," Juff Mulliner said. "He's got a real presence and he's got a real warmth. He was a natural leader. I believe he would have been a leader in whatever he decided to do in life."

Despite the complimentary words, Mulliner is no fan of Perez, who was convicted of two murders as part of an unprecedented wave of violence in San Antonio in the 1990s.

Perez, 48, is set to die Tuesday for a 1994 double slaying during what authorities said was a power struggle within the violent Texas prison gang the Mexican Mafia. Perez, known as "Beaver," presumably because of two prominent front teeth, rose in the military structure of the organization to the top ranks of general.

"He's definitely done some bad things," said Mulliner, a former Bexar County assistant district attorney now in private practice.

Evidence at Perez's capital murder trial in the fatal shootings of Jose Travieso and James Rivas tied the former laborer and ninth-grade dropout to another 15 or so slayings. Among those were the infamous gangland-style executions of five people in 1997 known in San Antonio as the West French Place killings.

Perez would be the seventh inmate to receive lethal injection this year in the nation's busiest capital punishment state and the first of two facing execution this week. Joseph Nichols, convicted of killing a Houston convenience store clerk more than 26 years ago, is scheduled to die Wednesday.

The U.S. Supreme Court in October refused to review Perez's case. A federal judge in Houston last week dismissed a lawsuit that tried to stop the execution by challenging Texas lethal injection procedures as unconstitutional. His lawyer said no additional appeals were planned.

"It's pretty hopeless," Don Vernay said.

Perez, a father of eight, declined to speak with reporters in the weeks preceding his execution date.

He first went to prison in 1987 on a 10-year term for stabbing a man numerous times in the heart and stomach. He was paroled in 1990 and had the parole revoked two years later. He was out after only three months, released in 1992 on mandatory supervision, a form of probation.

Soon after, he became a much more prominent figure in the gang.

Heriberto "Herbie" Huerta, president and a founder of the Mexican Mafia in Texas, was convicted in 1994 on racketeering charges and sentenced to life in a federal prison, leaving a split in the group he'd established 10 years earlier while imprisoned for murder conspiracy and racketeering. The gang was intended to provide protection for Hispanics in Texas prisons.

One faction lined up with Perez, who while out of prison still maintained allegiance to Huerta. Another faction was led by Luis "Blue" Adames.

According to trial testimony, Perez and two companions spotted Adames' car at a San Antonio public housing project in 1994, went home to get weapons and returned intending to kill him. Adames wasn't there, but his supporters were and the men all exchanged gunfire.

Killed were Rivas, 27, and Travieso, 34, who'd been in a wheelchair as a result of wounds from a previous shooting. It wouldn't be until 1997 that Perez was indicted for their slayings. The following year, Perez was among about a dozen Mexican Mafia members charged with racketeering and involvement in more than a dozen murders.

His capital murder trial, moved from San Antonio to Dallas because of publicity in his hometown, began in 1999, a month after he was convicted in the federal case where he faced a life sentence without parole.

David Bires, one of Perez's trial lawyers, who described Perez as "an absolute gentleman," recalled last week how he urged jurors to spare Perez's life because Perez already was headed to a maximum security federal lockup and never would get out. Prosecutors countered by showing jurors scenes of other gang murders carried out at Perez's orders, they said.

"Absolutely gruesome," Bires said. "Some of the most horrendous evidence I've ever seen in 36 years practice of law."

Prosecutor Mary Green said among her witnesses was an informant who had served as Perez's triggerman.

"Beaver would say: 'Get rid of so and so.' And this guy would do it," she said.

Travieso's nephew, who was at the 1994 shooting scene and survived, testified against Perez, as did Perez's two companions. The jury decided Perez, who didn't testify, should die.