Sergeant Scott Montoya's Strange Fall

Fired OC deputy claims sheriff's department punished him for winning Navy Cross in Iraq War combat

Sergeant Scott Montoya's Strange Fall
Illustration: Steve Weigl | Design: Dustin Ames

Sheriff's deputies conducting a secret operation in Southern California believed they had good reason to fear their target, Scott Christopher Montoya. Confidential law-enforcement investigatory files labeled Montoya as highly dangerous, emotionally unstable and, inexplicably, a sexual superman with extraordinarily large genitals and Energizer Bunny stamina. A combat veteran, he possessed lethal sniper and black-belt martial-arts skills. The officers also knew he was an experienced killer with knowledge of the intricacies of police tactics. While surreptitiously placing tiny surveillance cameras around Montoya's home and hiding GPS trackers on all of his vehicles, deputies made sure to wear bulletproof vests.

But Montoya wasn't a criminal. In fact, he wasn't officially suspected of committing any crimes. He was a certified member of law enforcement and, as with his leery if determined pursuers, a deputy at the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD).

Police officers are usually highly protective of one another. As our local prosecutors learned during several probes into police corruption in the past decade, some cops are readily willing to lie under oath, falsify official documents or hide incriminating evidence for a corrupt colleague. As long as an officer remains a loyal member in their fraternity, police-agency management and law-enforcement union bosses religiously shield cops who've screwed up from public scrutiny or accountability.

While OCSD had Montoya under surveillance, he was hailed a hero in a Torrance parade
Mark Mauno
While OCSD had Montoya under surveillance, he was hailed a hero in a Torrance parade
Montoya’s Navy Cross won national media attention and the wrath of fellow deputies
LCpl. Daniel J. Redding
Montoya’s Navy Cross won national media attention and the wrath of fellow deputies
Deputies believed Montoya passed patrol training only because he was Sheriff Carona’s “boy”
Steve Weigl
Deputies believed Montoya passed patrol training only because he was Sheriff Carona’s “boy”
Montoya was first in his Camp Pendleton class, a karate black belt, a Marine scout sniper and a horse-lover
Steve Weigl
Montoya was first in his Camp Pendleton class, a karate black belt, a Marine scout sniper and a horse-lover
Sheriff Hutchens could not tolerate reports of chronic womanizing and ethical lapses
Steve Weigl
Sheriff Hutchens could not tolerate reports of chronic womanizing and ethical lapses

So what would cause the OCSD to turn on an acclaimed, veteran deputy, place him under around-the-clock surveillance and build sensationally embarrassing files on his sexual practices?

Montoya thinks he knows the answer: The OCSD harbored an anti-military animus against him because he hadn't just been a soldier. He'd been a U.S. Marine sergeant who took time off from the department to go to war after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. During the 2003 Battle of Baghdad, Montoya earned the Navy Cross for repeatedly performing life-risking heroics while under enemy fire. His honor, the second-highest Marine award for valor in combat, won him an avalanche of local and national media attention, including from CNN, NBC, ABC, FOX, USA Today and The Orange County Register.

But, according to Montoya, the Navy Cross honors also sparked the wrath of fellow deputies who resented his celebrity. They hazed and heckled him for years. The harassment centered on his military service. There were persistent, deputy-spread rumors that he'd exaggerated his Iraqi War bravery because he's a publicity hound. In one instance, a deputy mocked him by placing a giant dildo and lube jar on his work gear before a shift. Instead of siding with him, department officials often backed his tormenters through inaction, and then unfairly terminated him from his dream job, Montoya claims in a pending federal lawsuit.

"When Sergeant Montoya returned from the war, he became a victim of pervasive discrimination and harassment at the hands of other OCSD employees," says the fired deputy's lawyer, John S. Kyle of San Diego. "Amazingly, these employees harassed him because he had served in the Marine Corps and had received the Navy Cross. It is despicable that OCSD can denigrate a man's heroic service to his country. It is even more despicable that OCSD expects this conduct will go unpunished."

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Thanks to the enormous power and influence of the police-union lobby, California governmental entities offer generous pay and perks to cops, including deals that allow the public employees to retire at the relatively young age of 50 while collecting huge, taxpayer-funded, monthly pensions and medical insurance for the rest of their lives. Another benefit in the state is known as the Public Safety Officer's Procedural Bill of Rights (POBR), a law that grants cops special rights designed to hinder investigations into an officer's alleged criminal or unethical conduct. For example, a cop suspect in a police personnel probe must be handed all the records—including confidential informant reports—the agency has collected against him before trying to get his version of events.

POBR also requires police-state type conditions. Law-enforcement agencies are prohibited from informing the public about dirty or incompetent officers' conduct as well as what, if any, disciplinary actions management imposed. In other words, departments can hire unfit cops, ignore wrongdoing and keep citizens clueless about the men and women who are given deadly force, invasive investigatory and arrest powers in the state. On a day-to-day basis, police bosses and rank-and-file cops appreciate living in this mutually satisfactory cocoon of minimal public accountability.

But the Scott Montoya v. Orange County Sheriff's Department litigation offers a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse of the alarming consequences of the POBR's secrecy demands. To defend itself in the lawsuit and also probably to inflict scarring embarrassment on Montoya, OCSD has released large portions of its usually top-secret personnel files on the deputy. If the Marines call Montoya a selfless war hero, there's substantial proof OCSD officials viewed him before, during and after his military heroics as a greatly flawed man.

For example, the department's files show that beginning in 1989 Montoya unsuccessfully applied to become a deputy at least three times. Officials rejected him the first time based on his "lack of maturity," but nevertheless hired him as a sheriff's special officer to work at John Wayne Airport and county jails. He re-applied for a deputy position in 1992 and was re-rejected because he'd allegedly lied to another police department, lacked auto insurance and collected a poor driving record, according to the files. Two years later, he re-applied, lost his temper during a polygraph examination that uncovered he'd been improperly carrying concealed weapons on numerous occasions, failed a psychological evaluation and got rejected again. It took eight years, but Montoya finally won a full-powers deputy job in January 1997—two years after he joined the Marines' reserves and completed basic training.

After getting his deputy badge, but before the Department of Defense summoned him to take leave from OCSD to fight in Iraq in 2003, Montoya accumulated a series of troubling incidents in his personnel file. In 2000, a jail nurse complained that he inappropriately touched her in front of a line of inmates he was escorting through the Men's Center Jail in Santa Ana. He admitted to the contact but claimed it hadn't been intended as offensive. The following year, members of the cook staff at the jail complained that Montoya "badger[ed]" female inmates in the mess hall and tried to send a "kite," a personal message, to a female inmate. No reprimands were issued.

But in 2002, a Los Angeles woman accused Montoya of raping her at a Whittier horse stable's parking lot. According to records, the woman claimed they had been kissing in his vehicle when the deputy refused to accept her oral opposition to intercourse on the front seat. An LA prosecutor treated the report as a he-said, she-said incident and declined to file charges citing a lack of evidence. Back at OCSD, however, unamused officials stripped Montoya of 40 hours of pay for having sex in public, a violation of department policies.

"These allegations brought discredit upon you and the department," the suspension, signed by then-OCSD executive Jack Anderson, asserted. "Your actions are far below the standards of a person in your position. . . . You demonstrated a lack of judgment, poor decision-making and indiscretion in this matter. Be advised that any future sustained incident of a similar nature may result in more severe discipline being imposed upon you—up to and including termination."If OCSD officials are to be believed, their employment threat failed. They claim Montoya's on-duty misconduct grew worse after his return from Iraqi War service. During the following six years, the department secretly compiled lists of dozens of various alleged unethical acts that included befriending and aiding fugitives, prostitutes, even a child molester in Fullerton, according to court records. Michael J. Rossiter, the private attorney hired by the county to defend OCSD in the lawsuit, describes Montoya's behavior in unequivocal terms: "severe police misconduct."

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As American military forces were attempting to take control of Baghdad from dictator Saddam Hussein two weeks into Operation Iraqi Freedom on April 8, 2003, a U.S. soldier was shot in the leg, bleeding profusely and stuck in the open on Highway 5. Montoya—a scout sniper with the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force—ran through a barrage of enemy fire, returned shots with a free hand and carried the wounded soldier on his shoulder several hundred yards back to safety. Though weighed down with 80 pounds of his own gear, he performed the same feat four more times, rescuing three additional Marines, including one badly dazed in a grenade blast, and a non-combatant Iraqi citizen. Afterward, he helped medics treat the wounds.

That's a summary of Montoya's "extraordinary heroism" in military annals. Two years after the incident, the Marines officially awarded him the Navy Cross, the second-highest Marine combat honor after the Medal of Honor. Colonel Geffrey L. Cooper, the commanding officer of his battalion, called him "a man of integrity and leadership" and "a great example." Then-Sheriff Mike Carona described him as "a complete warrior." In 2006, the federal government rented a Westminster billboard and put Montoya's photo next to these words: "Navy Cross Recipient: For his outstanding display of decisive leadership and unlimited courage in the face of enemy fire." The next year, President George W. Bush honored his bravery in a White House ceremony.

Newspaper, radio and print media accounts unreservedly hailed Montoya "a war hero" and "a real hero." During interviews, he humbly said he was only doing his job, quoted a Biblical passage, talked of his love of horses and birds, and specifically told a CNN correspondent that his next accomplishment would be to take a "leadership role at the sheriff's department." It would be one goal Montoya wasn't destined to achieve. Not everybody at the OCSD was cheering his celebrity.

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Early life as a deputy is apparently akin to joining a fraternity. New members get the crappy tasks, such as watching inmates all day, and older, more established members abusively haze the plebes, particularly the ones they don't like. At least, that's what happened to Montoya.

The Marine returned to the OCSD after his war service and asked to be transferred from jail duty to Harbor Patrol—his first choice—or Stanton. Management assigned him to the north OC city known as one of the most dangerous, gang-infested regions the department polices.

Deputies don't go directly from jail duty onto the streets. Before they are allowed to patrol, they must pass basic patrol training. This is the point in this story when it become difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile assertions about who cheated who in the Montoya saga.

Deputy Timothy John Keller served as Montoya's original training officer, and he claimed in a 2004 "confidential" report that his understudy was an idiot who couldn't perform simple tasks and openly wept at criticism. "[During training], Deputy Montoya was caught crying after he found out he made some mistakes," Keller memorialized in an intra-department memorandum. "During [a] conversation, Montoya slammed his hands on the briefing table and walked out of the room. After about 10 minutes, Montoya walked back into the room with tears in his eyes, and his hands were shaking so uncontrollably he could not write anything on his pad of paper."

After Montoya allegedly failed 30 attempts to correctly perform car-stop training in a simulated, stress-free environment, Keller says, his trainee "became so angry with himself that he hit himself in the forehead with a microphone, causing a small abrasion on his forehead."

Keller's observations about the courageous combat veteran who graduated first in his Camp Pendleton Marine Corps basic-training class and obtained a black belt in karate may have been colored by animus. Department records show that Montoya believes his trainer mocked his Iraq heroics by displaying at the OCSD Stanton station a newspaper article about two Marines who died in combat to save dozens of others from a car bomber. Keller made a point to describe the two dead soldiers as "real" heroes. He also openly belittled Montoya in an on-duty, deputy chat system installed in patrol cars, writing that the only reason his understudy passed training was because he was "the sheriff's boy."

No deputy took credit for the other acts committed against the Marine at the Stanton station: someone desecrated a city of Buena Park award Montoya received for his war service; someone posted in the deputies' briefing room a note selling Navy Cross hats two for $10—implying the honor could be bought cheap; someone took a "Private Instructor" business card, crossed out the name, replaced it with Montoya's, crossed out the real phone number and replaced that with "1-800-NVY-CROS." And, of course, there was the aforementioned dildo incident.

The personal attacks befuddled Montoya. "I have been the center of several cruel jokes and rumors at this station but feel this incident [Navy Cross hats sale joke] is out of line and out of the policy of the department," he wrote to Captain Robert Eason, the department's chief of police in the city, while complaining of a "hostile" work environment that existed for years. "I believe I served this country honorably and do not deserve to be treated in a way that disrespects the nature of the award. Also, I feel it brings disrespect to the sheriff's department if others outside the department find out how a select few deputies treat their co-workers."

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Using federal grants, several Orange County entities—including the district attorney's office, school administrators, Anaheim Police Department and the OCSD—helped create a Gang Reduction and Intervention Partnership (GRIP) in 2007 to address the festering issue of truancy. The department chose Montoya to be its first GRIP officer to regularly visit Latino-dominated elementary schools in Stanton and serve as a role model. Lee Trujillo, who replaced Eason as the OCSD boss in Stanton, said Montoya was the obvious choice for the high-profile job.

"I was really impressed by the way he communicated, way he carried himself," Trujillo testified in a 2012 deposition. "And I was impressed with—he's a—let's face it: He is a war hero. I was impressed by all that—and I thought, 'Wow, what a role model for this community.' There's somebody who can speak directly to the kids and say, 'Hey, look at what I've done. Follow me.' I thought, 'Wow, we're very fortunate to have somebody like him working for us.'"

OCSD Internal Affairs (IA) agents didn't share Trujillo's view. Puzzlingly, Montoya got the job after the deputy was suspended without pay for 240 hours for lying to Fullerton Police Department detectives in 2006 about his personal relationship with Anthony Ray Willis, a Westminster man who committed a series of sex crimes, including numerous felony, lewd acts on a child. Phone records showed Willis repeatedly in contact with the deputy while Fullerton PD anxiously hunted him. When the detectives learned of Montoya's connection and contacted him, he allegedly gave non-forthcoming answers.

IA officers also uncovered information from several sources that Montoya may have solicited "pussy or material" from Willis, who'd been wanted for probation violations, while seen traveling with the deputy around town prior to the sex-crimes charges, according to court records. An investigation proved Montoya knew Willis was wanted because he repeatedly checked the department's system for outstanding warrants. Court records containing the department's reports also allege that Willis told investigators he gave the deputy an expensive, new motorcycle jacket and helmet, and introduced him to females for dates in exchange for not arresting him. Willis is serving a 41-years-to-life prison sentence inside the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County.

Why OCSD officials—who doubted Montoya's character—would make him the GRIP officer is a mystery. What is known, however, is that while the deputy complained about the department not taking his hostile-workplace claims seriously, IA began to monitor his every on-duty move in secret. Their findings, if believed, present a startling portrait of a monumental liar and unquenchable playboy. In 2010, department officials told Montoya that investigations "revealed that you used your GRIP position as a means to meet various women" and "your main objective was to solicit, while on duty, as many women as possible," including at Stanton elementary schools.

Tracking his whereabouts to the 10th of a second, the IA agents claimed they found dozens of discrepancies in the deputy's work log. According to OCSD reports, Montoya falsely claimed to attend meetings he never attended, to be working when he was chatting at 7-Elevens for 30-minute stints or longer, and to be on patrol calls when he was actually visiting various friends or women—or just sitting idle in empty parking lots.

IA raided Montoya's office email, finding nude pictures one woman sent. They also listened in on an audio transmitter inside the deputy's patrol car and caught him stopping an Asian female in a liquor-store parking lot. Sex talk and kissing sounds were recorded, according to court records. Another time, the deputy summoned a woman over to his car and, according to the transcript, said, "Did you miss me?" "I like it when you talk dirty," and "When are you going to fuck me?"

Records also show that deputies strenuously tried but failed to undermine Montoya's Navy Cross; raised questions about his Camp Pendleton superiority and sniper skills; speculated that the tragic death of his fiancee in a Colorado River jet-ski/boating collision had been "suspicious"; and collected an allegation from another deputy (Keller) that the ex-Marine claimed he would, as a favor for an OCSD colleague, kill anyone.

There's additional evidence the department was on a mission to collect as much dirt—substantiated, wildly reckless or tangential—as it could accumulate. Incredibly, IA deputies even probed Montoya's sex habits and made detailed records.

According to court records, it's not clear why the agency or IA cared, but here's an example what OCSD noted: "[Redacted name of a Montoya girlfriend—a 23-year-old Hispanic woman] explained Montoya is only concerned with ejaculating. [Redacted] said there's not really anything loving about the way he has sex with her. [Redacted] said Montoya is obsessed with talking dirty and watching pornography. [Redacted] said Montoya enjoys playing porn (adult only) while they have sex. [Redacted] said one of the things Montoya frequently says to her during sex is 'Fuck me, little girl!' [Redacted] explained that she wasn't into porn and that the little girl comment really bothered her. [Redacted] said Montoya's sexual aggressiveness is usually too much for her to handle. She explained that she has difficulty keeping up with his sexual stamina. [Redacted] said Montoya can stay erect for a very long time. [Redacted] explained that Montoya's aggressiveness affects her birth control (IUD). Sometimes he gets so rough with her that . . . she bleeds. Whenever she reminds him of this, he gets upset with her and tells her she's ruining the moment. [Redacted] always has to remind him that she isn't as sexually experienced as he is and that she doesn't enjoy having sex for an extensive period of time as he does."

In another curious OCSD report apparently made with the same woman as the source, IA noted that Montoya liked to spit in her mouth "just before he ejaculates."

Kyle, Montoya's outraged plaintiff's lawyer, called the department's efforts to smear Montoya "a witch-hunt."

In late 2010, OCSD notified the deputy he was unfit for law-enforcement work and cited several more examples of misconduct. In one, he allegedly botched a 2009 South County domestic-violence case by writing a dishonest report and making inappropriate comments to the victim about her physical appearance. In another case that same year, he made a disgusting comment to a group of teenagers who'd been stopped on a simple noise-disturbance call near a Ladera Ranch community pool. An IA report states that Montoya told the teenagers to show him respect, "or I will fuck you with a dick so big it would make an elephant scream."

One of the teenagers was so shocked by the remark that she asked Montoya if she knew her uncle, OCSD Deputy Mike Peters. News of the comment spread quickly. For Sheriff Sandra Hutchens—much more of a stickler on ethics than her predecessor, who is currently serving a 6.6-year federal-prison sentence for corruption—and her command staff, this was the final straw. They refused even to allow him a transfer to the department's transit police bureau.

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In November 2011, President Barack Obama strengthened the World War II-era Uniformed Service-members Employment and Re-employment Rights Act (USERRA) to resolve any legal doubts that the law bans harassment of military veterans in the workplace. Montoya is citing USERRA in his lawsuit. He's asking U.S. District Court Judge Jesus G. Bernal, a Mexico native and 2012 Obama appointee following a notable public-defender career, to rule that OCSD violated the act and that he's entitled to take his case to a jury for damages.

"Rather than celebrate his accomplishments, [OCSD] sought to tear him down," Kyle told Bernal. "They spread rumors about him, claimed his military qualifications and accomplishments were inflated or entirely fictional, that his Navy Cross was fraudulent, and that Carona himself personally intervened to ensure Montoya passed patrol training. Of course, none of it was true. . . . Through it all, Sergeant Montoya's performance was exemplary, as it always had been. Not once did he receive a substandard performance evaluation from OCSD."

Kyle also notes that a Dec. 7, 2009, command staff meeting at which the department and IA investigator Lavinia Vega labeled Montoya a "threat" to commit violence in response to the IA probes. The lawyer claims the meeting was another example of OCSD officials violating USERRA because they used Montoya's veteran status and sniper skills as key "assumptions" he was dangerous, a declaration used to justify placing secret cameras at his home and GPS trackers on his vehicles, as well as monitoring his phone calls without warrants.

"USERRA creates a protected class for Sergeant Montoya and those like him to ensure they return to their lives free of the rumors, harassment and hardships he endured," Kyle stated. "OCSD deliberately and maliciously ruined Montoya."

He is seeking financial sanctions against the department for failing to retain or purposefully destroying related Montoya records after officials had been put on notice about a potential lawsuit; Bernal last week asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert N. Block in Santa Ana to rule on the request, which OCSD protests is meritless because any missing records were innocently obliterated.

The former deputy, who is focusing on a Kenpo karate teaching career in Los Angeles County, did not respond to email requests for an interview, but the sheriff's department continues to fight his discrimination claims.

"After extensive discovery, [Montoya] still cannot provide any evidence that OCSD deprived him of any employment benefits due to anti-military animus," wrote Rossiter, who is also seeking summary judgment on the county's behalf from Bernal. "In contrast, OCSD favored Montoya's military service over and over again—nearly to the point of ridiculousness—causing strife with his co-workers."

Rossiter also noted that the veteran-loaded OCSD was honored in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Defense, which awarded the department the Freedom Award for its generous support of employees called to serve in the Armed Forces.

In his view, Montoya's lawsuit is misguided for a simple reason. Fellow deputies didn't harass him because he was a war hero or a veteran. Instead, explains Rossiter, they just didn't like him, and the law "does not protect someone from being disliked."

Such a stance disappoints Kyle, an accomplished Marine veteran. He has his own definitive explanation for Montoya's situation: "OCSD remains unrepentant."

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