The family of a slain El Monte police officer blames two emergency dispatchers for failing to tell the officer and his partner that they were on their way to confront a possible armed suspect high on PCP before the gunman ambushed and killed them.
Officer Joseph Santana and Sgt. Michael Paredes were responding to a domestic violence call on June 14, 2022, when they were ambushed by Joseph Flores, a felon out on probation, who was living at a motel with his wife.
The officers were aware of the basics of the call: A woman may have been stabbed by her husband. What the officers were not verbally told was that the suspect had a history of violence with his wife, was armed with a gun and was high on PCP, according to reporting by the Los Angeles Daily News. The incident is still under investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office.
"Having that information could have allowed them to be aware of the threat that they were facing, potentially even sparing their lives," Santana's sister Bianca Santana said Monday outside the El Monte police station during a protest.
Friends and family wore black T-shirts emblazoned with Santana's face, and his father, Joe Santana, held a sign that read, "My Son's Life Mattered." The protesters demanded the Police Department fire the two emergency dispatchers who took the 911 call and relayed the information to the officers in the field.
Paredes and Santana were fatally shot at the hotel in what police describe as an ambush. Flores ended up taking his own life during a shootout with officers in the motel parking lot.
The 911 call that set off the series of events was made by Maria Zepeda, Flores' mother-in-law, according to an audio recording obtained by the Daily News. Zepeda told the dispatcher that Flores stabbed her daughter and he had recently abused her.
"He's on PCP. He has a gun," Zepeda told emergency dispatcher Ruth Bonneau, according to the news outlet.
When the officers got the call shortly before 5 p.m. dispatcher Kristen Juaregui did not relay information about the suspect possibly being armed. But she did enter that information into the call report, which the officers would have read from inside their police cruiser, the Daily News reported. Santana's family were not aware of those details until the news story broke over the weekend, said Satana's wife, Sasha Santana.
Santana's twin 3-year-old boys, Jakob and Joshua, joined their family while carrying protest signs along with their stuffed animals.
"I don't want anyone else to go through what we go through," she said, renewing her call for the department to reprimand the dispatchers and terminate their employment. "I do not want them to set foot in another police department. I am angry. My husband would not have been knocking nonchalantly on that hotel door if he was aware of what was going to happen. If he was aware that there was a man in there armed and on PCP."
Family members said they believe the officers are unfairly being partly blamed for their own deaths, because pertinent details about the 911 call were fed to the officers in a written update while they were racing to the motel. Sasha Santana said that the officers would have not had the time to read that update.
It has felt as though the department has ignored the family's well-being, Joe Santana said.
"No one came to us and said, 'We messed up, we're sorry,'" Joe Santana said as he sobbed in front of the station. "I know my son was new, but he was proud to be part of the El Monte PD family."
Paredes, 42, was sworn into the El Monte Police Department in 2000. Santana, 31, joined the department about a year before the shooting.
Santana's family does not condemn all the officers with the Police Department, but believes leadership have concealed vital information that led to the two officers' deaths.
"We might appear strong as we stand here seeking justice, but internally we are filled with anger and pain," said Santana's sister Jessica Santana as her voice broke. "And it's that pain that fuels us to fight for the truth."
The shooting and response to the incident is part of an ongoing investigation by the Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office, according to a statement from El Monte Police Chief Jake Fisher.
"Together we are moving forward as we collectively continue to grieve and recover from the horrific event," the statement said.
After interviewing witnesses, reviewing police camera footage, reports and call logs, Fisher said, the Sheriff's Department and district attorney's investigators have found there was no "wrongdoing by our police officers or civilian personnel." But the investigation has not concluded, and it's unclear when the findings will be made public.
"We fully anticipate this finding to hold and that our D.A. will officially clear all involved officers and close the investigation," the statement said.
Wyatt Reneer, president of the El Monte Police Officers Assn., attended the protest in support of the Santana family, but also in support of the officers and dispatchers with the department.
"Our dispatchers, our officers, everyone here is doing their job to the best of their ability, and they're doing the right thing," Reneer said.
Santana's mother, Olga Garcia, said: "There has been no worse feeling in my life than losing my son. Learning a year later that there was information he did not have that could have saved his life, information he could have used to protect himself and his partner, it shatters my heart each day that goes by."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.