Gil Perez in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Everyone stood up and stopped speaking when the judge entered the courtroom to decide how long Gil Perez would spend in federal prison.

Even in the high drama of federal court, amid a raging opioid crisis that’s killed thousands of Mainers, Perez’s case stood out. After years of addiction and run-ins with the law, he had finally gotten sober, and had even become a leader in his recovery community. But on Thursday afternoon, the day after his 38th birthday, he still stared down the possibility of 17 years in prison due to stiff federal guidelines, with a mandatory minimum of five years, set by Congress.

There was only so much leeway for U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby, who is retiring this month after 40 years on the bench. In his final sentencing, he had a choice: Would he back the recommendation of prosecutors, or put his faith in the redemption of a man with a lifetime of bad decisions who had been arrested with a backpack full of cocaine and fentanyl? 

By the time of his August 2019 arrest by local police in Lawrence, Massachusetts, federal agents had already suspected Perez of dealing drugs and had gathered enough evidence to charge him with a more serious crime. The drugs found on Perez were bound for Maine, and he planned to keep a generous portion to feed his own addiction.

But more than 2 ½ years later, standing in that marble-walled federal courtroom in Portland over a drug conspiracy charge, he resembled an entirely different person. Not long after his arrest, the pandemic had ground the court system to a halt, slowing his case and giving him, for the first time, the chance to get sober. He took it.

On the afternoon of his sentencing, about 30 friends and family stood behind him in the courtroom, hoping the judge would choose a punishment to suit the person Perez had become. They knew the severity of his crime could make that a longshot. His attorney, Heather Gonzales, of the Maine federal defender’s office, argued in court filings that if there was ever a case for mercy, it was Perez’s, and he should get the minimum of five years.

Perez worried that returning to prison would threaten his hard-fought sobriety. But he knew that afternoon that he couldn’t avoid it. He thought that he’d be lucky to get nine years.

“I don’t want to lose where I’m at,” he told the Bangor Daily News in an interview a week before his sentencing.

Growing up poor in Acton, Perez said he used drugs for the first time when his babysitter gave him a joint at age 8. By the time he turned 12, he was getting into trouble with the police and was sent to the former Maine Youth Center in South Portland.

When he was 16, police in Vermont caught him with more than 2 pounds of marijuana and charged him as an adult. He spent the next five years in prison.

Perez didn’t realize the severity of his addiction until his early 30s. Then, in 2015, he snapped a bone in his leg after getting it caught in a ladder and received a prescription for painkillers.

When it ran out, he started using heroin. It became his entire life. When he wasn’t in jail, or out buying drugs, he spent most days getting high alone in the York County woods. He was using 20 grams a day by the time of his arrest in Massachusetts, and expected it would eventually kill him. He had sort of hoped it would.

Gonzales enrolled him in a drug treatment program offered by a jail in Strafford County, New Hampshire. At first he was reluctant, but one night, lying awake in his jail bunk, he realized he was out of options and decided to get sober.

But his true recovery began later, while living and attending meetings with other people struggling with addiction, he said. He felt loved and full of purpose for the first time in his life. If it snowed, he plowed the driveway to make sure everyone could get to their meeting. If someone relapsed, he sought them out. He started visiting the Strafford County jail to speak to men just like him. For someone who didn’t used to like or trust people, he realized that he had a talent for getting through to others. The manager of his sober home eventually hired Perez as an assistant.

In court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Scott argued that two years of good deeds don’t wipe away the effects of his actions. Not everyone who uses drugs decides to sell them, he said, especially in the large quantities Perez did, during a deadly opioid crisis.

Perez had cycled in and out of jail since he was a teenager and deserved a stiff sentence to deter him and others from future lawbreaking, Scott said, urging the judge to imprison him for closer to 14 years.

When it was her turn to speak, Gonzales focused on her client’s history of substance use and incarceration, and read from some of the letters to the court on behalf of Perez.

“I only advocate on behalf of Mr. Perez because I can say with a high degree of certainty that he makes the world a better place,” read Gonzales, her voice straining with emotion as she quoted a letter written by a local professor.

“And if by chance, any of my children have this disease, I pray they find their way to AA and men like Gilbert Perez are there waiting for them.”

Perez addressed the judge last. He wore a white collared shirt, a freshly cropped haircut and a blue surgical mask. He apologized for the things he’d done and told the story of his life. One day, he hopes to open a recovery home of his own, he said.

Through the hearing, Hornby listened with a mostly expressionless face and the occasional smile. When Perez finished speaking, he asked for a moment, and flipped through a few papers.

When he addressed the room, Hornby said he would explain his reasons for Perez’s sentence carefully so everyone understood them.

Judges are supposed to consider several things in deciding a just sentence, from the severity of the crime to the nature of the defendant. “There’s no magic here. It’s not algebra,” he said.

In this case, a minimum sentence of five years is non-negotiable, he said. And the guidelines, he continued, are so high because the drugs Perez dealt were so deadly.

“But I’ve concluded that the guideline range is too high,” Hornby said.

What Perez went through growing up is important context to his crime, and what he has done since his arrest is “extraordinary,” he said.

“I can honestly say this is unique in what he’s done here,” Hornby said.  

Perez listened in stillness as the judge sentenced him to five years in prison.

Hornby encouraged him not to let prison stop him from continuing the work he’d started. The judge wished him luck before he stood up and left the courtroom.

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.