SAN ANTONIO — Three fired San Antonio Police Department officers, terminated from the department amid allegations ranging from punching a pregnant prisoner to using racial slurs during the arrest of a Black man, were all able to continue wearing the badge at a smaller agency down the road, according to records obtained by Eyewitness Wants to Know.
Leon Valley Police Chief Joe Salvaggio defended bringing the three fired officers aboard on a reserve basis as they awaited their day before an independent arbitrator, telling KENS 5 the decisions were made after extensive background research on each of the officer’s cases.
“If they're currently under a suspension, then we require their attorney to contact us,” Salvaggio said. “We have conversations with their attorney. If there was anything that could be possibly legal, or criminal or things like that, we talk to the district attorney's office and we talk to the agency to find out what's the true story here."
Salvaggio said he took these steps before hiring Elizabeth Montoya, Daniel Pue and Tim Garcia—all served indefinite suspensions, SAPD's equivalent of a termination.
However, when a San Antonio police officer is fired, they aren’t immediately gone. Each exercised their right to have their case heard by an arbitrator, who could potentially reverse San Antonio Police Chief William McManus’ decision to fire them.
While Pue and Montoya are still awaiting arbitration, Garcia has already gone before an arbitrator, who shortened his termination to a 10-month suspension. Garcia was reinstated to the San Antonio Police Department late last year.
Salvaggio said none of the officers actually work for him because they are employed on a reserve basis. Employment records also show none had received a paycheck from Leon Valley. Salvaggio said he agreed to hold their commission through the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement on a reserve basis so their license would stay active as they await arbitration, also allowing them to work side jobs.
“Once you get an indefinite, it's extremely hard to find a job, whether it's within a police department or anywhere else,” Salvaggio explained. “And so, really, if they want to work extra jobs, highway jobs, things like that, this would allow them to do that. Directing traffic. But they're not out here on the streets answering calls or anything like that.”
‘Yeah I punched you in the face a couple times. I’ll do it again, too'
Montoya was fired from SAPD in 2019. Suspension documents allege she repeatedly punched a pregnant prisoner, identified in police records as Kimberly Ann Esparza, on July 5, 2018. Police records allege Montoya dragged the woman out of a patrol car by her hair and had her sit in the rain for half an hour. According to an internal affairs report, Esparza had kicked Montoya, prompting Montoya to punch her in the face several times.
A police report for the incident that drew Montoya’s response to the scene states Esparza was one of two people suspected of burglary and was wanted on warrants for burglary of a building and burglary of a vehicle the night of the incident. Authorities also found two half-smoked cigarettes and an alprazolam pill while searching Esparza.
She was booked on charges of resisting arrest and assault of a public servant, though both were dismissed in August 2018, online court records show.
Body-worn camera video of the incident shows Montoya and other officers attempting to search Esparza as she yelled that the officers were causing her pain. Montoya is seen on a fellow officer’s body camera video securing Esparza in the patrol car when Montoya begins to apparently punch Esparza. Montoya is then seen pulling Esparza out of the patrol car, and later Esparza questions why Montoya hit her so many times, to which Montoya responded, “because you deserved it.”
Later in the video, Montoya can be heard shouting, “Yeah I punched you in the face a couple times. I’ll do it again, too.” And telling other officers Esparza was faking her pain.
Warning: Explicit language.
Salvaggio said he had also seen the video, remarking that “sometimes police work just don't look pretty. That's just the bottom line.” He said it’s important to also take into account that Esparza had kicked Montoya prior to her punching Esparza.
Salvaggio said Montoya is the only officer that he allowed to actually work as an officer in Leon Valley, but under close supervision.
It’s not the first time Montoya had been disciplined for mistreating a prisoner in her custody. According to disciplinary records, Montoya in 2015 was suspended after kicking a handcuffed prisoner and putting her foot on his neck. Asked whether he would be surprised if he learned Montoya had been suspended for similar conduct before, Salvaggio said he wasn’t aware of any other suspensions.
“Normally, you'd lose your job over something like that if it's substantiated, so I don't know the details on that, so I really wouldn't want to comment on that one,” Salvaggio said.
In the 2018 incident, SAPD forwarded a criminal case against Montoya to the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution, though Montoya was never charged.
‘Did it happen? I don’t know. I wasn’t there.’
Pue was issued an indefinite suspension from the San Antonio Police Department amid allegations he got into a fight with his girlfriend in the front yard of his home in January of 2019, as well as claims he had kicked the woman’s door down in an earlier dispute. Suspension documents state Pue in the early hours of Jan. 7, 2019, went to his girlfriend’s home and kicked down her door, taking her cell phone.
Later that morning, Pue was involved in a physical fight with the woman at his home, suspension records state. A report from the Sheriff’s Office states deputies found a woman with a bleeding wound on her face when they arrived at Pue’s West Bexar County home.
According to disciplinary documents, the victim told authorities Pue assaulted her because she was cheating on him. The first responding deputy told authorities Pue “smelled like he had been drinking.”
Pue, records state, had also used a national and state criminal records database to run the name of his girlfriend on the system on at least two occasions and had texted her from a city-owned cellphone to text her “U wanted to f—k other people. There u go. Bye.” Suspension records state Pue initially told deputies that he had ended his relationship with the victim years ago, but later said he was untruthful because he knew it could potentially become public record.
Pue was initially charged with assault, but the charges were dismissed after the victim declined to cooperate in the investigation and Pue took an intensive anger management course, court records show.
Salvaggio said given the circumstances, nothing precludes Pue from being an officer.
“If he did what he what he was accused of, absolutely I would not have hired him,” Salvaggio said. “If those facts were not there, absolutely. He would have not been hired.”
Salvaggio said the way the suspension report and sheriff’s office report was written raises red flags, but questioned, “Did it happen? I don't know. I wasn't there.”
At last check, Pue is scheduled to go before an arbitrator in mid-July, though because of COVID-19, the hearings may be rescheduled.
The City of San Antonio, so far, has not completed Eyewitness Wants to Know’s requests for video and documents relating to Pue’s 2019 indefinite suspension.
‘We held his license because we felt it was going to take him a long time. And, actually, he went back pretty quick.’
Garcia successfully fought to be reinstated to the San Antonio Police Department after he was issued an indefinite suspension in 2019 after he was captured on body worn camera repeatedly using racial slurs during the arrest of a Black man.
“He was one that we hired that we just held his license cause we felt like it was gonna take him a long time. And actually, he went back pretty quick. He went to arbitration in just a matter of months and he was put back to work by a third-party independent arbitrator.”
An analysis of police records found that, over the last decade, 24 cases in which an officer is looking to have their indefinite suspension overturned. Of the two dozen cases, 10 indefinite suspensions have been overturned.
“I brought all my African-American officers in, I brought my city councilman in that is African-American, I brought one of the pastors in here, and had them all look at the video and say, ‘Is that racial? Or was that just stupid?’ And everyone said, ‘That's stupid. It's not going to hold up as a racial issue,” Salvaggio recalled of the steps he took before agreeing to bring Garcia on in a reserve basis.
And an arbitrator last year agreed. "I do not think there is convincing evidence that (Garcia) is a racist," arbiter Thomas Cipolla wrote. "One diatribe does not automatically denote a racist."
CLEAT: 'It's not fair if, indeed, the final verdict isn't in'
The Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas is one of the biggest police unions in the state and often represents San Antonio Police officers who are fighting to be reinstated to the job. Charlie Wilkison, the agency’s executive director, said agencies like Leon Valley allow an officer to continue to make a living while a final determination is made on their suspension.
“It’s not fair, if, indeed, the final verdict isn’t in,” Wilkison said. “And it's not fair when the reality is, generally, the department wins (in the appeals process). So, to deny someone out of hand, the very philosophical idea, concept that they get to answer to the charges, runs counter to everything we believe.
“So officers get this opportunity to say, ‘I didn’t do it.’ Or, ‘I didn't do what you say I did,’ or they can say, ‘You treated someone else differently.’”
Currently, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement is required to suspend or revoke an officer’s peace officer license in few cases—most involving criminal convictions, felony arrests and the type of separation designation an officer is given when they leave a law enforcement agency, among other administrative suspensions.
There is nothing in the law that precludes officers from working for another agency while they await a final decision on their disciplinary action.
“If we're upset because the chief in Leon Valley has made a decision to allow someone to continue being licensed through this process of appeal, then I would strongly defend his right – the rights of the chief,” Wilkison said.
KENS 5 earlier this year reached out to the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Police Department regarding Pue, Montoya and Garcia’s employment with Leon Valley. City Attorney Andy Segovia sent the following statement in response:
"The decision to terminate an officer for misconduct is only made after an extensive investigation and review of the facts. Contemplated discipline is reviewed with fellow officers and the Citizen Advisory Action Board. Chief McManus, after discussion with the officer being considered for discipline, makes the final determination.
"The Chief’s discipline decisions are guided by maintaining the integrity of the department and furthering the community’s safety and best interest. Discipline decisions are subject to the process and appeal rights granted to officers under both state law and the Collective Bargaining Agreement."