Fired SAPD officer testifies she delivered ‘rabbit punches,’ not haymakers to head of pregnant handcuffed woman

Decision on whether to reinstate officer Elizabeth Montoya now in the hands of an arbitrator

SAN ANTONIO – An attorney for a San Antonio police officer fired for repeatedly punching a handcuffed, pregnant woman carefully walked his client through footage of the July 2018 incident, stopping and starting the videos to show how many times the officer was “mule kicked” during an attempted drug search.

Officer Elizabeth Montoya, an eight-year veteran of SAPD, took the witness stand in her own defense Friday as arbitration in her indefinite suspension appeal concluded after three days of testimony.

Third-party arbitrator Ruben Armendariz will receive written briefs from attorneys for the city and Montoya and then decide within the next few months whether to reinstate Montoya.

Montoya was fired in early 2019, months after SAPD department footage showed her punch suspect Kimberly Esparza in the head seven times. Esparza was handcuffed, barefoot and six months pregnant when she was on the receiving end of the blows near downtown.

SAPD officials, however, have conceded this week that they were unable to conclude Esparza was actually injured during the altercation.

Montoya, who testified that she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) while an SAPD cadet, could be seen repeatedly being kicked in her leg by Esparza both while searching her outside a patrol vehicle and while attempting to place her in the back of the vehicle.

“She was screaming in my face and she was very close. And I was afraid I was going to either get spit on or head butted,” said Montoya, when asked why she used her open palm to push Esparza’s head to the side while trying to buckle her into the vehicle.

In-car camera footage shows moments later Montoya delivered seven closed fist punches to Esparza’s head and one to her side.

“They were compliance strikes to get her to stop kicking me and to follow my instructions,” testified Montoya, who described the strikes as “rabbit punches” and not full-on haymakers because she was not putting her weight behind them.

Montoya’s attorney, Robert Leonard, again provided evidence of an imbalanced internal affairs investigation of Montoya, pointing out to the court that other officers who used compliance techniques on Esparza during her arrest were not so much as questioned by internal affairs.

A second officer at the scene, Officer Joshua Vega, was suspended two days for muting his body-worn camera during portions of the incident, SAPD discipline records show.

Montoya, whose discipline paperwork states she left a handcuffed Esparza on the ground in heavy rain for 26 minutes, testified Friday that she was not the officer in charge of Esparza’s care while she was in custody.

Leonard on Thursday was able to enter as evidence discipline briefings for 17 other SAPD officers. They were all suspended, but not terminated, after the department determined they did not properly care for people in their custody.

Attorneys for fired SAPD officers have successfully used the “disparate treatment” argument to get multiple indefinite suspensions overturned on appeal.

Montoya remained on patrol after the incident until being told of the proposed indefinite suspension nearly six months later.

City officials previously conceded she was not placed in the department’s Officer Concern Program and was not ordered to go through retraining, two options often given to officers after their interactions with the public are called into question.

The cross-examination of Montoya delivered some tense moments, as an assistant city attorney appeared to become annoyed when Montoya could not recall whether she had ever heard of other SAPD officers treating pregnant suspects in a similar manner.

Leonard objected and stated the attorney was badgering the witness.

The assistant city attorney also claimed that Montoya has continued to change her story, nearly four years after the incident, including specifically whether she slammed Esparza’s face into the side of a patrol vehicle.

Late Friday afternoon the city called Officer Vega to the stand.

He recalled witnessing Montoya deliver the punches to Esparza, while he stood next to Montoya outside the vehicle, before eventually reaching in and pulling Montoya away by her upper arm.

Esparza was charged with assault of a public servant, resisting arrest and possession of a controlled substance -- penalty group III, typically used to charge someone who illegally possesses prescription drugs with common medical uses.

While the drug possession charge was rejected at the time of Esparza’s booking, she was held in jail on the resisting arrest and assault charges, as well as for outstanding warrants from a previous burglary case.

All charges were later dismissed, court records show, but not before Esparza spent 46 days in jail.

Esparza’s attorney was able to get her client released from jail prior to Esparza delivering the baby.

Esparza eventually delivered a healthy baby girl, who turned three years old last year, her attorney said.

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About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.