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."

That's when Patel says a man he later identified as Frank Santos gave him the finger.

Although other family members agree that Santos wasn't speaking directly to Patel, according to a statement with a private investigator, Flores recalled that Santos yelled, "Who the fuck called you? Get the fuck out of here."

At that point, Santos and other family members who witnessed the incident say that Patel walked straight up to Santos and jabbed his finger at his chest.

Santos' wife, Gloria, came to her husband's side, hoping to defuse the situation. "He didn't say nothing to you," she said. Santos then asked Patel who called him to the scene.

"Nobody called me. I called myself," Patel allegedly answered. "Don't disrespect me. Nobody disrespects me."

According to both family statements and Patel's police report on the incident that followed, it's clear that Santos made a big mistake: He argued with—and even insulted—a cop. According to Santos, he told Patel that he wasn't talking to him. "He said, 'What the fuck did you say to me?'" Santos recalls. "I said, 'I didn't say nothing to you. I was talking to my wife.' He said, 'No, you said something to me. You're disrespecting an officer.' And I said, 'I wasn't even talking to you. I was talking to my wife. I wasn't even looking at you.'"

Santos and other family members say that he tried to walk away from Patel, but that Patel followed Santos and, once again, told him that he was disrespectful. Santos says he responded by telling Patel to "get out of my face."

Flores, however, later recalled that Santos actually said, "Get the fuck out of my face, you little shit."

Once again, Gloria tried to settle things down, this time by pulling her husband away. Santos' sister—and Sergio's wife—Linda Flores joined her. "Patel was trying to instigate a fight," Gloria says now. "He just judged [Frank] by the way he looked and had it in for him. . . . He never once told us we were under arrest. None of us thought we were going to be arrested. We weren't doing anything."

In his police report, Patel claimed that the women repeatedly pushed him and tried to prevent him from following Santos. Santos' older daughter, Sonia, an aspiring cop then pursuing a degree in criminal justice, also tried to get her father to back off. "I grabbed my dad's face and said, 'You just need to shut up and leave it alone,'" Sonia recalls. "'You need to shut the fuck up.'"

That's exactly what Santos insists he did. "I walked away from him again," Santos says. "And a third time, he came around again and got inches from my face . . . I walked away a third time, and the fourth time, he came around and caught me and grabbed me by my tank top and tried to pull me down."

Although Flores acknowledged that Santos was insulting toward Patel, he felt that Patel was acting unprofessionally.

"I was startled by the actions of the officer," Flores later told a private investigator, adding that while family members were trying to subdue Santos, Patel continued to "aggressively get in Frank's face." He approached Patel and informed him that he was an off-duty CHP officer, offering to help him stabilize the situation.

"He threatened to arrest me if I didn't back off," Flores said. "I placed my hands up with open palms and told him I was only trying to help." He then watched Santos walk away from Patel.

Santos says that while he was walking away from Patel, he heard a jingling noise behind him and turned to see Patel running toward him with one arm extended as if to place him in a headlock. "So I turned to the side," Santos says.

Patel, by all accounts, went flying through the air, tumbling into a heap on the ground. "In my 21 years in law enforcement, I had never seen such an act of stupidity from any professional law-enforcement officer," Flores told the investigator.

Meanwhile, Gloria tried to haul her husband into his brother's apartment. Halfway to the door, Patel caught up with Santos. "[Patel] comes up to me with a pepper spray [canister] and sprays a couple of times right in my eyes," Santos says.

Art Santos grabbed his brother and led him into the apartment to rinse the spray from his eyes. At that point, Santos and other family members claim, Patel began waving his arm in the air, pepper-spraying everyone standing nearby, telling them to stay away. "He started pepper-spraying everyone," Sonia says. "My cousins are freaking out because they were just standing there and this cop pepper-sprayed them."

"It was nieces and nephews," Gloria adds. "It was family, young kids, 13- and 14-year-olds."

Flores was standing nearby. He told the investigator Patel "started spraying in a side-to-side motion without a specific target, aiming at the entire group." Along with several others, Flores said, he was hit by the spray. "I turned my face to the left and got a hefty shot on the right side of my face," he said. "I could not believe what I had just witnessed."

*     *     *

After allegedly using his pepper-spray canister like a bottle of Febreze, Patel grabbed his radio and called for backup. Just moments later, Flores could hear sirens approaching. Several police cars pulled up to the complex. Officers in gang-unit uniforms began running onto the property. "Get the fuck down!" they yelled. "Get the fuck down!"

Flores tried to tell the officer nearest him that he was an off-duty CHP officer. "Then you know what I mean by 'Get the fuck down,'" the cop responded.

Flores sat on his knees and watched as the officers ran past him. Then he heard a sound he likened to that of a freight train. "I later found out that they were slamming people up against the walls," he said.

When the police arrived, Sonia Santos was inside the apartment, helping rinse pepper spray out of her fiance's eyes. Hearing commotion outside, she walked into the courtyard. "There were police everywhere," she recalls. She heard a jingling noise behind her. "Somebody pushed me, and I flew. They pushed so hard my head hit the wall." The blow knocked her out. "When I woke up, I had two cops on me. They handcuffed me and put me against the wall."

Amanda was heading inside the apartment when she saw her sister Sonia coming out the door; a police officer immediately pushed Sonia from behind into a brick wall. Amanda walked up to the cop. "I got upset and said, 'Why did you push her?'" she says. "And the next thing I know, I get tackled from behind like a football player. There were three cops on top of me."

She recalls kicking and screaming in protest as the officers pinned her to the ground with her hands behind her back, placing handcuffs around her wrists. She saw her mother crying and being held back by her cousin Veronica. "That's when Patel came over and put his foot in my face," Amanda says. "I had all this gravel stuck to my face, and he was grinding my face down, and I told him to get off me because it was hurting, so finally he let go and grabs me by my hair and starts dragging me out of there."

Amanda continued to cry out in pain. She says the other two cops who had handcuffed her told her that if she didn't stop shouting, they would subdue her with a Taser. "And I said, 'Go for it. Do it! Do it!'" she says. "I was yelling at them because, at that point, I was mad. They just kept teasing me with it and laughing, threatening me and laughing at the same time." The officers placed her in a patrol car. Her spaghetti-strap shirt was falling off her shoulders, and Amanda says the officer refused to pull it back into place. "They kept telling me I was drunk, so I told them to give me a Breathalyzer test because I wasn't really drinking. And they said, 'Shut the fuck up,' and slammed the door in my face."

By then, police had also handcuffed Gloria Santos, Linda Flores and Javier Santos, Amanda's cousin, who had the misfortune to arrive at the party right as several gang-unit officers responded to Patel's call for assistance. He watched as police tackled Amanda and Sonia, he says, and he heard an officer order him to sit down but was too shocked to comply.

"For a couple of seconds, when they got hit, it was like the Saving Private Ryan thing, where I don't hear anything," Javier says. "It was the shock of seeing your family treated this way. So this cop is telling me to sit down, but I guess he asked me one time too many, and he grabbed me by my shirt, buttons are flying everywhere, and throws me to the ground." Javier says that while two officers handcuffed him, he felt a knee drop to his back. "It knocks the wind out of me," he says. "I was lying on the ground in cuffs when I got hit."

Meanwhile, Frank Santos was inside the apartment, washing pepper spray from his eyes. Police ran into the building looking for him. "There were four officers standing at the door," he recalls. "They said put your arms behind your back. I did, and they handcuffed me. They took me outside, and I kept hearing, 'The suspect has been apprehended.' I kept thinking, 'What suspect? What did I do? I didn't do nothing!'"

Gloria Santos heard the same radio chatter as she sat handcuffed in a patrol car. "It was like a nightmare," she recalls. "It was the most horrible experience of my life. It was a family barbecue, and all of a sudden, all of us are getting arrested because [Patel] didn't like the way we looked and we were in a poor side of Garden Grove. I mean, if you are Mexican and have tattoos, therefore they call in the gang unit and we all get arrested."

*     *     *

During the next several hours, the entire extended Santos family—with the exception of off-duty CHP officer Flores, described in Patel's written report as a non-participant in the incident—was hauled to the Garden Grove city jail and booked on numerous charges. Flores did not respond to interview requests for this story, but a police report claims Flores sought to distance himself from Santos and other family members who were being uncooperative. "I married his sister, not the family," Flores allegedly stated.

Police charged birthday girl Amanda Santos, her cousin Javier and her aunt Linda Flores with obstructing a police officer. Frank Santos received the same charge and was also booked for the more serious crimes of assaulting and battering a police officer. His daughter, aspiring cop Sonia Santos, was also charged with assaulting and battering a cop, as well as lynching. Also charged with lynching were Sonia's uncle Art Santos and her mother, Gloria.

"When they were booking me, nobody could figure out what lynching was," Gloria says. "So they had to call Officer Patel to ask him what the [criminal] code was, what he was charging me with, and he said, 'Lynching.' Nobody knew what to do with me, so they took me to county jail, and nobody knew what it was there, either."

Although Webster's Dictionary defines the act of lynching as "to murder (an accused person) by mob action and without lawful trial, as by hanging," it also includes the specific act of illegally removing, or attempting to remove, someone from police custody. California Penal Code 405a defines lynching as "the taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer."

Patel's written report offers some elaboration on that second, more narrowly focused aspect of the word. In it, he claimed that family members physically prevented him from arresting Frank Santos by "pulling Frank Santos away from me." He further wrote that Sonia Santos "pushed me along the front of my chest area with her two open hands . . . [which] caused me to take a step back" and that, on different occasions, both Linda Flores and Gloria Santos "placed [their] left hand[s] up toward my chest area and mirrored my moves so I could not get around her." Furthermore, he alleged, Amanda Santos was rude to him. "Fuck you," he claims she yelled. "It's my birthday."

After spending several hours in jail, every member of the Santos family was released on bail, with the exception of Art Santos, who had an outstanding warrant for failure to pay a fine for not wearing his seat belt. He pleaded guilty to the charge three days later. Although several members of the Santos family were charged with felonies, the Orange County district attorney's office reduced all the charges to misdemeanors a few weeks later, except for the assault and battery charges against Frank Santos. The Santos family filed an official complaint against Patel and the Garden Grove Police Department two days after the incident, which the city rejected.

The police department's internal-affairs department investigated, however, and although it rejected the family's accusation that they were treated rudely and subjected to police brutality, it also ruled that the department's standards were not met by Patel and the other officers who responded to the scene.

A police-department spokesperson refused to discuss the case, citing the family's pending lawsuit. Tom Nixon, a Garden Grove city attorney, also declined to comment, except to say, "The officers acted appropriately in the circumstances of this matter, and if a lawsuit is filed, the city will vigorously defend it."

More than a year after the incident, on Oct. 11, 2005, Chief Joseph Polisar sent Gloria Santos a letter outlining the results of his investigation. "It is the desire of the Garden Grove Police Department to provide the finest possible service to the citizens who live, work and travel in our city, and to ensure that our personnel conduct themselves in a proper and professional manner at all times," he wrote. "We sincerely hope that any future contact with this department will be more positive."

Since that letter, the DA's office has dropped all charges against the Santos family, except for Frank Santos, who has a pretrial hearing scheduled for June 27. Sonia Santos' hopes of becoming a police officer were put on hold for the past three years because she faced criminal charges. She's no longer certain she wants to be a cop.

"I guess I was naive," she says. "I know there are bad cops, but they are not supposed to act like this. Now, when I drive through Garden Grove, I get paranoid. Extremely paranoid. If something happened to me in Garden Grove, I would never call the Garden Grove P.D."

nschou@ocweekly.com

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