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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
"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.
Longtime OCSD Sergeant Wayne Quint Jr., who also served as the president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS), says he was the person who intervened on Montoya's behalf and doesn't regret the move. There was "zero justification" to fail the deputy, according to Quint, who studied all of the training reports on Montoya.
"His patrol training was progressing," Quint said in court. "Any [Montoya] issues were definitely correctable. There was nothing [in the reports] glaring that he was failing."
Quint, now the chief of the Bureau of Gambling Control in the California Attorney General's office, vividly remembers his impression about the effort to fail Montoya, who went on to receive accolades in 2005 for not using lethal force when he could have justified shooting a suspect and, in 2006, for crawling into a burning, collapsing building to rescue a trapped man. "This isn't right," he recalls thinking. "This guy is getting railroaded."
Nevertheless, resentment of Montoya's perceived preferential treatment from the sheriff, whom he met only twice, grew worse after he passed training over the objections of several high-ranking OCSD managers, including Tim Board and Dave Wilson. Montoya had no idea the clock was ticking on his career. His enemies waited almost half a decade until Carona, convicted of corruption in 2009, was gone—and then they pounced.
That same year, with new Sheriff Sandra Hutchens in control, the department opened three dubious Internal Affairs investigations into Montoya during a six-month period, absurdly declared him a threat to commit workplace violence without a shred of meaningful supportive evidence, placed surveillance cameras at his home, put GPS tracking devices on his vehicles, hacked his personal cell phone, tailed him in black Crown Victoria sedans, demanded his ex-girlfriends share with the government investigators intimate details of his sex life, recorded the size of his penis (extra large) in official records, lamely tried to imply he may have been involved in a homicide, unsuccessfully badgered minors to say he'd acted perversely with them, worked to distance his friends from him, leaked inflammatory personnel records out of context, improperly docked him $41,000 in earned vacation pay, published his name and picture on a "Be On the Lookout" notice used for murderers and rapists (a move Quint called "outrageous"), pressed the Marines to reconsider issuing him the Navy Cross, and terminated him.
In a glaring sign of consciousness of guilt and a cynical way to declare plausible deniability that they hadn't targeted Montoya, department officials assigned numerous other ex-military employees to prominent roles in bringing down the deputy; many of them received promotions before testifying.
"The OCSD is systemically dysfunctional and a cesspool," said Kyle. "They spent five years creating a one-sided record against Scott."
After being put on notice of the deputy's impending legal action, the department claims it accidentally destroyed more than two years' worth of related internal records that might have revealed the depths of the agency's determination to taint the deputy. Though one surviving memo proves officials plotted to encourage civilians to file complaints to justify probes, the remaining, carefully preserved records not surprisingly support the OCSD's contention that they were doing a public service by terminating Montoya.
Concluded Kyle, "[The OCSD's Internal Affairs reports] created a Frankenstein, a portrait of a monster. The problem is it simply wasn't true."
* * *
At Montoya's recent civil trial inside U.S. District Court Judge Jesus G. Bernal's Riverside courtroom, it was the task of Haluck, the aforementioned seasoned OCSD legal representative, to convince the six women and two men on the jury that the department did not permit a hostile work environment and that hostilities against the deputy had not been motivated in any way by his military service. The partner at Koeller, Nebeker, Carlson & Haluck is considered a formidable attorney who specializes in defending insurance companies against customers. He's well-organized, quick on his feet, well-versed on legal matters and, I suspect in most cases, an exceptionally clever advocate.
But from the outset of Montoya's case, Haluck seemed most determined to show jurors his contempt for the ex-deputy at every opportunity. Not once during nearly two weeks of proceedings did he show any hint of respect, choosing instead to treat the Navy Cross recipient like a worthless liar unfairly attempting to tarnish the reputation of a blemish-free law-enforcement organization. Several witnesses who dared side with Montoya received when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife-type questions, tactics I was surprised Bernal allowed.
Compounding those tactical errors, Haluck also apparently didn't respect the intelligence of the jurors, a working-class panel deeply appreciative of military service. Using sleight-of-hand trickery, he constantly reasoned it was inherently impossible for OCSD to have cheated Montoya because the department routinely hires ex-military employees. He suggested Montoya fabricated his complaints of a hostile work environment for the litigation, though several department supervisors testified they'd been aware of the situation as early as 2004. He described the onetime deputy as a sexual pervert, though no corresponding proof surfaced in the case. He mocked him for weeping after the death of one of his horses, which doesn't seem worthy of ridicule. He suggested Montoya might have played a suspicious role in the boating death of a fiancee, though the evidence showed he was genuinely devastated. He tried to imply the heroics that earned Montoya the Navy Cross were figments of his wild imagination, though the lawyer couldn't produce any conflicting information.
Haluck worked strenuously to undermine the fact that the deputy had served as a Marine scout sniper. Though it had no substantial bearing on the questions before the jury, he summoned two defense witnesses, both also ex-Marines and scout snipers now in law enforcement (Chris Hays of the OCSD SWAT unit and Ron Allen of the West Covina Police Department), to tell the jury that Montoya—who graduated first in his Camp Pendleton boot camp and first in his infantry-school training—hadn't been competent enough to handle scout sniper school, failed and was, thus, unworthy of calling himself a scout sniper. In fact, Allen, a onetime scout sniper instructor, claims he personally flunked Montoya for cheating on two map tests.
"We decided to let him stay [in scout sniper school] despite my better judgment," Allen snarled from the witness stand.
Marine Colonel Geoffrey L. Cooper (retired), who served as Montoya's battalion commander during the Battle of Baghdad, arrived in court as a Montoya witness and had nothing but glowing admiration, especially for his willingness to teach other Marines, including officers, martial art skills.
"He was a scout sniper," Cooper testified. "That's why I assigned him to a scout sniper platoon; otherwise, I wouldn't have. His fitness reports reflected that he was a scout sniper. His combat awards reflect that he was a scout sniper. The fact is he is a scout sniper. There's no doubt in my mind."
An irked Cooper paused and added, "I don't even know why this is an issue."
* * *
Among the jurors hearing Montoya's case were a medical technician, a retired airline pilot, a Disneyland Resort manager, a construction-company administrator, an unemployed truck driver, a school secretary, a retired journalist and a sporting-goods-company employee. Their job was to decide if OCSD allowed a hostile work environment, and, if so, did the abusive conduct cause or exasperate the severe disability that now renders Montoya unemployable: PTSD.
Haluck argued that Montoya returned from Iraq War combat already afflicted and is lying that any of his experiences at the sheriff's department impacted his PTSD. If true, the lawyer's stance raises a multipronged dilemma: Why did OCSD put a disabled deputy on public patrol for five years? How did he manage to continuously receive positive employee evaluations? And if Montoya had been handicapped during the entire period after his military service, shouldn't he have been treated with respect and compassion by the department?
Montoya testified that he developed "full-blown" PTSD while enduring the harassment from his fellow Stanton deputies in 2005 and 2006. His symptoms included hyper-vigilance, sleeplessness and depression. "I wasn't able to go to social gatherings," he said. "I stopped riding horses. I started excluding people from my life—my mother, my pastor. I was just managing day by day. I couldn't focus. I felt sad all the time."
Montoya feared he'd lost his mind after the OCSD terminated him and worked to publicly wreck his reputation. The stress continued to mount. During VA counseling, he says, he realized the extent of his PTSD and that "I was not crazy."
Ludwig told jurors that the "cruel jokes" mocking the Navy Cross, hazing, ostracism and threats concerning backup were "devastating" to his 44-year-old client.
"The OCSD caused or exasperated Mr. Montoya's PTSD, making him unemployable," said Ludwig. "He cannot work because of what OCSD did to him."
At a cost of $515 per hour to Orange County taxpayers, Haluck retained Dr. David Lechuga, a former president of the California Psychological Association, to opine that it's important to be suspicious of PTSD claims. Lechuga has never interviewed Montoya, but after reviewing the work of others, he confidently stated that combat and the death of Montoya's fiancee "most probably" caused the PTSD. Under cross-examination by Ludwig, he acknowledged that a hostile work environment and social isolation can also worsen the condition.
But Dr. Johnson, the Department of Defense clinical neuropsychologist who has spent hours with Montoya, testified research has established that "when social support is high" for a soldier or a deputy, "PTSD risk is less."
Johnson, a powerfully articulate witness who commanded the attention of the jury, noted Montoya's medical file contains reports from other doctors who also concluded after testing that the deputy's PTSD could "mostly" be blamed on the hostile work environment he endured at OCSD.
"The horrific things experienced in combat were not driving his stress," testified Johnson, who volunteered to work on this case for free and has aided the FBI and American intelligence agencies. "It was primarily his feeling he was unsupported, not going to get backup and that his life was in danger. . . . In the case of Scott Montoya, he was experiencing something he hadn't in combat: antagonism from his team on patrol [in Stanton]. . . . At best, OCSD exasperated his PTSD. At worse, OCSD caused his PTSD."
Jurors didn't have to guess about what Montoya may have experienced. They got a firsthand taste when Keller marched into the courtroom while in uniform and inadvertently helped to settle the case. Initially, the deputy calmly answered questions by Kyle, insisting that he always had "Scotty's" best interests at heart.
"I'm not a little Nazi-ite," he said. "I was worried about his safety."
But Montoya's methodical, even-keeled lawyer, who spent 13 years in the Marines, began a lengthy series of questions that confronted the deputy about alleged inconsistencies in his prior statements. After more than half an hour of such inquiries, Keller began to squirm in the witness chair, sigh, give terse answers such as "negative" and glare at Kyle.
Finally, he snapped.
"[Montoya is] a liar!" Keller barked. "He's always a victim. He makes up stories. You never know where he's coming from. He's a manipulator, an actor."
The outburst visibly startled jurors, who leaned back in their seats as though in fear themselves.
"He attaches himself to people in power so he can get ahead," a red-faced Keller continued. "Just looking at him now irritates me."
Haluck tried to rehabilitate the deputy's testimony by asking if he'd ever mocked Montoya's military service.
"Never," replied Keller, who then assured the jury he'd also never called Montoya "stupid" and claimed that Montoya had been the aggressor in their relationship.
"Whenever he would walk by me, he called me 'white trash,' and I would just smile at him," testified Keller before being excused and walking by Montoya as if he were going to attack.
Aided by Keller's anger and Haluck's callous, one-note style, jurors officially determined that OCSD had violated USERRA with a hostile, anti-military bias against Montoya. Next, ignoring the defense lawyer's argument they couldn't award Montoya even a buck, the jurors handed him approximately $496,000 for due vacation and back pay. In coming weeks, Bernal will decide how much, if any, money should be awarded for lost future wages.
Before leaving the courthouse, several jurors thanked Montoya for all his public service, said they sympathized with his ordeal and recounted their fear of Keller.
"We could feel the hatred," one said.
Jurors refused to speak to Haluck or his more polite junior counsel, Michael J. Rossiter. Despite the verdicts, the OCSD legal team indicated to the judge that they won't concede their loss. They plan to appeal, a move sure to forestall the abused, ex-deputy's overdue encounter with justice.
* * *
In the wake of what he called an exhausting, "hard fought" trial of "David vs. Goliath," Montoya—a Los Angeles County resident—spends his days with his animals. Sadly, he has concluded the "worst thing" in his life was being awarded the Navy Cross. His dream? To someday own a martial-arts studio, where he can provide free training to kids. He says he's indebted to Kyle and Ludwig for believing in him, and he's still reeling from what he considers OCSD's relentless, ongoing campaign to destroy him.
"It's [the legal battle] not over, but I want to move on with my life," he said. "I just want a normal life, to have a wife and raise a family. I don't want media attention."
He says he finds solace in his favorite poem, "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley. This man, who took a huge pay cut and risked his life to fight as a Marine for this nation in Iraq, recited to me the entire poem with special emphasis on these passages:
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Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.