Wanted father captured on freeway bridge, 4 sons safe

Police approach Daniel Diego Perez as he tries to jump off a freeway bridge in Santee, California, on Thursday. Perez was tackled. (John Gibbins ~ U-T San Diego)

SAN DIEGO -- A three-day search for a man wanted for questioning in his wife's disappearance and the abduction of their four young sons ended Thursday when police officers tackled him on a freeway bridge as he began climbing over a railing 150 feet above the ground. All four boys were safe.

Police feared Daniel Perez might kill himself and his boys when he stopped on a freeway ramp after a pursuit that lasted about 10 minutes and reached speeds of 85 mph, California Highway Patrol officer Kevin Pearlstein said.

A police negotiator spoke by phone with Perez, 43, who released two boys. Police sensed a change in demeanor and sent in armored vehicles from both directions to block the car, along with about 25 San Diego County sheriff's deputies.

"Something definitely changed," Pearlstein said. "We decided we had to take a proactive approach instead of letting it play out."

With television helicopters circling above, Perez got out of the black Toyota Camry's passenger door and walked backward to the bridge railing with one boy at his side, holding a phone to his ear while the other boy followed a few steps behind. Perez threw an arm and a leg over the railing, but police shot him with a beanbag round, rushed in and took him into custody.

It was a climax to an intense search for Perez, his wife Erica, 39, and their four sons, ages 6, 8, 9 and 11. The boys were physically unharmed and taken to the highway patrol office in El Cajon.

On Wednesday, investigators found a Honda Accord belonging to the couple with the body of a dead woman in the trunk about a half-mile from their Montebello home, 15 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

Montebello police have declined to identify the woman, pending notification of kin. Police have identified Perez as a person of interest in his wife's disappearance.

In a tearful news conference Wednesday night, relatives begged for the children's return.

"You're breaking our heart," said Pamela Valdez, the children's aunt. "Please don't hurt the kids, please."

The highway patrol issued an Amber Alert on Thursday stating the children were "taken by their biological father." A police anti-theft tracking device in El Cajon flagged the vehicle, triggering the pursuit shortly after 8 a.m.

"He wasn't completely reckless, but he wasn't stopping for red lights and sirens," Pearlstein said.

Two of the four boys ran from the vehicle when it stopped on the overpass.

Perez "was basically in control of the whole situation," said Pearlstein, who didn't believe the man was armed. "If he really wanted to hurt the kids, he could have just driven off a bridge himself."

The family had not been heard from since Friday, and neither adult had been answering their phones. Relatives told police, who were notified Tuesday.

Montebello Police Capt. Luis Lopez said Perez has a criminal history but couldn't provide information on previous charges. Family members told investigators the couple had a history of domestic violence, and Lopez confirmed that included incidents reported to police.

Perez worked as a school janitor, Lopez said.

The boys were to return to Montebello on Thursday, Lopez said. They will be reunited with loved ones, and authorities will determine where they should be placed.