On Petrica “Peter” Muntean, and Every Problem Being “a Nail.”

You know how they say, “When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail?”  Well, that’s how it is when armed police are called in to take charge of a situation that may not be violent or dangerous at all, that could be better addressed by a trained mental health worker.  Those same cops will complain to you, “Well, we’re not social workers!” and they’re right about that.

More and more cities, from Huntington Beach to New York, have recently instituted programs in which mental health professionals respond to the frequent crises of our stressed-out populations – this results in far fewer tragedies, and I’m glad to report that Anaheim is finally beginning a pilot program along those lines.  And, illustrating such a program’s necessity, it’s good timing that the family of Petrica “Peter” Muntean has recently been awarded nearly a million dollars for Peter’s unnecessary 2018 killing by Anaheim Police.

Following are a few of the lives that wouldn’t have been ended so early if this program had been in place, if armed cops were not out on Anaheim’s streets responding to mental health crises as if every problem were a nail. Starting with:

Peter Muntean, Killed 2018

Peter with his mother, before and after his last APD encounter.

Peter’s was a short, sad, 24-year life.  Legally blind and schizophrenic, he’d already had a few run-ins with the police, mainly based on misunderstandings.  On the night of April 12, 2018, he’d been off his meds a while – and not because he didn’t want to take them, but because his mother Tina had been unable to obtain them – making this also a tragedy of poverty and our awful, profit-driven healthcare system.

Peter Muntean with his mother Tina.

That night he showed up at his mom’s as he frequently did for some food, but began to hallucinate menacing figures and ran across the street to hide.  Unable to calm her son down, Tina called 911 (so often a tragic mistake), asked them to please send fire not police, and mentioned that he had a TOY GUN (a b-b gun, and of course the fact it was a toy got lost in the shuffle.)  The APD showed up loaded for bear – helicopter, SWAT team – and Peter ran away, toy gun pointed at his own head for part of the time, and amazingly managed to escape to a friend’s back yard where he spent the night in a dog house.

Venturing out early the next morning, he was spotted by APD Officers Bartman Horn and Brendan Thomas, who told each other, “That looks like that Muntean guy, who has a gun!”  Declining the lawmen’s invitation to walk over and talk to them, Peter ran down an alley, his arms and hands covered in a blue shawl; the police chased him until he was trapped in the cul-de-sac of an apartment parking lot, where Officer Horn and his rookie partner pumped Peter full of bullets, two of which couldn’t be removed and killed him weeks later.  The toy gun was found on him, under the shawl.

Officer Bartman Horn lied a lot about it too.  First he said he was compelled to shoot Peter because he was getting close to Anaheim High School where he could shoot some teenagers or take them hostage – there was no way Peter could have done any such thing trapped in that cul-de-sac.  Later Horn convinced the sympathetic DA that Peter was pointing his toy gun at the cops; but as Judge Scarsi pointed out in June, the bodycam footage SHOWS NO SUCH THING.  (This is actually the SECOND TIME that Bartman Horn, a trained sniper, shoots and paralyzes a suspect and later lies that the suspect was pointing a gun at him.)

I’m getting off my main topic, but here’s another memorable detail of the Muntean killing – Donna and I went looking for witnesses the next day, and found an old lady in her garage.  Oh she had heard the whole thing – all sixteen gunshots!  “That guy sure ran into the wrong neighborhood, and fired at the wrong cops!”  Funny, people’s pre-conceptions.  Of course every shot was fired by Officers Horn and Thomas.

In the first photo released to the press, police made sure to lay one of their guns on the ground as though it were Peter’s – pubic perception, you know!

But the point is, if Peter’s mother’s call had been responded to by social workers trained to deal with frightened schizophrenics, rather than by uniformed snipers, Peter would be alive today, maybe happy and on his meds.  And then there’s…

Monique Deckard, Killed 2015

Another Anaheim schizophrenic, well-known and liked in her neighborhood, but March 8, 2015 was a rough day for Monique.  Understand that her little dog “Baby” was her dearest companion in the world, and some mean person in the laundromat KICKED Baby that day, so Monique lashed out with a knife and scratched that person.  Then she grabbed Baby, went home to her apartment and locked herself in.

Meanwhile not only did police receive a call about the laundromat incident, but her brother Nick had heard reports that she was off her meds and acting erratically, but was unable to go check on her, so dialed 911 – MISTAKE! 

A small, mentally ill woman with a knife locked up in her apartment?  Obviously this was a job for ten heavily armed cops and a helicopter.  A female APD “hostage negotiator,” headquartered up in the Hills, was also contacted, but her car trip down to Monique’s flatlands apartment took longer than the remainder of Monique’s short life.

Officer Robert Lopez stood by the front door, doing his best to gently coax the frightened woman out:  “Please come out, Monique.  We don’t want to hurt you.  We just want to make sure you’re okay.”   His efforts were somewhat undermined not only by the roar of the helicopter circling above, but also by his impatient partners, ready at their rifles, passing their laser-sights around her front room to determine her location, and receiving no guidance from ranking officer Sgt Lorenzo Glenn.

Finally when, overwhelmed by all this confusion, Monique ran out with two kitchen knives in her hands, the best you can say is that 7 of the 10 cops didn’t shoot at her.  On the other hand, Officers Kevin Flanagan, Dale Miller & Jonathan Nooitgedagt riddled Monique with so many bullets that the coroner couldn’t distinguish their entry and exit points.

The point being, that if this new program we’re discussing had been in place in 2015, Monique would not have been visited by a squadron of armed cops some of them trigger-happy, but a couple of friendly, well-trained mental health professionals.  Then of course there was…

Brian Drummond, Killed 1999 (died 2006)

Anaheim’s original “I can’t breathe” guy, Brian Drummond was a Navy veteran and father of four, and also, schizophrenic.  19 years before the difficulties of Peter Muntean and his mom, Brian and his fiancee Olivia Graves were unable to acquire Brian’s prescribed lithium, so on March 25 Brian was wandering around hallucinating and “agitated.”  And Olivia made the mistake of calling the police to help get him to the hospital.

It wasn’t a tragic mistake … YET.  The four cops who showed up did not determine Brian to be a danger to himself or others, so after a few minutes of yukking it up they took off.  Brian then went willingly with Olivia to the pharmacy to try to get his lithium, but they didn’t have the insurance or enough money for it, so he continued in the state he was in.

(By the way, you could also take this article as an argument for Medicare For All.)

Brian in better days.

The next day Brian was still hallucinating, and was wandering around a west Anaheim 7-11 parking lot (the same one in which, 17 years later, Anaheim police would choke Vincent Valenzuela to death.)  A neighbor, concerned that Brian would wander into the busy street, called police for help – this time it was fatal.  Two of the same cops from the day before showed up with a third, and, after laughing some more, they decided to call an ambulance, and – while waiting for it to arrive – detain Brian “for his own good.” 

This was accomplished, even though Brian wasn’t resisting, by ranking Officer Christopher Ned knocking him down and handcuffing him as he lay on his stomach, then kneeling on his neck and back as another officer pressed both knees into his back.  For his own good, you understand.  Brian grunted, “I can’t breathe” a few times before losing consciousness; they managed to revive him after a while but he remained in a “persistent vegetative state,” hospitalized, till finally passing away in 2006...

The last seven years of Brian’s life.

Back in those days law enforcement and their attorneys had a medieval-sounding diagnosis, “excited delirium,” on which they would blame such incidents, to clear the police of responsibility – the phrase has recently been laughed out of usage.  The City also had the family’s civil lawsuit thrown out by claiming “qualified immunity” for the police, a doctrine (bizarrely still current) that the police can do no wrong.  (Revoking this travesty will be on California’s ballots next year!)

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decisively threw out these cops’ claim to qualified immunity in a landmark decision that is still regularly referred to: “The officers – indeed, any reasonable person – should have known that squeezing the breath from a compliant, prone, and handcuffed individual despite his pleas for air involves a degree of force that is greater than reasonable.”  So a new trial was ordered … but the OC jury STILL found in favor of the cops, as ALL OC juries have until just the last few years.

But ALL OF THAT ASIDE, if this new reform had been in place in 1999, if the concerned calls of Brian’s fiancee and neighbor had been responded to by trained mental health professionals, they would have had the lithium he needed, they would have taken him to the hospital if necessary, and they would not have laughed at Brian Drummond and then killed him.

And so many more…

“If he goes down
you won’t hear a sound…”
– The Clash, “Jail Guitar Doors”

Tompko being snuffed out.

Sometimes when a homeless person is killed by police, and there’s no witness, or no witness who cares much, it can take months or years before we hear about it.  Sometimes we wonder if there are some we NEVER hear about.  Two of these deaths we learned of long after they happened  were Tiffini Tobe in 2016 and Ian Tompko in 2018.  Both these homeless folks were in some kind of mental crisis running in traffic, and both were saved from that danger by Anaheim police holding them prone until they couldn’t breathe, and died.  Tiffini’s last words were “I can’t breathe,” as the very bulky Homeless Liaison Officer Sgt Mike Lozeau pressed his knee on her back – same last words as homeless Chris Eisinger (suffocated by APD in 2018, $2.27 million award), as well as homeless Kelly Thomas (suffocated by Fullerton Police in 2011; Fullerton has had to pay his parents millions.)

And then, how many cases have there been that are disastrous but not to the point of fatality?  We often don’t hear about them.  It’s thanks to the carelessness of someone in Anaheim staff that we know about a case in 2019 where a Vietnamese-American teenager’s parents called 911 because he was freaking out in his bedroom, and somehow he ended up having ONE OF HIS TESTICLES BITTEN OFF BY A K-9.  (The legal complaint was inadvertently printed as part of a Council agenda, and I kick myself for not having saved it.)  How does that even happen?  You’re locked in your bedroom having a mental crisis, and then a police dog bites off your testicle?  Only in Anaheim…

The Solution

Well, if you look really hard through the supplemental material for August 10’s Council agenda, in the staff report for item 2 in the consent calendar, at the bottom of page 4 under the heading “Street Outreach,” you’ll see a $1.3 million outlay, funded by federal Covid aid, for the following:

“The street outreach services, should Council approve an upcoming Agreement on a future agenda, will be provided by the non-profit organization, Be Well OC. The mobile crisis team will consist of experienced professionals (crisis intervention specialists and medical professionals) who will support the Police Department and emergency services, relieving first responders of the often time-intensive mental health and social service-related calls.”

Harvey – from Anaheim to Huntington Beach.

Hidden away as it is, this is a big deal.  My wife Donna Acevedo Nelson pushed for this program because of all the incidents listed above, as well as a personal experience with a family member, and our councilman Steve Faessel has been helpful in moving it forward.  Anaheim already has a program like this for homeless people (called the CCRT), but to say “Folks with homes also have mental crises” is an understatement.  And, as I mentioned earlier, towns from Huntington Beach to New York have begun this reform (HB under the leadership of Anaheim’s former acting chief Julian Harvey.)

This is only a one-year pilot program for now, but it could be the tip of what some folks call “defunding the police”  – if it’s successful it should be continued next year, and should come out of the bloated police budget even as it lightens the load of police responsibilities.  Last summer, the summer of George Floyd, Chief Cisneros pulled out a pie chart and said he was open to just such a “defunding,” so it shouldn’t be a problem.

And it should save lives.

And money. 

And testicles.

Vern out.

Click for more info on “Be Well OC”

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.