No Back Up for Scott Montoya

The Marine won the Navy Cross for bravery in Iraq. But it was his job with the Orange County Sheriff's Department that gave him PTSD

No Back Up for Scott Montoya
Illustration: Jesse Lenz | Design: Dustin Ames

You might expect a highly trained, U.S. special-forces soldier returning from gory Iraq War combat to the relative safety of Southern California could no longer be shocked, but Marine Sergeant Scott Montoya faced a nasty surprise.

Keller liked to drink booze, curse, chew Copenhagen tobacco, visit strip clubs, taunt poor minorities and use racial epithets, according to court records.

The recipient of the Navy Cross for selfless acts of combat bravery discovered that civilian life as an Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) deputy was more dangerous than he could have anticipated. Of course, deputies—especially ones working patrol, such as Montoya—always risk the possibility of getting seriously wounded or killed in the line of duty.

But this Marine scout sniper and karate black belt who ran through enemy fire five times to rescue four seriously wounded American soldiers and an Iraqi civilian during the April 2003 Battle of Baghdad believed his greatest risk of harm wasn't from gangsters, robbers, drug dealers or an armed madman. He'd seen evidence his threat was oddly personalized and from an unlikely source: fellow OCSD deputies intensely jealous of his status as a war hero honored by President George W. Bush during a January 2005 White House ceremony.

Jack Gould
Marine Sergeant Montoya was awarded the Navy Cross for exceptional combat bravery
Jack Gould
Marine Sergeant Montoya was awarded the Navy Cross for exceptional combat bravery

Like the military canon of never leaving a wounded soldier behind—one Montoya obviously practiced—a key tenet of the law-enforcement community throughout the United States is that cops always back up a fellow officer during perilous situations. That issue simmered at the deputy's recent civil trial, in which he accused the department of corruption; permitting a hostile work environment; and violating the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), a federal law that protects soldiers from discrimination in the civilian workplace.

Montoya testified that after his February 2005 assignment to work alone in his own patrol car in heavily gang-infested Stanton, Tim Keller, a deputy with more seniority who worked the same shift, posed a disturbing question. "Deputy Keller asked me if I [had seen] Serpico," Montoya testified, explaining that the 1973 Al Pacino classic was based on a true story concerning a New York policeman who, to his colleagues' anger, would not participate in bribery schemes and got shot in the face by a drug dealer after fellow cops refused to provide backup. To Montoya, Keller mentioned the movie to make a point: "They [certain fellow deputies] were not going to back me up."

The thought of internal OCSD sabotage alarmed Montoya. While fighting in Iraq, he'd earned the love and respect of fellow Marines for his bravery, loyalty and work ethic. After his deployment, members of his scout sniper unit placed personal messages on an Iraqi flag retrieved during fighting and presented it as a gift to Montoya, who was raised in a large Los Angeles family by a single mother working two minimum-wage jobs. One message read, "Sgt. Montoya: You are undoubtedly one of the finest men I will ever know. It has been an honour serving with you."

The atmosphere at the sheriff's Stanton substation wasn't as hospitable. How much of the tension involved envy about Montoya's Navy Cross—the second-highest combat honor awarded to members of the U.S. Navy, Marines and Coast Guard—isn't clear. What's obvious is that Montoya didn't exactly fit in with his colleagues.

Keller—a linebacker-sized deputy who has perfected the stink-eye and is the life of late-night poker parties—liked to drink booze, curse, chew Copenhagen tobacco, visit strip clubs, unnecessarily taunt poor minorities and use racial epithets, according to allegations in court records.

In contrast, Montoya recites poetry; loves teaching martial arts; gets misty-eyed while talking about family and church; and is fond of spending time with his three horses, four pigs, three dogs, 12 chickens, three goats and a rabbit—all of whom he has affectionately named. He is quick to say he's not perfect, but he tries to live by a personal motto learned from his mother: "Service before self."

Montoya claims Keller, who never joined the military, served as the "alpha male" leader of "the Black Sheep," a "gang" of cantankerous, rebel deputies in Stanton. "They believed they were outside of department policy," testified Montoya. "The Black Sheep members would try to influence supervisors on ways to get around [OCSD's formal] policies. . . . They had a motto: 'If you ain't cheating, you really ain't trying hard enough.' [Members of the group] said it [like they were] joking to each other, but they were serious."

Keller doesn't deny the existence of "the Black Sheep." He even acknowledges they created their own flag and T-shirt. But he claims the club formed for a non-nefarious reason: Sheriff's headquarters in Santa Ana chronically understaffed the busy Stanton substation, and deputies in the northern Orange County city felt ignored. Tainted or not, the group never included Montoya, whose lawyers, San Diego's John S. Kyle and Frederic G. Ludwig III, say their client's outsider status, coupled with jealousy over the Navy Cross, as well as the alleged Serpico incident, had real-life implications.

After midnight during one 2005 shift, Montoya was dispatched to an alarm at a business warehouse in a high-crime area of Katella Avenue. When he arrived, he entered an open door and says he heard Deputy Tim Cullen, one of Keller's best friends in the department and reportedly a "Black Sheep" member, radio the dispatcher that he had arrived as backup.

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