CERES — Most days are not this exciting for John Ortiz, who works full time cleaning and installing carpets in Modesto-area homes.
His decisive action Dec. 18, to assist a Ceres police officer who was pinned on the ground by an assailant has been called an act of valor. But Ortiz thinks he was just being a good citizen.
"I just did what I hope anyone else would do," he said last week.
The Modesto resident received a commendation from Ceres Police Chief Art de Werk last week and will get additional recognition from the City Council on Jan. 11.
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Ortiz, 36, intervened at 3:45 p.m. that Friday as officer Britton Moore wrestled on the ground with 38-year-old Rodolfo Gaona on East Whitmore Avenue, near Boothe Road. De Werk said his actions prevented injury to the officer and stopped a potentially deadly incident.
"This could have been very ugly," de Werk said. "We are very grateful that Mr. Ortiz happened to be there at the right time."
Routine police stop turns violent
The incident began as a fairly routine call for Ceres police.
Moore responded to a report that Gaona was causing a disturbance by yelling at himself as he walked up and down Wise Oak Lane, near Eastgate Boulevard and Whitmore Avenue. When Moore spotted the man on Whitmore and pulled over to talk with him, a dispatcher said he was on probation for a drug violation.
According to police reports, Moore searched the man and found a stolen credit card in his wallet.
Gaona also was wanted on a misdemeanor violation.
Gaona became combative when the officer tried to arrest him, police said. He started to run, and when Moore grabbed onto his clothing to stop him, Gaona punched the officer and they began to fight, police said.
Ortiz had finished his last carpet cleaning job of the day at a home in Ceres and was driving his service truck west on Whitmore, thinking he was headed home for the weekend. About 200 yards ahead, he noticed a police car with flashing lights and a uniformed officer talking with a man on the sidewalk.
As he drew closer, he watched the encounter escalate into a physical struggle between the officer and the man. The man grabbed the officer's legs, forcing him to the ground. The man was on top of the officer when Ortiz pulled up.
"They were wrestling in front of the patrol car," Ortiz said. "I pulled right in front of the officer's car and I jumped out."
Ortiz jumped on top of Gaona, restrained his arms and pulled him away, so that Moore could get out from underneath him. Moore handcuffed Gaona and he was placed in custody as other officers arrived.
"It was all over in two minutes," Ortiz said. His only fear was that responding officers, amid all the commotion, might connect him with the guy who assaulted the officer, he said.
Charges and bruises
Ortiz gave a statement to police, and Gaona, who has no address, was booked at jail on charges of possession of stolen property, battery on a police officer, resisting an officer and a probation violation.
According to reports, Gaona made bizarre statements to officers suggesting he was mentally unstable.
Moore had a scraped elbow and pain in his left knee, but did not require medical attention.
De Werk said that, without Ortiz's intervention, the outcome could have been much worse. When police officers are attacked, they are in danger of losing a firearm, a Taser or other weapons to the assailant.
Moore could have been injured or killed, the chief said, and Ortiz's actions possibly averted an officer-involved shooting. If Gaona had taken Moore's firearm, responding officers could have used deadly force against him.
'Standing behind' police officers
Ortiz said he has always had an interest in law enforcement. He studied administration of justice in college and has gone on citizen ride-alongs with police officers, he said.
A book he was reading the night before the incident might have reinforced his decision to act. It described a woman who was stabbed to death in a U.S. city as dozens of onlookers did nothing, he said.
"I am not condoning people who take the law into their own hands," he said. "But we should be standing behind these police officers who protect us."
Ortiz and his wife, Dawn, are raising three children ages 5 to 16. Her first thought after he told her what happened was that he could have been hurt, but she is proud of what he did.
"I wasn't surprised at all," she said. "That is him — to want to help people."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2321.