One of Anaheim’s most notorious cops is at it again.
Five years ago, Scott McManus, a gang-unit officer, made headlines for his involvement in a highly questionable shooting that capped a long record of excessive-force complaints. Now he’s back in the news again, thanks to a federal civil-rights lawsuit expected to be filed July 29. The lawsuit stems from a Feb. 2, 2008, collision involving McManus and Boaz Quinton Balenti, a 45-year-old driver who cruised through a Buena Park neighborhood where McManus and other officers were conducting a drug-surveillance operation.
Police reports filed by McManus and other officers assert Balenti aroused suspicion because his truck had tinted windows and had rolled through a stop sign. McManus responded by turning on his police lights and positioning his vehicle as a roadblock, and Balenti failed to stop. “Balenti and I made eye contact as I stopped my vehicle,” McManus wrote in his report. “Balenti suddenly accelerated his truck in my direction and violently collided with the front end of my vehicle.”
In his report, McManus claimed he was unable to arrest Balenti because he was in such serious pain from the wreck that he collapsed on the pavement after getting out of his car. “I went to the ground and could not stand up,” he wrote. Two other officers named in the lawsuit are alleged to have beaten Balenti after pulling him from his truck; in their own reports, the two officers stated Balenti resisted arrest and they had no choice but to sweep his feet from the ground and repeatedly “strike” him in the face to force him to comply. (By all accounts, McManus was dazed from the crash and did not strike Balenti.)
Balenti, whom police reports say was slipping in and out of consciousness, was sent to West Anaheim Medical Center with numerous injuries he sustained from the collision: a concussion, a dislocated right shoulder and cervical spine sprain, as well as extensive bruising and nerve damage. Hospital photographs taken that day show him covered in blood, adorned in a neck brace and with heavy bandages on his head. McManus was also treated for his less serious injuries: several bruises, a cut on his leg and scratched knuckles.
After being treated, Balenti went to jail, charged with assault with a deadly weapon for allegedly ramming McManus. Although the Orange County district attorney’s office declined to prosecute Balenti for the car crash, he pleaded guilty to two counts of transporting narcotics in return for a two-year prison sentence. “At the time we filed the case, we believed there was sufficient evidence to file a charge of assault with a deadly weapon,” said DA spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder. “As we did further investigation and obtained further evidence, we didn’t believe we could prove that case beyond a reasonable doubt, and we dismissed the charge.”
Assuming Balenti intentionally rammed McManus, the two other officers named in the lawsuit do not make this assertion in their reports. Instead, they state they observed Balenti “colliding” with McManus, leaving it unclear as to which vehicle rammed the other.
A sworn declaration attached to the lawsuit signed by the one witness to the crash who wasn’t wearing a uniform is more clear on this question. This witness, a Buena Park resident who lived near the scene of the incident, asked to not be identified and would only confirm that he signed the declaration and that everything he stated is exactly what happened.
The witness was retrieving a birthday gift from his car, which was parked on the street, when he heard a loud noise. “I looked up to see an SUV with flashing lights traveling westbound at an extremely high rate of speed, turning sharply to its left, skidding across the westbound lanes and into the eastbound lanes, into head-on traffic,” his declaration states. “The SUV appeared to be out of control. The SUV remained in my field of vision as it crashed head-on into a truck traveling eastbound on Ball Road. The truck seemed to be moving at a low speed just prior to the collision.”
The speeding SUV with the flashing lights was, of course, McManus’, while the slow-moving truck was driven by Balenti. According to the witness, the “SUV hit the truck while still traveling at a high rate of speed. . . . The impact was loud and violent and rocked the neighborhood.” He watched McManus get out of the SUV, drop to the ground and pull out his gun while Balenti remained motionless in his truck. He then saw other officers struggle with Balenti, forcibly remove him from the driver’s seat and knock him to the ground.
Sergeant Rick Martinez, an Anaheim Police Department public-information officer, said his agency couldn’t comment on the incident.
But Balenti’s attorney, Cecelia Moddelmog, suspects a cover-up. “This could be you; it could be me,” says Moddelmog, who’s also Balenti’s sister. “Should you commit a minor traffic violation, be it tinted windows, rolling through a stop sign—who knows, maybe next time it’ll be expired tags, turning right on red, perhaps you might be caught jaywalking—this is what Officer McManus might choose to do to you.”
Alleging that a police officer would do something as reckless as intentionally ram a motorist he suspects of being a drug dealer solely on the basis of tinted windows, then lie about it, might seem like a stretch. But given that the cop is McManus, it’s not as surprising as you’d think. On Feb. 20, 2003, he shot an unarmed IBM technician named Jeffrey Santelli in the parking lot of Garden Grove’s Crystal Cathedral.
Santelli had driven there to give his mother, an employee of the church, some money so she could attend a birthday party. While talking to his mom, Santelli heard a shout and turned around to see “a stranger wearing shorts and shirt” standing next to an SUV. That stranger, McManus, allegedly dropped to his knee and shot Santelli in the stomach. After the incident, police officials told the press that McManus had followed Santelli because he was driving erratically and had shot him in self-defense.
By that time, McManus already had a string of excessive-force complaints on his record. In 1997, he allegedly pounded a suspect’s face to the concrete, hit him on the back of his head and fractured his jaw—then charged the suspect with assault on a police officer. The victim, Fernando Ortiz, claimed in a civil-rights lawsuit that McManus beat him up because he was enraged Ortiz had been given drug diversion after McManus previously arrested him for marijuana possession. The city of Anaheim admitted no wrongdoing by McManus but settled Ortiz’s lawsuit for $90,000.
In the previous year, McManus racked up three complaints, including one involving a victim of domestic violence who called police only to have McManus and another cop throw her on her bed, twist her arm behind her back and attempt to arrest her before realizing their mistake. In that case, the police department sent the woman an apology saying an “unspecified disciplinary action had been taken.”
Remarking on that and other incidents involving McManus, Santelli’s attorney, Marc Block, told the Weekly seven years ago that unless McManus was fired, he’d continue to screw up. “This is what comes back eventually to bite the city,” he argued (see “Have Badge, Will Skate,” May 9, 2003). “After you start getting more incidents, they’ve got to do something . . . like get rid of him. It’s time this guy had a change of career.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).