Published in the Star-Ledger, Thursday, July 26, 2007
Arrested Samaritan has police video on her side
A videotape taken by the Roselle Park police provides more details of a recent incident in which a young mother helping a victim at the scene of an accident found herself in handcuffs.
The videotape shows how in a span of 25 minutes, Monica Montoya, 25, of Elizabeth was reduced from a dutiful good Samaritan to a wailing and frightened mother handcuffed in the back of a police car moments after a police officer had forced her to the pavement and arrested her.
"I have to pick up my baby!" Montoya cries out from a back seat of a police car after her arrest the morning of June 20 -- an arrest that came, the tape shows, after she spent about 20 minutes helping the police with a traffic accident victim. "My baby! My baby!"
"Stop it!" shouts the officer who arrested her, Harold Breuninger. Later, he yells, "Stop talking!"
The tape also includes an off-camera discussion of what charges the cops should bring against the woman who, on her way from work to catch a bus to pick up her 6-year-old daughter from the child's first day at a new school, stopped to help another woman struck by a senior citizens' van.
A second, so far unidentified policeman, discussing the charges with Breuninger, expresses concern about what happened at East Westfield Avenue and Chestnut Street.
"It was my call and now it's totally f-----d up," the officer says. Why he says "my call" is unclear, but the tape opens with his dispatch to the scene and could be a reference to his call to the accident by headquarters.
Montoya ultimately was charged with obstruction and resisting arrest.
The tape and police reports on the incident were obtained by The Star-Ledger from Martin Perez, Montoya's lawyer, after the Roselle Park police department denied the newspaper's request, filed under the Open Public Records Act, for all related documents.
All previous inquiries to the police department about the incident have been referred to Lt. Paul Morrison, who has declined to discuss details of the incident because, he said, it is under investigation.
Yesterday, I told Morris the paper had obtained a copy of the tape and the arrest report and asked him for comment on details. He again declined "due to the ongoing investigation."
The video depiction tends to contradict paper reports filed by the police, but seems to corroborate what Montoya told The Star-Ledger in an earlier interview for a column that appeared July 9.
For example, Breuninger writes in his report:
"The entire time she was acting very irrational, refusing to listen to me or to focus on what I was saying to her."
But the tape shows that, for most of the time recorded, Montoya was calm and helpful to police, tending to the wounded woman -- Vilma Bellido, 58, of Kenilworth -- and calling the victim's relatives with a cell phone borrowed from a plainclothes policeman.
Later on the tape, Montoya appears to be asking to again borrow the same phone to arrange for someone to pick up her daughter. She becomes obviously upset -- but hardly irrational. She is depicted gesturing with her hands; in a separate interview, she said she was trying to persuade the cops that she was late getting to Elizabeth's P.S. 12 where her daughter, Emily, had just started summer school.
Montoya said she was told the detective's phone had no power, yet the detective, after she leaves him, is shown using it.
In the video, she walks off-camera, followed by Brueninger. She said she went to a crowd to ask bystanders for a cell phone. Her arrest then occurs off-camera, behind the detective's car, but the tape captures Montoya's screams -- including, her cry: "What are you doing?" People at the scene stop to look at what has happened, but no one intervenes.
Breuninger's police report contends she refused to talk to him and then refused to allow herself to be handcuffed and "flailed" her arms.
Montoya, in her interview, says she was trying to find a cell phone. Exactly what happens during the actual arrest cannot be seen.
But moments later Montoya suddenly appears on the screen, handcuffed and crying, led to the police car by Breuninger -- who is heard referring to the woman as Monica. The police report he filed states she refused to give her name.
Montoya said in the interview that she gave her name to the police. On the tape, she can be heard saying, "You know me!" -- an apparent reference to her job as a counter worker at a Dunkin' Donuts a block from the incident on Westfield Avenue, a place frequented by Roselle Park police.
The police report describes Montoya as 5-4, 120 pounds; in the tape, as in person, she appears smaller -- perhaps 5 feet, about 100 pounds. Breuninger's report explains why he forced her down, an action that raised a major bruise on her face:
"Because she was out of control, and I felt that she may be a danger to herself and me, I forcefully took her to the ground to control her and then handcuffed her. As a result of being taken to the ground, she obtained (sic) an abrasion to her left forehead and some minor scratches and marks on her arms."
Once in the police car, Breuninger finally allows her to use a cell phone and she calls a co-worker -- Emily's grandmother -- to arrange to have someone pick up the child.
Later, the car's driver -- not Breuninger -- tries to soothe Montoya, who is still crying.
"You okay, sweetheart?"
"I was trying to be a friend," she answers.
"You are my friend," the driver says.
"I needed a phone."
"I saw, I saw," the policeman says.
"I just wanted to pick up my baby," Montoya says.
Bob Braun's columns appear Monday and Thursday. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-4281. Updates to this and other Braun columns can be found on line at http://blog.nj.com/njv_bob_braun/
Online story here.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.