By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Push Comes to Shove
DA drops charges against a Garden Grove man accused of pushing a cop. Now, that officer’s aggressive actions are at the center of two pending lawsuits
Frank Santos knows the jail life well. A former corrections officer, he worked for seven years inside a New Mexico prison. Yet for the past four years, he has faced the possibility of going back to prison the hard way—as a prisoner convicted of assaulting a cop. However, on Nov. 3, Santos learned that the Orange County district attorney dropped those charges after hearing from two eyewitnesses who dispute the cop’s claim that Santos pushed him during a September 2004 incident following a family barbecue in Garden Grove.
As the Weekly first reported earlier this year, the incident began early in the morning of Sept. 12, 2004, when Santos’ brother-in-law, Sergio Flores, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer, called the police to report his belief that his car was being illegally towed (see “Party Crashers,” June 5). Santos and several family members had gathered outside the apartment complex where they had been celebrating Santos’ daughter’s birthday when Garden Grove police officer Omar Patel arrived in his patrol car.
By all accounts, Santos wasn’t happy to see Patel. “Who the fuck called you?” he asked. “Get the fuck out of here.”
According to a lawsuit filed in September against the city of Garden Grove by the Santos family, Patel allegedly marched up to Santos and began arguing with him, then chased after him. When other family members tried to intervene, according to the lawsuit, Patel began pepper-spraying everybody within reach, then called for backup. A team of gang-unit officers responded and allegedly tackled several family members before arresting Santos and six relatives on charges ranging from assaulting a police officer to interfering with an arrest to lynching.
Prosecutors quickly dropped charges against everyone but Frank Santos. After learning that two law-enforcement witnesses did not corroborate Patel’s claim that Santos assaulted him, prosecutors dropped the charges against Santos, too. DA spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder says her office declined to prosecute Santos because prosecutors didn’t believe Patel was telling the truth about Santos pushing him. “After we filed the case, we did further investigation,” she says. “Two independent witnesses contradicted what the officer said. We decided, in the interest of justice, to dismiss the case.”
One of those witnesses is Flores, who told police that while Santos had insulted Patel, he hadn’t pushed him. Another witness who disputed Patel’s claim was Patel’s ride-along partner that day, a cadet named Dale Miller, who is now an Anaheim police officer. In a December 2004 deposition for the Santos family’s lawsuit, Miller stated that while he saw Santos’ wife, Gloria, push Patel after he pepper-sprayed several family members, he never saw Frank Santos push Patel. “The only individual that I ever saw struggle or push Officer Patel was Gloria,” Miller stated.
After learning that the DA had dismissed its case against Santos, Jerry Steering, the family’s attorney, added Frank Santos as a plaintiff to his September lawsuit against Patel and the Garden Grove P.D. Tom Nixon, city attorney for Garden Grove, could not be reached for comment.
The Weekly has learned that Patel is also a defendant in another pending lawsuit, one stemming from a domestic-violence call. On Dec. 2, 2007, Garden Grove police received a report that a 46-year-old mentally ill man named Trinidad Ornelas was choking his mother. Patel and his partner, Eric Leyva, responded to the call. According to a lawsuit filed by Ornelas’ family, Patel and Leyva wrestled with Ornelas, struck him with batons, handcuffed him and attempted to subdue him with a Taser before Leyva fatally shot him.
The incident led to stories the following day in both the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register. “He would talk to the sky, the trees, to the grass,” neighbor Victoria Hernandez told the Register. “He could be annoying. But he never bothered anybody.” Hernandez added that Ornelas’ mother had repeatedly called police to help her “calm her son down.” She couldn’t understand why the officers had resorted to lethal force.
The DA’s office declined to file charges against either Patel or Leyva in the shooting. “We believe that it is a very tragic but nonetheless reasonable and justified shooting,” said attorney Bruce Praet, who is representing the city in the Ornelas case, “and we concur with the district attorney’s office that the shooting was legally justified.”
In a July 21 deposition of Patel in connection with the Ornelas family lawsuit, Patel answered questions from plaintiff’s attorney Tom Beck. Patel acknowledged that he had been reprimanded several times for his aggressive tendencies, including the incident involving Santos. At one point during the deposition, Beck read from Patel’s disciplinary file. “‘Omar has been assigned to take a tactical-communications course last shift because of the number of complaints that he has been involved with prior to the start of last shift,’” Beck said. “What does that refer to?”
“It’s a course on how to diffuse situations and how to talk to people,” Patel answered. “I believe it’s regarding the Santos incident.”
Steering says he can’t wait to put Patel on the stand in his lawsuit. “It took four years and more than $100,000 in attorneys’ fees to get this thing [the criminal charge] dismissed,” he says. “I’m sure he [Patel] will make a fine witness—for the plaintiff.”