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

"I waited and waited [at the front], and he never came, so I had to clear the building by myself," said Montoya, who explained that standard procedures called for Cullen to enter the building with him. "When I was done, I saw he was parked in the back. He never got out of his car. He saw me and just drove away. That sort of thing happened at least 25 other times and on even more dangerous calls."

In contrast, Montoya recites poetry; loves teaching martial arts; gets misty-eyed while talking about family and church; and spends time with his three horses, four pigs, three dogs, 12 chickens, three goats and a rabbit.

William L. Haluck, a hard-charging, Irvine-based private lawyer who has defended the OCSD for decades, insisted that Montoya's experiences were the result of mere "personality conflicts" outside the reach of the employment law. "There is no general civility code in the workplace," he stated.

Haluck also dismisses the warehouse story as self-serving paranoia. But that stance is belied by substantial evidence. Documents prove department officials were aware of the problem but didn't take corrective action to remove doubt from Montoya's mind that he would always have reliable backup. In fact, officials essentially accommodated Keller and Cullen. According to court records, supervisors opted not for disciplinary action, but rather to urge police dispatchers to remember to send different officers to back up Montoya.

Montoya’s Marine Scout Sniper squad signed tributes to him after Battle of Baghdad combat
Jack Gould
Montoya’s Marine Scout Sniper squad signed tributes to him after Battle of Baghdad combat
Detail of the signed flag
Jack Gould
Detail of the signed flag

"That shows that they [supervisors] knew [Keller and Cullen] were going to compromise my safety," said Montoya, who remains astonished at the "hatred they had for me."

Dr. Chris Johnson, a clinical neuropsychologist and an internationally recognized expert in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among individuals who've served in elite, special operation forces such as Montoya, says the Serpico and warehouse incidents in Stanton undoubtedly scarred the de-activated Marine.

"He feared for his life," said Johnson, who extensively interviewed Montoya and is a principal Department of Defense investigator at the Naval Health Research Center's Warfighter Performance Division in San Diego. "This individual was not part of the [OCSD] tribe, and the tribe made it clear he wasn't part of the tribe."

*     *     *

Before he landed in federal prison for corruption, Mike Carona left several notorious legacies during his nine-year reign as Orange County sheriff. Most of Carona's troubles can be traced back to his incessant extramarital pursuits (while publicly professing Jesus as his daily inspiration) and eagerness for secret gifts, including wads of cash, from wealthy businessmen. At least in his colossal Montoya screw-up, the sheriff's intentions were good.

Carona saw the Marine returning from combat heroics to the department as a prize worth championing. He and his staff arranged dozens of media and public events for the naturally shy Montoya to tell his story. The deputy suspected the sheriff gave out his personal cell phone number to reporters and dignitaries eager to invite him to be a featured guest at dinners or the grand marshal of parades.

But the publicity had unintended internal OCSD consequences. Before they'd met Montoya, more than a handful of deputies resented the attention surrounding their colleague; plotted to trip his law-enforcement career; and labeled him "the sheriff's boy," "the sheriff's bitch" and "the sheriff's bitch boy," according to court records. It didn't help that Carona also put Montoya at the top of the list of deputies ready to transfer from jails to patrol.

Crystal Verringia, who worked as an OCSD community-services officer and emergency dispatcher in Stanton, witnessed deputies badmouthing Montoya before his arrival at the substation to undergo patrol training. "They didn't exactly hide their displeasure," she said, noting that deputies treated the new arrival "like junk" and that Keller "didn't like him before he even started."

Verringia says the hostilities made life miserable for the deputy, who didn't want to let down Carona by ending the Navy Cross publicity campaign. Tensions grew worse when the Marine Corps placed the deputy's picture on a Westminster billboard to congratulate his combat feats and national news networks aired interviews. She recalled, "[Deputies] made fairly disparaging comments about Montoya seeking publicity. . . . Was he? No, he was not. He's not that way. He did not want it. He was just a humble person."

In addition to spreading false rumors about Montoya, deputies mocked his Navy Cross as worthless; opened his mail and doctored documents to humiliate his military service; called him "fucking stupid," "an idiot," "Mr. Navy Cross" and "bullet sponge"; repeatedly sabotaged his OCSD locker so he'd be late to briefings; encouraged civilians to file complaints against him; placed a large dildo and lube container in his gear bag; chatted openly about punching him in the face; harangued him in front of citizens; and accused him of not being tough enough to work as a patrol deputy because of war-caused PTSD—a label that was at the time false, career-harming and impossible to shake.

Deputy John Sprague testified he witnessed Keller and Cullen giving each other "high fives" after hazing Montoya and laughing after someone relocated his locker next to the toilets. "Patrol training is stressful enough," Sprague noted, adding that the "extra stress" placed on Montoya was constant, intense and reeking of the threat of violence. "I wouldn't have passed training [in Montoya's situation]," said Sprague. "No way."

But Montoya passed, prompting deputies to spread more rumors that Carona must have intervened on his behalf. To this day, Keller insists he truly wanted Montoya to pass, claims Montoya wasn't ready for patrol, displayed emotional instability and continues to believe the sheriff rescued him from failure. "His actions on patrol were horrible, horrible and unsafe," Keller testified.

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