In 2004, “Darnell” Riley Perez broke into the home of Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis, “roughed him up” and then filmed a compromising video with the intent to extort him — all at the direction of his bosses, who had ties to the mob. It's a wild story and Perez's memoir, What Is Real: The Life and Crimes of Darnell Riley, chronicles how the native Angeleno came to commit the high-profile crime and what his life in the prison system was like after he was convicted.
Last week, the Dime on Fairfax became the backdrop for Perez's unique reading event. The bar was transformed into a dark-themed salon with an intimate group of Hollywood writers, actors and producers lending their support and reading different chapters from the book. It was an illuminating event that went beyond the tabloid interest of his story and amplified the humanity in it, delving into the existential questions one grapples with while in prison.
Francis’ rumored former girlfriend Paris Hilton was the person who learned of Perez's identity and his crimes while she was partying in Las Vegas with mutual friends, Perez says. She went on to report what she knew to the authorities, which led to his arrest in 2005 and the possibility of two life sentences. He served just under 10 years in state prisons, including the notoriously violent Corcoran State Prison, which housed Charles Manson and is known for gang activity with ties both inside and outside of jail.
Actor Scott Caan encouraged Perez to write his memoir, which the author says also helped keep him sane during his years in prison.The book explores his solitary confinement, and how he had to navigate affiliations with the Crips, Bloods and Asian Boyz, choosing sides and gang affiliations to survive while acting as a “soldier” in a private war between convicts.
“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,” Perez says of the writing process, which his friend Caan consistently encouraged via phone calls. Eventually Caan got a draft to Tyson Cornell, the publisher of L.A.-based Rare Bird Lit, who instantly picked up the title. It was released last month and celebrated with an overflowing courtyard reading at Brentwood’s Diesel Bookstore. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a disturbingly honest memoir” and an unflinching “story of life inside the California state prison system.” The book made headlines on Page Six and Daily Mail, and Perez was recently featured on musician Dave Navarro’s Dark Matter show on Dash Radio to talk about the book and his experiences. Francis has remained silent.
Perez says he hopes his memoir will help others avoid his fate and bring awareness to the injustices and realities of prison life, and life beyond. A Cuban-American who practices Judaism, Perez grew up with an interest in athletics. He gravitated to boxing early on, which took him from Hancock Park to Broadway Gym in South L.A., where he worked with renowned boxing trainer Bill Slayton. Perez veered away from sports when he started working for Robert “Puggy” Zeichick doing pickups and, soon, moving on to questionable acts and illegal activity. After a stint in juvenile detention, Perez worked for Matthew “Matty the Horse” Ianniello. He also capitalized on the '90s tech boom, in part by day-trading stocks, later creating software he licensed to Washington Mutual Bank.
The hit on Francis concerned retribution for an alleged assault on a relative of one of his bosses. Since his prison release, Perez says he’s remained crime-free.
At the reading at the Dime on Wednesday, Sept. 26, friends who came to support Perez and read his potent, straightforward words from the book included actress Coby Connell, who moderated the reading; tattooed author-actor Peter Conti (Gringo, Barfly); producer Rob Weiss (Ballers, Entourage); and Andy Fiscella, actor, Publish Enemies comic book publisher and co-owner of the Dime. Perez himself read from the first chapter, “Day 1.”
“Since the book’s publication, it has been a relief to talk through the crime and the violent experiences that I write about, which aren’t cakewalks,” says Perez, who is working to adapt his story for television. “What’s been hardest is dealing with my crime [and] people whom I didn’t commit it against. How I'm received by the sanctimonious.”
More about the book and Perez at rileyperez.com.