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The system 'left me hanging,' Perry Cerf says

By Tom Davis

The last time he left state custody, Perry Cerf didn't meet with a probation or parole officer. Hedidn't go home to Bergenfield and talk to hismother.

Cerfheaded to New York Cityand got a beer.

"I asked a bum to buy it for me," he said. "Iwasn't legal age."

Less than three weeks later, Cerfstomped a 47-year-old escort to death, bound her naked body with an electricalcord and dumped it in the woods.

All his life, Cerf displayedviolent signs of mental illness. Yet, as can often happen with severelytroubled youth, he never got nearly enough attention - until he killed someone.

Even Cerf himself can see it.

"They just left me hanging," he says.

More than 200 pages of juvenile records released to TheRecord outline how Cerf slipped through gaps in asystem that was supposed to help him. The documents, which ordinarily are kept confidentialto protect juveniles from stigma, provide a rare glimpse into how anemotionally troubled youth can become a violent adult criminal.

According to the records, Cerf:

·Overwhelmed his family, teachers,counselors and others in his support system.

·Entered treatment programs that failedto rehabilitate - or even contain - him.

·Received inconsistent and insufficientfollow-up care after he was incarcerated.

Then, at perhaps the most critical juncture, Cerf wasn't moved into adult-level care once he hadoutgrown juvenile mental health services.

He was simply turned loose.

The state Parole Board has acknowledged mishandling Cerf's case because it failed to assign him a paroleofficer after his Nov. 8, 2002, release from the Garden State YouthCorrectional Facility in Yardville.

Seventeen days later, he killed FloAndrade of Garfieldat his adoptive mother's home.

An internal Parole Board investigation, launched after Cerf's arrest on the murder charge, also found that paroleofficials failed to order other conditions of a required supervision plan.

That plan would have required him to undergo mandatory drugand alcohol testing. It also would have imposed a curfew and required him tofind work. Officials also could have ordered psychiatric counseling.

The foul-up on Cerf's caseprompted the state to compile a database that would better prepare the board'sstaff as it handles the pending release of detainees, said Edward Bray,communications manager for the New Jersey Parole Board.

"The staff should have reviewed each case, but theymissed that he was a juvenile offender in an adult facility who should have[had] supervision," Bray said.

An 'uncontrollable' youth

Throughout Cerf's youth,psychologists, educators and outreach workers deemed him"uncontrollable." He vandalized property, causing thousands ofdollars in damage. He beat up his adoptive mother, at one point threatening tokill her. He spent time in state custody for a variety of crimes, includingsexual assault, theft, burglary, criminal mischief,violation of probation, vandalism and disorderly conduct.

"You'll see many people tried to help him. But we'renot miracle workers," said Denyse Coyle Galda, an assistant Bergen Countyprosecutor.

Now serving a 50-year sentence at New Jersey State Prison,the 22-year-old Cerf takes medication for bipolardisorder and other mental illnesses. But he's hardly cured.

For one thing, he has no regrets. He harbors deep hatred formost people. Several times, he's been segregated from other inmates because ofdisciplinary problems. Authorities consider him among the state's mostnotorious murderers.

Andrade's relatives have sued for Cerf's$200,000 trust fund. They, like many, have little sympathy for someone whoopenly boasts of killing others.

"He's not crazy. He knew what he's doing," saidthe dead woman's brother, Carlos Quirola of New Milford. "To him, it's like a joke."

With prison doors shut behind him, his wrists cuffed to achair, Cerf spoke recently of what led him to murder.Three state corrections officers kept watch as he fidgeted nervously, jerkinghis head back to move his long, brown hair from his eyes.

His issues were detected early, Cerfsays, almost mockingly. Although he'd been diagnosed with attention deficithyperactive disorder and other mental illnesses by the time he was 8, everyonearound him failed to support him, he says.

"I saw psychologists, but there was no medication thatworked," Cerf said. "There's no magicpill."

Cerf'smother was 12 years old when she gave birth to him, according to Cerf's April 2001 probation report. He was 4 weeks old whenshe and his maternal grandmother died in a car crash, it says. He didn't knowhis father.

After Cerf was placed in fostercare, his maternal great-grandfather adopted him, the report says. But he diedwhen Cerf was 4.

His step-great-grandmother, Mary Cerf,became his adoptive mother. But she was "not capable of providing thestructure necessary for this troubled boy," counselors wrote in a Dec. 2,1994, letter to Superior Court Judge Daniel Mecca.

Cerfwas in constant trouble in school. He said he once bit theprincipal's fingers and twisted his crotch.

"I'd take it to the next level. I'd take my mom'skitchen knives and throw them in the neighbor's yards, just for noreason," he said, laughing as he recalled the incident. "I didn'twant to listen."

His mother became "so highly distressed by herprogressive inability to manage Perry that she is currently unable to take anydefinitive action," psychologist Dennis Cheteyanwrote in a Dec. 5, 1994, letter to juvenile counselors.

The counselors themselves didn't fare much better. Theybelieved Cerf when he said he was sexually abusedbetween the ages of 4 and 6, his juvenile case file shows.

Cerfsays he told those stories to get attention.

"I watched this special on A&E" aboutmolestation, he said. "It helped me get out of trouble."

Probation extended

Cerf'sfirst brushes with the law occurred at age 11 when he threw apiece of concrete through an open school bus window. That same year, he wascaught stealing a camcorder.

He received one year of probation, but it was continuouslyextended because "I was doing stuff I wasn't supposed to be doing," Cerf said.

He broke curfew, for instance. He refused to speak to hisprobation officers, and stole a cellphone, batteriesand a key chain, among other items. He also spray-painted obscenities on agarage.

Sometimes, Cerf was sent to the Bergen County Juvenile Detention Center, where otherinmates picked on him. He'd hide or fake suicides to get sent to the hospital.

"They had psychiatrists and psychologists who sawme," he said. "They really didn't go out of their way to help."

Other times, Cerf was sent totreatment programs. Or he'd be released to his mother.

When he was 11, Cerf flew into arage after his mother told him to take his psychotropic medication. The boypunched her in the back of her head and in her left eye, Bergenfieldpolice records show.

Fifty years older than Perry, Mary Cerftried to impose restrictions. But the teenager still hung out at the pool hall,or dressed up in women's clothing and went nightclubbing.

"She never really knew how to deal with it. She neverreally had to deal with psychological issues," Perry Cerfsaid.

Mary Cerf declined to beinterviewed for this article, saying only: "I did nothing but love andnurture my son. They [child welfare services] did nothing to help my son."

Perry Cerf was referred to theCase Assessment Resource Team of Bergen County, a state-funded program thatprovided services for children in trouble. CART met with children and families,crafting plans that linked troubled children to vocational training programs,mentoring, counseling and other services. In a few cases, CART had a guardianappointed for children with poor support systems.

CART representatives met several times with Cerf's mother and others involved in his care. But therewas little opportunity to provide the necessary services because Cerf was usually incarcerated or placed in residentialtreatment programs outside of the area, said Paul Ragusa,a former coordinator for CART and the Children's Interagency CoordinatingCouncil.

"There should have been a plan for him, saying, 'Whenhe gets out, he has to go to therapy and have a supervision plan,' and not justsay, 'This is just a criminal,'Ÿ" Ragusasaid.

Cerfbriefly attended the private WindsorSchool in Lincoln Park,for students with emotional and learning disabilities. Administrators praisedhim for his progress. He was considered an accomplished piano player.

But Cerf didn't adapt well. Hisbehavior deteriorated, according to his probation report.

In April 1997, Cerf was placed atSt. Peter's Village, a specialized residential treatment program in Denville.He was discharged two months later because of "assaultivebehavior," "sexual acting out" and other problems, according tothe probation report.

Cerfwas committed to the BergenCounty JuvenileDetention Centerand then to Bonnie Brae, a residential treatment center in Somerset County,from 1997 to 2000. But even there he found trouble: He and an 11-year-old boywere caught performing what Cerf described as"mutual masturbation." He was convicted of sexual assault andsentenced to three years' probation.

Cerfalso broke windows, a computer, and ceiling tiles at thefacility, bent the school van's antenna and kicked a hole in a wall, causing$2,000 worth of property damage, officials said.

In a Sept. 30, 1998, letter to the state Division of Youthand Family Services, Bonnie Brae officials called detention an "effectiveand motivating intervention" for sexually aggressive youths like Cerf.

Later, they determined that Cerfdisplayed "significant improvement" and discharged him in November2000, the probation report says. His discharge summary says he"successfully completed treatment goals."

'Two homicides look good'

Cerfwas 18 when he went to New York on New Year's Eve to ring in 2001, violating hisprobation. When he got home and learned that he was in trouble, he became angry,records show: He pulled the cord from the wall so his mother couldn't use thetelephone. He threw the circuit-breaker, turning off a housemate's oxygen tank.

"Well, two homicides look good," he told hismother.

Because he was still on juvenile probation, Cerf was ordered into the New Jersey Training Schoolfor Boys in Jamesburg for two years. In early August 2002, he was transferredto the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility in Yardville, a prison foryoung adults.

Cerfserved roughly a year and a few months of the two-year sentence.

"They were just sick of me in the prison system,"he said, chuckling as he recalled the events that led to his release."They couldn't handle me in juvenile."

Before his release from Yardville, Cerfsaid he appeared before the state Parole Board's two-member juvenile panel. Hewas told he had "maxed out," he said.

Because of that, Cerf wasn't givena parole term - even though a 1995 state law required post-release supervisionfor all juvenile offenders, said Bray of the Parole Board.

Problems can emerge once juvenile offenders like Cerf are transferred to an adult prison managed by theDepartment of Corrections, Bray said.

"It's not typical, but it's not so unusual for someoneto slip through the cracks," he said.

If a supervision plan had been created before Cerf's release from Yardville on Nov. 8, 2002, he wouldhave been required to meet a parole officer three days later.

Instead, he took the train to New York.

Cerfwas officially out of the judicial system. He had no one toreport to. Nor did he have any advocates or counselors.

CART - which was replaced by a similar program calledPartnership for Children - ordinarily met with community providers and themental health centers who could assist children as they "aged out" ofthe juvenile justice system, said Ragusa, the formerCART coordinator.

But Ragusa doesn't recall anyoneoffering to assist Cerf. There apparently was no planto bridge his care from youth to adulthood.

"Somebody could have stepped forward and said, 'He'sbeen in jail. He's had psychiatric care. He's somebody who needs priorityattention," Ragusasaid. "You can't just take the fish and plunge it into new water."

Meeting the escort

On Nov. 25, 2002, Cerf respondedto a classified ad that Andrade, an immigrant from Ecuador, had placed in a magazine.Andrade agreed to meet Cerf at the Lake Street house in Bergenfieldhe shared with his mother.

Cerfsays he just wanted a massage. He'd done this before, he said. Hedidn't think it would be a problem.

But Andrade pulled out sex toys, he said. He says he refusedthem, but she insisted.

"She said I'm not going to perform those services. Sowe got into an argument," he said. "She starts screaming. I'mstarting to get paranoid."

Jacked up on cocaine, Cerf beatAndrade. When she resisted, he killed her.

"I broke her trachea, and made her swallow her tongue.Blood then comes out of the mouth," he said, snickering as he told thestory. "I used my knuckles to break her trachea."

Cerfsays he then drank her blood "so I could allow this personto live vicariously through myself."

Demarest police later stopped Cerffor speeding and found that he had pasted his photograph onto the dead woman'sdriver's license. They said he'd also been seen wearing Andrade's clothes - anallegation that Cerf denies.

Cerffeels no sympathy for Andrade. Her problem, he said, was that shedidn't listen to him.

"Personally, I don't like to say I regret things thatI've done," he said. "I feel bad because I got caught."

Prosecutors offered Cerf 40 yearsin prison if he pleaded guilty to raping and killing Andrade. But Cerf rejected the deal - saying he didn't want to go toprison on a sex conviction - and instead took 50 years by pleading guilty tomurder and robbery. He won't be eligible for parole until he is 62.

Cerfnow says he wants a sex change. He's a woman trapped in a man'sbody, he says. Trying to hide his feminine traits in prison is impossible.

The state Department of Corrections has declined to commenton his request.

"Nobody has ever asked me what I wanted," Cerf said, twisting his neck, wrists cuffed behind him."I probably would have had a lot to say. I would have had a betterlife."

* * *

200 pages of records on Cerf case

In a rare move, Superior Court Judge Harold Hollenbeck onAug. 11 authorized the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office - with Perry Cerf's approval - to release documents to The Recorddetailing Cerf's complete judicial and psychiatrichistory, beginning with his childhood. The more than 200 pages of records includeprobation reports, correspondence from mental health professionals, psychiatricand psychological profiles and court and police reports. The Record hadobtained Cerf's signed consent, which was presentedto the judge as part of the request for his records.

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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