‘Not the same’: Families remember fallen El Monte officers two years later

‘Not the same’: Families remember fallen El Monte officers two years later

 

Images of El Monte police Officers Michael Paredes and Joseph Santana a mural at the El Monte Civic Center on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. Federal and local law enforcement officials announced federal charges and arrests stemming from an investigation into a street gang accused of shootings and a wide array of criminal activity. The investigation was started after a member of the gang was accused of murdering El Monte police Officers Michael Paredes and Joseph Santana on June 14, 2022. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Widow of late Sgt. Michael Paredes, Janine Paredes, speaks as family and friends stand next to her at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, Los Angeles County Superior Court on Tuesday, November 29, 2022. They announced legal action against District Attorney George Gascon, Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, Los Angeles County Probation Department and County of Los Angeles. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Family and supporters of Officer Joseph Santana protest outside of the El Monte Police Station on Monday Jan. 29, 2024. The family contends that the dispatchers failed to effectively inform the officers, Cpl. Michael Paredes and Officer Joseph Santana, as they arrived that the suspect was armed. (Photo by Keith Durflinger, Contributing Photographer)

A funeral procession for two El Monte Police officers, Sgt. Michael Paredes and Officer Joseph Santana, make their way on the eastbound 10 Freeway in Ontario on Thursday, June 30, 2022. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Police officers wait for the memorial service procession for two officers from the El Monte Police Department, Sgt. Michael Paredes and Officer Joseph Santana, to begin from the police station in El Monte, on Thursday, June 30, 2022. (Photo by Alex Gallardo, Contributing Photographer)

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Former Police Chief David Reynoso made the same promise to the Santana family that he made to the family of every officer sworn in to the El Monte Police Department: “We will do everything we can to take care of them,” Reynoso said.

But two years on from June 14, 2022, when Officer Joseph Santana and Sgt. Michael Paredes were gunned down in the line of duty – he’s reflecting on a difficult moment in his hometown.

“I felt like somewhere along the line the system failed the officers,” said Reynoso, who held the title for more than six years, working alongside Santana and Paredes.

Two years from that fateful day, Reynoso has joined the Santana family, still frustrated at the response from the institutions tasked with protecting Joseph Santana.

On June 14, 2022, Paredes, Santana and Sgt. Eric Sanchez arrived around 5 p.m. at the Siesta Inn motel, near Garvey and Central avenues, after receiving a report of a stabbing.

Santana knocked on the motel room door for several minutes. When it opened, Justin Flores was inside holding a gun behind a pair of pants. Flores shot both officers before later killing himself.

Sanchez engaged Flores in a gun battle and suffered a gunshot wound to his foot and a graze wound to his arm. Sanchez mortally wounded Flores, police said.

911 audio and police radio traffic revealed a caller told dispatch that Flores was armed and on drugs. That information was inputted into the responding officers’ computer-aided dispatch system but not broadcast over the radio.

Since the Santana family criticized the El Monte Police Department at a January protest, they say the department has turned its back on them.

Olga Garcia, posing in her West Covina home on June 10, 2024, says she likes to spend time thinking of her son Joseph Santana, one of two El Monte police officers killed in an ambush two years ago, at night when a cross and angels light up in his memory. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Olga Garcia, Santana’s mother, said she’s felt the most support from the nearby West Covina Police Department. Her son had no prior connection to that department, but said they continue to check up on her.

“It’s almost like if my son worked for them,” Garcia said.

After a stint at the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office, Santana began what his family called a dream job as an El Monte police officer in 2021, serving in his hometown.

“He took an oath to serve and protect and they didn’t protect my son,” Garcia said.

Santana, 31, who had lived in Upland, was survived by his wife and three children. His daughter is 11 and his twin boys are now 4. Garcia described Santana as a humble, caring father who loved being the jokester.

“It’s not the same anymore without him,” Garcia said. “But I know we have to go on for the grandkids and for my kids.”

Olga Garcia, posing in her West Covina home on June 10, 2024, is still looking for answers to why her son, El Monte Police Officer Joseph Santana, was killed in an ambush two years ago. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

 

Body camera video of the shooting has not been released publicly, but in December, Santana’s sister, Jessica Santana, watched her brother’s body camera video during a briefing at the Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide bureau in Monterey Park.

“It was just a lot to see his final moments,” Jessica Santana said. “Everything that happened to him could have been prevented.”

She sat with her sister Bianca Santana at their mom’s dining room table this week remembering their late brother. They recalled his humor and his place as the glue of the family.

Bianca Santana said nothing will ever make things better, but that the family deserves a public apology from the El Monte Police Department. She called the department’s continued support of the dispatchers insulting.

Dispatcher Ruth Bonneau took the 911 call from Flores’ wife, who reported that Flores was on drugs and armed. Kristen Jauregui, a fellow dispatcher, did not relay the message over the radio. The San Gabriel Valley Tribune in January reported that Jauregui, the daughter of retired El Monte Police Chief Tom Armstrong, was on paid leave.

El Monte Police Chief Jake Fisher said this week that he could not comment on personnel matters.

“I don’t know how any officer would want to work there knowing the way they’re treating us,” Bianca Santana said. “It could have been them and that could have been their family.”

Paredes, 42, also of Upland, had served on the El Monte police force since 2000. He is survived by his wife and two children. The Paredes family could not be reached for comment as of Wednesday afternoon.

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A lawsuit filed against Los Angeles County, L.A. County Probation, the L.A. District Attorney’s Office, DA George Gascón and the Siesta Inn on behalf of the Santana and Paredes families recently reached a settlement. City News Service reported monetary damages went to Santana’s wife and her children.

A judge dismissed the county defendants last year.

Flores’ prior convictions included burglary, driving violations and drug possession, according to the lawsuit. Flores was charged in 2020 with being a felon in possession of a firearm. The strike should have meant prison time for Flores, according to the lawsuit, but instead, a plea deal placed Flores on probation.

Neil Gehlawat, an attorney for the Santana family, said the officers’ deaths could have been avoided if the probation department had followed policy and checked in on Flores.

“We hope that this case forces the probation department to rethink how they train their officers to keep tabs on dangerous felons,” Gehlawat said in an email. “The family will be forever heartbroken for the loss of Joseph Santana.”

Mark Peacock, an attorney for the Paredes family, said he could not discuss the details of the settlement, but said Paredes’ wife and children will also receive monetary damages.

Attorneys for the families said California law provides immunities for county agencies and officials being sued. While Peacock said there are exceptions, he said there should be an easier way to hold such public entities accountable.

Peacock said Flores’ clear history of violence should have meant he was in custody instead of out in the community. Peacock pointed to Gascón, who in Peacock’s view, created his own law by not applying the three strikes rule to Flores.

“That’s not what your job is,” Peacock said. “Your job is to enforce the law.”

El Monte Police Chief Jake Fisher, who poses in his office on Tuesday, June 11, 2024, says he is planning on adding mental health programs for his officers and staff as the department continues to mourn the loss of two officers killed in an ambush two years ago. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Fisher, an acting captain at the time of the shooting, was at nearby Grace Black Auditorium when the call came in of an officer-involved shooting. Speaking from his office this week, Fisher recalled arriving at the scene and helping get Paredes and Santana into vehicles and rushed to the hospital.

A 25-year veteran of the department, Fisher knew Paredes for more than 20 years back, when Paredes joined the force as a cadet.

“He did his job here when he was here and did it well, but he knew there was clear and distinct separation between work and family, and he was very good at keeping those priorities straight,” Fisher said.

Since the officers’ deaths, the department has doubled its training budget and worked to alleviate the burden on dispatch. Fisher said this has included installing a phone tree for all non-emergency calls.

In addition, now when dispatchers add keywords such as gun, knife or weapon, the CAD system will color code those words and chime to alert the officers. Fisher said dispatchers are trained to verbally broadcast that information but the policy requirement only calls for notification.

Another step taken to reduce call volumes, coming later this year, is an automated text system that keeps 911 callers updated on the status of their call once they hang up with 911.

He acknowledged the Santana family’s criticisms of dispatch but said he disagrees with their position.

“Whenever you want to talk to me, I’m here and I’ll explain to you in person my rationale for how things went down on the dispatcher issue, but they haven’t taken that opportunity to come see me,” Fisher said.

Fisher said the D.A.’s Office continues to review the case, including about whether Flores’ wife, who was in the room when the shooting occurred, will face charges. The D.A. review also means body camera footage of the officers involved cannot be released to the public.

He said a decision on whether the videos will ultimately be released has not been made and the decision will include thinking of the impact releasing them will have on the officers’ families.

The police department will hold an honor guard watch in remembrance of Santana and Paredes. Fisher said he had not heard from the Santana family about their desire for a memorial service to be held.

“We’re going to do something nice and appropriate but to hold a big ceremony is scraping the scab off the wound for a lot of people going through that again,” Fisher said.

Plans for an El Monte Police Department Memorial Monument to be built outside the police station are underway, Fisher said. Construction is set to begin in December.

A rendering of the El Monte Police Department Memorial Monument. (Courtesy of City of El Monte)

It will include plaques for Paredes, Santana and the three other El Monte police officers killed in the line of duty.

The Santana family said they were not contacted by the department about plans to mark the two-year anniversary.

Reynoso, the former chief — who went to grade school with Santana’s mother and lived on the same street in El Monte — said Paredes and Santana should be remembered for being great fathers, husbands and friends.

“Those are the titles that are most important in life,” Reynoso said. “And all that was taken away from their families by this cowardly man that murdered them.”

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