In Mario Perez Roque’s bedroom on Wednesday, visitors could see a movie poster-sized picture of the woman police allege he kidnapped in Kenner and brought to his apartment in Mid-City five days earlier.
There was also a hole — roughly a yard wide, a yard long and 4 feet deep, dug through the room’s ceramic tile floor and into the ground below his apartment — that police said had been concealed by his bed when he brought the woman there Friday.
Perez’s brother — Jose Antonio “Tony” Perez, who owns the property — admitted the strangeness of the scene. But he nonetheless strongly disputed authorities’ description of the apartment in the 100 block of North Lopez Street as a “house of horrors.”
He also said the situation surrounding Mario Perez — whom he described as having a childlike mind — is more complicated than police have claimed, and he vowed to stand by his younger brother no matter what.
“Whatever the case, he’s my brother,” Tony Perez, 65, said of Mario Perez, 59. “Everything that’s happened hurts me.”
Tony said Mario has had mental health issues dating back to their boyhood in Cuba. Both arrived in the United States in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift, a large-scale migration that grew controversial when it emerged that some of the migrants had been released from Cuban prisons or mental health institutions.
Tony Perez said his brother had not been institutionalized in the island nation, but that it was obvious when they were children that Mario “had problems with the brain.”
“The doctor said ... when he’s 40, it is like he’s 15 years old,” Tony said of Mario. “When he’s 50, he’s like 20.”
Tony said he and his brother lived in New Orleans together for a time in the 1980s, but then Mario moved to New Jersey. He was convicted there of attempted murder and kidnapping stemming from a 1985 arrest in Newark, but Tony said they never spoke of that until the younger brother returned to the New Orleans area in the mid-2000s after serving time in prison.
Mario Perez was then arrested in Kenner and charged with the attempted murder of a man with whom he was feuding over a woman, but after spending time in a mental institution, he eventually pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of possession of a firearm by a felon.
When his brother was released from the Jefferson Parish jail in May 2009, Tony agreed to let him live for free in Tony’s rental property on North Lopez Street in New Orleans in exchange for upkeep on the apartments there.
Tony Perez, who lives in Terrytown, said he didn’t see his brother that often after he moved into the apartment. But, Tony said, he was pleased with the changes his brother made.
He built a bathroom with marbled walls and a large soaking bathtub. He installed wooden kitchen cabinets that he made by hand. And he adorned many of the surfaces in the home with models of antique cars.
However, some of the features Mario Perez put into the apartment would come to be viewed in a more sinister light by authorities after a 36-year-old Guatemalan woman he met while working for a janitorial service contracted to clean the Mercedes-Benz Superdome accused him of twice taking her there against her will.
Police said the place was outfitted with two-way mirrors, trap doors, a chair with restraints, a false wall and an insulated chamber.
Tony Perez, who was not present during the police’s execution of a search warrant at the apartment, expressed disbelief at the officers’ description as two reporters and a photographer examined the place Wednesday.
“Did you find a secret wall?” he asked. “Where was the chamber?”
Pointing to an obviously hand-built addition to the apartment abutting the bedroom and the kitchen that he described as a storage closet, he asked, “This is a secret wall?”
Tony Perez admitted that he could see why authorities were alarmed at the hole dug into the bedroom floor. “I don’t know what is the purpose for that,” he said. “I don’t want to imagine.”
Yet he insisted that the relationship between his brother and the purported victim was much more complicated than police and news reports suggested.
Tony Perez reiterated a neighbor’s suggestion that the pair had been involved in a relationship of some sort until she abruptly cut it off, despite assertions from the police and the woman that nothing romantic had gone on between them. He said his brother often struggles in his relationships with women, especially when they do not feel as strongly about him as he does about them.
“Women make him crazy because he cannot manage women,” Tony said. “I’m not saying he’s an angel, but sometimes a woman makes you mad.”
Tony said he had urged his brother to cut off contact with the woman he is accused of kidnapping after an incident about a month ago. Police and the woman said Mario had taken her to his place after work and forcibly kept her there for hours until she was able to escape.
Tony said Mario described that incident to him as a fight, and Tony advised Mario to stop seeing her immediately.
“Mario says, ‘No, no, no — I won’t (go) back (to her),’ ” Tony said. “But he didn’t listen to me.”
Tony said he knows the gravity of the accusation that his brother and another as-yet unidentified suspect snatched the woman as she left her Kenner apartment for work Friday, tying her to a chair with a bag over her head in the Mid-City apartment before she escaped and was rescued by passers-by.
He said an attorney he approached about defending Mario told him to save his money because he’d probably just lose it.
Nonetheless, Tony said, he won’t abandon his brother, who remains in jail in Jefferson Parish on a fugitive warrant from Orleans Parish for attempted simple kidnapping and false imprisonment.
“All I can say in regards to him is I’m sorry, and I love him,” Tony Perez said. “He’s my brother, and I’m going to try to help him however I can.”