At Frank Santos' Garden Grove Family Barbecue, the Police Brought the Pepper Spray and Handcuffs

Party Crashers
At this Garden Grove family barbecue, the police brought the pepper spray and handcuffs

Frank Santos is sitting on a couch in his daughter's apartment in Anaheim, surrounded by family members. He's wearing a wife-beater undershirt that exposes a pair of brawny, heavily tattooed arms. The ink, his closely cropped hair, bushy goatee and glinting eyes that lock intently on whomever he's looking at, all give Santos the menacing mien of an ex-convict. When he speaks, his voice has a streetwise inflection, the kind that tends to make statements sound like questions, as if he's challenging you to disagree.

Despite appearances to the contrary, Santos isn't a former gangbanger. He did spend seven years behind bars, though—as a correctional officer at a privately run prison in New Mexico, transporting prisoners for the U.S. Marshals Service, and tackling irate or suicidal inmates as a point man for the facility's Special Operations Response Team. His brother-in-law is a California Highway Patrol officer; the older of his two daughters is an aspiring cop.

In fact, the only time Santos has ever been arrested was early on the morning of Sept. 12, 2004, when he and the rest of his family were wrapping up a barbecue in celebration of his younger daughter Amanda's 24th birthday.?The family gathering took place in the courtyard of a Garden Grove apartment complex managed by his brother, Art. The party itself was uneventful, but shortly after it ended, a police car drove by and shined a spotlight on Santos. Not long after that, Santos and seven others—including several of his immediate family members who were at the party—were arrested and thrown in jail.

Nearly four years later, Santos is still fuming about that night. He says that the officer who arrested him explained that his family was in handcuffs because Santos had a bad attitude. "He said, 'You are going to jail and your whole family is going to jail because you put them there.' I said, 'How did I put them there?' He said, 'Because you disrespected an officer, so you put your whole family in jail. They're all going to jail. Your whole family keeps telling me that you are a really nice guy, but to me, you will always be an asshole. . . . If I ever see you walking the streets of Garden Grove, I will take you in. . . . I don't want to see you around.'"

What happened between the moment the police car shined its light on Santos and that alleged conversation quickly became the focus of an internal-affairs investigation by the Garden Grove Police Department. The investigation followed a civil complaint filed against the city by the family, claiming the police officer in question wildly began pepper-spraying family members when they tried to intervene in the argument between him and Santos and that other officers, members of the department's gang unit who later arrived on scene, brutally tackled, handcuffed and arrested family members. The family has retained the services of Jerry Steering, a Newport Beach attorney who has been defending the family against criminal charges that resulted from the incident—and is now preparing to file a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the city. (Steering declined to comment for this story.)

All of which begs a couple of questions: How did a cop-friendly family barbecue end with several of Santos' relatives shoved to the ground, handcuffed, dragged to patrol cars and hauled off to jail by police? And why were those same family members charged with everything from resisting arrest and assault on a police officer to something usually associated with history books and the Ku Klux Klan: lynching?

*     *     *

The answer to those questions begins shortly before midnight on the evening of Sept. 11, 2004, when Frank Santos' brother-in-law, Sergio Flores, noticed that his car was being towed. He had parked the vehicle in a mini-mall across the street from the apartment building, where the family had gathered for Amanda's birthday barbecue several hours earlier. Flores ran after the tow truck, but the driver revved the engine and sped down the alley. Flores thought that was unusual, wondering if the tow truck was part of an elaborate ruse to steal his car.

An off-duty officer with the California Highway Patrol, Flores was also worried because there was state-issued law-enforcement equipment in the vehicle. He dialed 911 and reported that his car was being illegally towed.

If Flores was worried, his brother-in-law Frank was extremely pissed off. His mood hadn't improved when, just a minute or so later, a police car pulled up to the apartment complex. Flores was impressed with what he thought was the quick response. But Frank, who didn't realize Flores had called police, didn't like what he saw.

Omar Patel, a Garden Grove police officer on routine patrol, wasn't responding to Flores' 911 call but was idling at a nearby red light when he "heard yelling" from an alleyway and "noticed a large group of subjects" gathered there, according to the report the officer later filed. Curious about the cause of the disturbance, Patel wrote that he "shined [his] spotlight onto the group of subjects so that [he] could see them more clearly."

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