By Alex Tresniowski
October 17, 2005 12:00 PM

He didn’t think he would ever find her but that was okay, because Johnny Porche was a cop and being a cop was his first love and finding someone to spend his life with came second. “I’m a very private person,” says the brawny Porche, 28, an Army vet with three years in Special Ops. “My mom would always say, ‘You’ll meet someone nice one day,’ and I’d say, ‘No, I won’t.’ ”

But then he did, in a pizza parlor in Riverside, Calif., in October 2002. She was with a bunch of recruits from the Riverside Police Academy, but Porche barely noticed any of them. The one who got his attention was Angela Parks. “I picked her out right away,” he says. “She had this exotic look about her and she was really outgoing.” After that night, the shy cop and the friendly trainee were, says Porche, “pretty much inseparable.”

They took long walks and barbecued and ate a lot of sushi. Parks seemed to be everything Porche was looking for: warm, funny, supportive. In July 2003 he sold his house and moved in with her. She helped him get through an incident that happened in his first year with the Riverside Police Department, when he killed a knife-wielding man in a shooting later ruled suicide by cop. Porche in turn helped Parks—then working as a jail deputy—study to be a detective. She was a bridesmaid at his sister’s wedding, and when they danced together “she said she couldn’t wait for us to be married,” says Porche. Last December the couple bought a parcel of land on which they planned to build a five-bedroom house. “We came here when it was just dirt, and that’s where I asked her to marry me,” says Porche, who as a joke pulled out a $40 ring before bestowing a four-carat diamond on the woman he called his best friend—his soulmate. “There are no words for how much I loved her.”

Today, Porche struggles to find the words to describe what happened next. In March, while Parks was out getting a manicure, he found several letters in the outer mesh pocket of her backpack. He was surprised to see they were written partially in a code used by prisoners. What really made no sense, though, was that the letters were written to Angela. “I stood in the driveway and read them over and over,” says Porche. “I was destroyed. Knocked down. I kept saying to myself, ‘There’s no way my life has just taken this twist.’ ”

What Porche stumbled across were love letters sent to Parks by jailed gang member and accused killer George Hernandez Jr. Even worse, authorities say, was that in her steamy letters to Hernandez, Parks agreed to help him carry out a double murder plot. The targets: two witnesses to Hernandez’s alleged killing of an acquaintance outside a bar in 2004. The apparent plot stunned members of Riverside’s law enforcement community—including Porche’s stepfather, Ron Sanfilippo, a veteran Riverside homicide detective. “I feel like I’m a real good judge of character, but this…I’m flabbergasted,” he says. “I can’t understand what she did. She just threw everything away.”

Could it really be that Parks, a rising star in the sheriff’s department, fell so under the spell of the charismatic Hernandez that she risked ruining her whole life? Now in prison after pleading not guilty on Sept. 27 to charges that could keep her in jail for life, Parks declined to comment to People but has told a friend that the many letters she sent Hernandez reflect a fantasy relationship, not a real romance. Parks, 32, also denies smuggling methamphetamine to Hernandez, 28, and maintains she never planned to contact his gang associates to make the hit. Investigators see it differently. “She intended to carry this out but got arrested first,” says Riverside County deputy prosecutor Chuck Hughes, noting that in the most damning letter to Hernandez Parks wrote, “I will get your letter out to the homey today and make all your calls.”

Born in West Germany to a U.S. Army sergeant and a South Korean mother, Parks was only 15 when she was dealt the double blow of her parents’ divorce and, seven months later, her father’s death from prostate cancer. Parks, who idolized her dad and dropped out of school to care for him, was suddenly on her own and waiting tables at 16. Her father’s death left her “wanting someone to fill that gap,” says her friend Jennifer Aragon. “She was very vulnerable because of her need for family and stability.” Both proved elusive. Though Parks had two children, her relationship with both fathers soured and she didn’t seek custody. “She planned on getting custody of her [older] child right after her job at the jail ended,” says a friend, adding that Parks was “independent but naive where men are concerned.”

Then Parks decided to become a police officer and met Johnny Porche. He seemed to provide the stability she craved—until, says Porche, this February, when she became sullen, edgy, irritable. “She’d say, I don’t know if I want to be with you. You’re annoying,’ ” he says. “I thought it was just cold feet. We just had so many dreams together, and I didn’t know what to do.” It was in February, say police, that Parks—who among other duties had once served meals to prisoners at the Riverside detention center where Hernandez was locked up—began corresponding with the inmate. A respected elder in Riverside’s Arlanza gang awaiting trial for murder, Hernandez juggled several girlfriends as well as a wife and son before his arrest in 2004. “He’s the smartest inmate I’ve ever come across,” says Riverside detective Steve Shumway, “and he’s very manipulative.”

Still, it seems Hernandez was genuinely smitten with Parks. “My little Baby G—I love you with all my heart,” he wrote. “I will have no life without you.” Parks responded in kind. “You are the other half of my soul,” she wrote. “I want to climb down into your cell tonight. I love you with everything I am. I love you my Daddy.” Her friends say the letters show Parks was unhappy with Porche, and claim this unhappiness drove her to flirt with Hernandez. “She and Johnny would fight; it was pretty volatile,” says Aragon. “She’d come to me and complain about him. Someone who is happy isn’t going to do something that stupid.” The suggestion that their relationship was on the rocks, says Porche, “is what hurts me the most. We had our spats, but nothing major.”

Once he read the letters, Porche faced the stomach-churning prospect of turning in the woman he considered the love of his life. “I just couldn’t believe it was true,” he says. “But I knew right from wrong.” Rather than confront Parks with the letters first, he took them to his stepfather, who later alerted the Riverside PD. (They arrested Parks the next day.) His stepfather also advised Porche to move out of the house immediately, and, as Porche was packing, Parks returned from her manicure. “She didn’t say anything to me. She just stood there,” he recalls. “She knew. I just got my stuff and left.”

He would only speak briefly with her once more after that. Since then she has sued him, claiming he owes her money for the sale of their house. Hernandez, who told Detective Shumway he would cooperate fully if the charges against Parks were dropped, has not yet been indicted in the murder plot, but already faces life in prison on previous charges.

Porche, meanwhile, decided that police work was not for him after all, and currently works as a private bodyguard for celebrities. He can’t stand to eat sushi now, or see happy couples together, and he kept only two mementos of his life with Parks: his USC sweatshirt, which she often wore and still smelled of her until he finally washed it last month, and the engagement ring he gave her on the dirt lawn of their new house, and which she took off and left on the dresser just before her arrest. Everything else “I threw away,” he says. “It was just too painful.” Still, he cannot stop Parks from coming to him in his dreams. “But it’s the old Angela, the one I wanted to marry,” he says. “That’s the hardest thing, you know? I just wanted to be with her.”

Alex Tresniowski. Johnny Dodd in Riverside