When a law enforcement officer vows to protect, that oath applies to everyone — even suspected criminals.
A group of officers from Westminster, Cypress and Seal Beach recently proved this to be true when they put themselves at risk to save a felony suspect after the man crashed his car on the 405 freeway.
The car was on fire, the suspect’s legs were pinned and his passenger was dead.
The man caused an accident with one patrol vehicle, rammed his truck into another and led several officers on a pulse-pounding pursuit through construction zones, city streets and the freeway, putting the officers and other drivers at risk.
But when the man was in danger, officers didn’t hesitate to jump in.
“I didn’t have any emotion like anger toward him,” said Sgt. Cord Vandergrift. “He tried to get away, he didn’t and he was in a situation that we needed to help him.”
Westminster police at about 7:15 p.m. Dec. 1 responded to reports of a man simulating a weapon in his waistband in the parking lot of 24 Hour Fitness in the 6700 block of Westminster Avenue.
Police said he was simulating the weapon to a woman who was on her way to yoga class.
When police arrived, the man got in his gray 2005 Ford F-150 and drove away.
Officers tried to pull him over for a traffic stop, but the man got on the northbound 405 and slammed his brakes, causing the patrol vehicle to rear-end the suspect’s truck.
The driver then rammed his truck into a second police car, driven by a Westminster police officer.
“At that point, I was eye to eye with the driver,” the officer said. “It was a very brief second, but he seemed extremely angry.”
The suspect led officers on a high-speed chase on the freeway.
The Westminster officers stopped the pursuit near Woodruff Avenue because it became unsafe to continue.
Several hours later, Vandergrift saw the suspect’s vehicle near La Pat Street and Westminster Boulevard.
The suspect led police on a second high-speed pursuit.
This time, the man drove through construction zones and exited the freeway, taking on surface streets at a high rate of speed.
The suspect’s erratic driving again became too dangerous for the officers to keep tabs on the man, so police helicopters from Anaheim and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department took over trailing the suspect.
Calls went out to multiple agencies to alert nearby cities of the pursuit.
A call also went out for K-9 assistance.
Cypress K-9 officer Mike McBain started patrolling the area the suspect was last seen when the suspect’s vehicle turned in front of him.
“I just got lucky,” McBain said. “I was just glad I could be there to help.”
The suspect again sped off and got on the 405 freeway, leading McBain on a pursuit that, at times, exceeded 100 mph.
“It raises your adrenaline, but we are trained to stay in control,” he said.
The suspect was weaving through traffic on the 405 freeway, just south of the 710, when he lost control and crashed the truck into an embankment.
The car burst into flames.
Officers extinguished the fire, but it continued to smolder, then reignite.
The man started screaming for help and yelling that his leg was stuck.
A Westminster police officer loosened the man’s leg and Seal Beach Officer Joe Garcia kept the fire out.
McBain, Garcia, Vandergrift and Westminster Cpl. Eddie Esqueda carried the suspect up the loose dirt hill.
Javier Montoya, 40, was arrested on suspicion of murder, assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer, felony evasion and warrants.
The officers returned for the passenger but said they could tell he didn’t survive.
They still tried to revive him until paramedics arrived.
Officers said it appeared both men weren’t wearing their seat belts.
“I’m just glad no officers or innocent bystanders were hurt in the process of trying to get this guy,” Esqueda said. “But it’s really unfortunate the passenger didn’t make it.”
Esqueda was the officer responsible for telling the passenger’s family about the accident.
“They were so upset, devastated,” he said.
The officers involved brush off words such as “heroic” and “brave” to describe their actions that night.
They said they were simply doing their job.
“We have a duty to protect and safeguard the lives of anybody, even a suspect who was just assaulting us with his vehicle,” one Westminster police officer said. “We could not just let him sit there in danger and pain.
“There was no thought about it. We acted.”
*Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC