The coppery 1960s-era Chevrolet Impala, emblazoned with a flame on its hood, rested in a fenced parking lot outside the Bartow County Jail on Wednesday, sparkling under the bright sun like a new penny. Nearby gleamed an aqua 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible, lovingly restored with an interior the color of fresh snow.
Next to these vintage sedans and rows of more than 20 other vehicles, officers displayed an assortment of pistols and long guns. Among them: a .500 Smith and Wesson Magnum, as imposing as the menacing pistol Clint Eastwood wielded in his “Dirty Harry” movies.
Juan Antonio Perez, according to federal prosecutors, amassed these pricey collections as well as five pieces of real estate after entering the country illegally from Mexico 27 years ago. He managed to live the good life in a guarded 7,543-square-foot compound, the prosecutors allege, by making millions of dollars through a residential construction company he created, Aztec Framing, and underpaying his unauthorized immigrant employees. He’s also accused of failing to pay taxes.
Flanked by the vehicles and weapons authorities seized from Perez, U.S. Attorney B.J. Pak announced a federal grand jury has indicted Perez on charges of harboring unauthorized immigrants for financial gain and possessing firearms while being in the country illegally. Both are felonies that each carry up to 10 years in prison.
Perez, 46, is due in a federal court in Rome on Monday morning. His attorney declined to comment about his case.
Because he is a Mexican national living here without legal status, Pak said, Perez was unable to register vehicles and utilities in his name or buy firearms, so he had friends with legal status do that for him.
“That is why he has been able to evade detection,” Pak said. “The investigation is continuing, and we are looking at various other charges on people involved. And when we gather enough evidence, we will present that evidence to the grand jury, and we will be seeking a superseding indictment, adding additional charges or additional defendants.”
Perez also shielded his actions through an elaborate scheme involving shell companies and subcontractors, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Federal, state and local authorities spent five years investigating him. They didn’t say what prompted their probe, but confirmed they got tips and dug into his bank, tax and vehicle registration records.
A 2015 deposition Perez gave in an unrelated civil case in Hamilton County, Tenn., also gave them clues. In that deposition, a federal affidavit shows, Perez said he came to the United States illegally from Mexico. Other court records quote a woman, who said she worked as Perez’ unofficial administrative assistant, estimating he had about 200 employees. She said nearly all of them were in the country illegally.
“Cases like this should also be an example to anyone who would partake in criminal activity,” warned Nick Annan, ICE’s special agent in charge of homeland security investigations in Georgia and the Carolinas. “The wealth that you received will be short-lived. Your time will come.”
Court records also describe properties owned by Perez in Bartow and Cobb counties. Surrounded by high walls and located in a remote part of Rydal, Perez’ $680,900 compound is so isolated that it can be “surveilled surreptitiously only by helicopter,” an ICE affidavit says. “The house is surrounded by a tall wall and gate and utility and other workers who have had access to the grounds report that armed guards patrol inside the wall.”
In nearby Kingston, Perez maintains what he calls his “fun house,” a place where he stores some of his vehicles and other expensive “toys,” the affidavit says. Perez has also rented a home in Acworth to his unauthorized immigrant workers.
After Wednesday’s news conference, federal authorities marveled at the vehicles and guns seized from Perez. Among them is a 2018 Chevrolet Camaro with a camouflage coated exterior and a massive white 2018 GMC Sierra Denali purchased for $74,000 and then upgraded with $692,000 in improvements.
In all, Perez acquired eight pistols, five shotguns and a rifle. Asked what Perez was doing with them and why he had armed guards patrolling his Bartow home, Pak said he could not comment on a motive.
“If it is just merely for self-protection,” Pak said, “I’m not quite sure you need 14 weapons.”