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A police stop in Medford causes a cascade of troubles for Roberto Santana-Park
Roberto Santana-Park never went to school, but he always wanted to be an inventor, he said. He spent years tinkering with electronics, intent on developing a long-running cell phone battery.
It was the battery that got him into trouble.
Santana-Park’s story includes one dramatic night, but a common theme. Thousands of Latinos in Oregon can’t get a driver’s license, meaning their lives are filled with inconvenience and risk.
Over the past four years, Americans have increasingly heard stories of African-American men who died at the hands of police. It’s created an awareness that, for young black men, even a minor traffic stop is cause for fear.
What’s less understood is that for thousands of Latinos in Oregon, that same dynamic is at play.
A tough childhood
Santana-Park doesn’t like to talk about his childhood. It took him more than a year to tell his wife some of the things he survived.
He was raised Roberto Aguirre-Santana, in a small town in the western Mexican state of Michoacán, where he worked slaughtering chickens and selling bread. Roberto was 13 when his father died. It was 1990. By then, gangs and drug cartels were a constant threat. His mother took his three younger siblings and left the country, making her way to Washington state where she later met and married a man with U.S. residency.
But Santana-Park refused to leave. His grandfather, a farmer, was going blind, and Santana-Park stayed to work the land. He was about 15 or 16 when the worst of it happened, when he was abducted for three days and tortured.
It was after that that he left Mexico. On foot. “It was very hard,” he said. Santana-Park carried none of his personal belongings, and just enough water. “You had to walk a lot of days through the desert. I almost died.”
Upon reaching Washington in the spring of 1996, he wasted no time finding employment. “The next day I went to work, picking asparagus,” he said. “Then later, I picked apples and cherries. Just work and work and work and work.”
The family submitted applications for U.S. residency. They were told the process could take years. So Santana-Park left to find better jobs. He worked the fields and orchards west of the Cascades then planted trees from Colorado to New York.
He was in an Oregon forest, far from any phone, he says, when his family got word that his green card was ready. He found out months later, but never went back to Washington to regulate his status.
Instead Santana-Park settled in Medford. He worked on a vineyard and planted trees when work was slow. He has never been in serious trouble with the law, but Santana-Park has been deported twice for being in the country illegally, most recently in 2010. Both times he found a way back to the Pacific Northwest.
“If you go to Mexico and go to your government and say, ‘hey I want to invent things.’ Or ‘I want to create a company or a corporation,’ there’s no help for that,” Santana-Park said. “There’s only help if you want to grow weed. I don’t want to do that kind of stuff, so I go back to the United States.”
A rare driver’s license
He met Lorraine Park on Christmas Eve 2013. He liked her eyes. She liked his smile. They drove around and looked at Christmas lights. Two months later Santana-Park went to Lorraine’s father, John Park, and asked for her hand.
They planned to marry that fall, but Santana-Park wasn’t on Lorraine’s lease, and her landlord had warned her that her boyfriend spent the night too often. So, he came over for breakfast and cooked beans and tortillas and coffee. He came over after work, too. They watched karate movies and snuggled. After Lorraine went to bed, Santana-Park stayed in the living room and pulled out his wires and buttons and set to work on his long-lasting cell-phone battery. He says he recorded a 400-hour charge in the spring of 2014.
He’d leave late in the night, carrying the tangle of wires to his old Lincoln Town Car, and he’d stop at a friend’s house, where he would fall sleep on the couch. Santana-Park knew he was lucky. He was an undocumented Oregon resident who had one of those increasingly rare valid licenses.
That’s because in 2006, when Santana-Park got his license, Oregon didn’t ask drivers for proof of legal residence. That changed in 2008 when Gov. Ted Kulongoski asked the Legislature to rewrite the rules to require proof of legal residence for the application or renewal of license.
Undocumented drivers who obtained a license prior to 2008 could legally drive until their license — good for eight years — expired. Santana-Park’s license was valid through his birthday in November 2014.
Santana-Park knew that in addition to his driver’s license, he needed to have insurance. So, he kept copies of the payments in the Lincoln. But his insurance lapsed because of a clerical error at his insurance company, American Family Insurance, he said. The agent did not return calls for comment. He didn’t find out until February 2014, when he was stopped by a Phoenix, Oregon, police officer and ticketed for driving without insurance.
Santana-Park said the insurance agent had failed to file semi-annual paperwork with the state, and she apologized for the mistake. She gave him documentation of his monthly payments to show to the Department of Motor Vehicles. There he was told all he needed to get his license reinstated was proof of legal residency.
And so Santana-Park joined the thousands of Oregonians, many of them Latinos, who drive without a license.
‘I’m trying to help you, man’
On June 14, Lorraine woke Roberto up about 12:30 a.m. “Hey, you gotta go,” she said. And like every night, he did.
“Those days I was so focused on my invention,” he said, describing a makeshift lab he set up in the back seat of his car, complete with spare wires and copper coils. “My battery was my world.”
He said he got an idea just as he was passing a seedy karaoke bar and pulled in across the street to a vacant lot of a shuttered Mexican restaurant. He began to tinker with the battery, he said, “and then I see the cop coming.”
Santana-Park said he thought, “Oh no, these guys are going to think I’m crazy if they see all these wires and coils.” So, knowing he didn’t have a license, he grabbed a stack of insurance receipts and stepped outside to explain the situation.
Oregon State Trooper Gregor Smyth reported later that he saw Santana-Park leave the bar across the street. He described Santana-Park’s eyes as bloodshot and his complexion as “greasy.”
Video and audio recordings of the traffic stop show Santana-Park was nervous. “It’s not nice to talk to police,” he says, as he starts to ramble. He mentions his invention. He talks about paying his insurance and shoves a stack of insurance papers into the officer’s hands.
“Are you suspended?” Smyth asks. After he runs Santana-Park’s name and discovers he doesn’t have a valid driver’s license, Smyth asks him to perform a sobriety test. Santana-Park tells the officer he only had one beer — hours earlier — but agrees to perform the tests.
Standing on one foot, Santana-Park struggles to count in English. “I don’t know, I never went to school,” he tells the officer.
“Count in Mexican,” Smyth says, then corrects himself. “Or in Spanish.” At this point Santana-Park rapidly begins to count. “OK, that’s good,” Smyth interrupts him. Then he puts Santana-Park in handcuffs.
“You’re kinda drunk,” Smyth says. “You’ve got a strong odor of alcohol coming from your breath.”
Santana-Park doesn’t struggle, and Smyth thanks him for his cooperation. By this time, a second officer, Medford Police Officer Joshua Spano, has arrived to assist. The three men stand at the front of Smyth’s car, visible in the video captured by the car’s front-facing camera.
Normally two cameras and two microphones simultaneously record events during a stop by the Oregon State Police: one camera captures action occurring in front of the squad car, the second camera captures the cab. But only the front camera ultimately produced video of Smyth’s entire stop that morning. The camera of the cab, where Smyth next takes Santana-Park, would remain blank for the next 18 minutes.
Trooper Smyth walks Santana-Park around the side of the car and out of view. His lapel microphone picks up the exchange: “Take a seat,” Smyth says. “Take a seat. Do you want some help?”
Santana-Park can be heard yelling, “Don’t do that! You don’t have the right to do that. I know my rights.”
“Get your feet in,” Smyth says as a commotion begins. Officer Spano follows Smyth, leaving the view of the car’s front camera.
Cries for help
For eight minutes the audio picks up the sound of repeated thumping intermixed with loud and sometimes muffled cries for help, the sound of impact and groans, and the officers’ commands — sometimes frustrated, sometimes calm, and sometimes almost humored — for Santana-Park to comply.
“I’m trying to help you, man,” Smyth says between impacts so forceful that the vehicle rocks. “Don’t resist,” Medford’s Spano says.
At one point Santana-Park says, “You guys don’t have the right to do that stuff.”
Then the sound of striking begins again.
Smyth: “Are you having any medical issues right now?”
Santana-Park: “I can’t move.”
Smyth: “Take a breath. Slow down your breathing.”
Smyth later reported he thought he was observing, ”symptoms of excited delirium and was immediately concerned about Santana’s well-being. I tried very hard to get him to sit up.” He put Santana-Park in a choke hold and pulled him up, according to his report.
Smyth radios in to dispatch. “I need a supervisor on scene,” he says. “Use of force, presently involved in.”
According to notes Smyth wrote later, between the time he radioed in and the time Senior OSP Trooper Jeff Allison arrived on scene, Smyth gave Santana-Park a “heel palm to the side of the face” which Smyth reported had no effect. So, he wrote, “I gave Santana two hard palm heel strikes to the right side of his face, and he immediately stopped resisting. His body relaxed, and I observed his eyes closed.”
After that, 10 minutes pass quietly, then the camera in the cab begins to function. It shows Santana-Park alone, slumped over, trying to shift weight off his hands, which, according to medical records, were bleeding where the handcuffs bit into his skin during the struggle. He mumbles “Hey, help,” and knocks his head against the glass. Then he pauses and whimpers, “Help. I need help.”
While the microphone inside the cab records Santana-Park, Smyth’s lapel microphone stops recording. The two officers can be seen, in the car’s front-facing camera, standing in the parking lot, chatting.
Then the supervisor, Allison, arrives. He bends down next to the cab. Santana-Park tells Allison that Smyth seemed like a nice guy, and then changed suddenly.
Smyth drove Santana-Park to Providence Hospital, where Santana-Park underwent CT scans and was treated for face and wrist injuries. Twice he submitted to alcohol breath tests, according to medical records. He blew 0.0 on each.
Santana-Park later said Smyth made derogatory comments, including, “Welcome to fucking America” and threatened him. But because Smyth’s microphone was intermittently shut off and muffled, the allegations are impossible to prove or disprove. (Smyth’s microphone was working, however, when he later read Santana-Park his rights.)
Medford Public Defender Samantha Evans said she has run into problems with gaps in police audio recordings while trying to defend clients. But she hasn’t found a tactful way of raising her concerns in court when she believes an officer manipulated his microphone. “You basically have to say the cop is lying. And that never goes over well,” she said. “Judges don’t like to do that, especially in Jackson County.”
Officer Spano wasn’t wearing a mic, and his vehicle didn’t come equipped with cameras, Medford Deputy Chief Scott Clauson said. Clauson said department policy requires officers report any use of force. Administration then reviews each case. But Spano, who has no record of disciplinary actions, didn’t report his own use of force in the short narrative he filed with his department. So the administration never reviewed the incident.
Oregon State Police Lt. Bill Fugate said department policy requires that troopers keep both cameras and both microphones on during a stop. He said he can’t explain what happened in this case. The technology is old and has a history of malfunctioning, he said. They’ve been asking for money to replace it.
Supervisors within Oregon State Police made no mention of missing video segments or breaks in audio when they reviewed Smyth’s use of force. They described Santana-Park’s behavior as, “obviously self-destructive” and combative. Smyth had acted reasonably, they concluded.
The following audio clip contains a partial recording of the traffic stop, including some violence.
More tickets, then ICE
Santana-Park was lodged in jail and formally charged with assaulting an officer, resisting arrest and drunken driving — even though a breath test picked up no hint of the alcohol Smyth said he smelled strongly on Santana’s breath. The officers said Santana-Park refused to take a urine test. When Lorraine bailed him out, she said he had a goose egg over one eye, cuts along his eyebrow and inside his lips. The injury to one wrist eventually would scar.
Santana-Park didn’t want to tell Lorraine what happened.
“He laid in bed for three days,” she said. “That’s when I started finding more bruises. He had bruises on his back, right by where his kidneys were. Several bruises, it looked like from a knuckle or something. Multiple right around his one kidney.”
Lorraine considered filing a complaint. But she said they didn’t want to hurt Santana-Park’s chances in court. Her father wanted to take action, too. “I thought about going down to the state police and complaining to the captain or whoever,” John Park said. “They asked me not to get involved. It was hard.”
A month later, on July 17, Phoenix police stopped Santana-Park again, this time for a busted vehicle light. They gave him a ticket for driving while suspended. He got another ticket shortly after that. Then Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed up at their door.
He was arrested for being in the country illegally and taken to a holding facility in Tacoma, Washington. Lorraine bailed him out of there as well. And family helped them scratch together enough money to hire an immigration attorney.
Earlier this month, a judge approved the couple’s marriage visa, which buys them some time. But Santana-Park could still be deported and still cannot drive.
The couple married in October 2014, in a small ceremony surrounded by Lorraine’s family.
A month later Lorraine gave birth to a little girl they named Reina, or queen in Spanish. Santana-Park said that changed everything. His own dreams of being an inventor shifted to dreams for his daughter to have a better life.
“I want her to go to school, graduate. I’m willing to work hard for that. Thanks to her I wake up in the morning and I don’t even feel tired no more,” he said. “I stand up, go to work. I work hard, come back, same thing. Sleep. Wake up again. Even if I don’t have energy. They give me energy.”
Santana-Park let go of his dream of developing a long-lasting battery. He said a woman in California invented one — called the Irvine Battery — that could hold a charge for a year.
But he couldn’t let go so easily of the events in June 2014. He refused to take a plea deal in the criminal case pending in circuit court, so he remained accused of drunk driving, resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.
A week before his March 2015 trial, he got a letter in the mail. It read, “The charges have been dismissed.”