Some days, whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. No one knows this better than police officers. And in June 1994, two Milton-Freewater police officers found themselves in a situation in which almost everything that could go wrong did — but quick thinking by a Mac-Hi student saved the day.
Officers Stuart Roberts and Francisco Martinez pulled over Antonio Flores just inside the gates of Orchard Homes Inc., a labor camp housing migrant workers, on June 25, 1994. When they found he was driving with a suspended license and no insurance, they told him that his car would be towed. That’s when things started to get ugly.
Flores became upset when he found out he would lose his wheels, which led to his being arrested for obstructing police. He was handcuffed and placed in the back of the patrol car. But the officers soon found themselves surrounded by about 300 residents of the camp — friends and neighbors of Flores — and about 15 of the men stepped forward and began to assault Roberts and Martinez. Their mace and police radios were taken, and some of the men struck the officers in the face. That’s when Matt Harrington stepped in.
Harrington, a 17-year-old McLoughlin High School student and a member of the Explorer Scouts, happened to be walking by when the altercation began. He slipped into the patrol car and was able to call for backup. “Fortunately, he’s ridden in police cars and he knew how to get into the car and operate the radio,” said Mike Brown, criminal investigator for the Milton-Freewater Police Department.
Law enforcement from all over Umatilla County, and as far away as Union County, showed up to get the crowd under control. But in the melee, someone opened the door of the patrol car and Flores fled into the night in handcuffs.
According to Roberts, now chief of police for the city of Pendleton, the officers were lucky to escape with their lives. Patrol cars had to be left behind, some of which were flipped over by the crowd.
Brown lauded Roberts and Martinez for handling the situation without using their weapons. “When you get a weapon involved under those circumstances, innocent people can get hurt, There’s no justification for it,” he said. The officers were not seriously injured, and Brown said they would be part of discussions on handling such situations in the future.
Flores was sentenced to 20 days in jail and more than $1,000 in fines following his re-arrest. Judge Sam Tucker told Flores that, while he did nothing to incite the crowd, he was responsible for what happened because “your friends were trying to protect you.”