A former Prince George’s County police officer sentenced to five years in prison Friday for putting a gun to a Maryland man’s head said in a recorded jailhouse phone call that the victim should be the one to apologize for the incident.
“If anything, they should be saying ‘Sorry’ to me, because all he wanted was a payday,” Jenchesky Santiago is heard saying in recordings of a call with his mother, which prosecutors released after his sentencing hearing.
The call, recorded five days after the former officer was convicted of assault and misconduct in office in the May 2014 incident, proves that Santiago is dangerous and not remorseful for his actions and that he deserves prison time, prosecutors told the judge Friday.
“He had no business whatsoever serving in our police department,” said Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks (D).
At Friday’s sentencing hearing, Santiago’s family often tearfully pushed back against prosecutors’ portrayal of him as an officer who abused his power by pointing a gun at William Cunningham’s head for no apparent reason. To them, Santiago is a loving father of two who served his community in the U.S. Navy and as a local police officer.
“He’s not the guy you see in the video,” Santiago’s fiancee, Ashley Armstead, told the judge. “Everyone is making him seem like he is some sort of monster, and he is not that person.”
Santiago, 26, had two friends from New Jersey riding in his police cruiser when he pulled over in front of Cunningham’s home in Bowie.
Cunningham was in a car with his cousin when Santiago repeatedly asked the men what they were doing and insisted that they were illegally parked, which prosecutors said was not true.
Santiago pressed the two men even after they explained that Cunningham lived in the home and said they planned to get out of the car and go inside.
The video, captured on a cellphone and released by the police department, also showed Santiago shouting, “I dare you to [expletive] fight me, son” as he pointed a gun at Cunningham’s head.
The incident escalated as Cunningham headed to the front door of his home.
Santiago backed up, parked his cruiser and ran after Cunningham, ordering him to return to the car. Santiago then pulled out a gun, pointing it at Cunningham’s head and mouth as the officer forced Cunningham back to the car. Santiago searched the two men before Cunningham’s wife came out of the house and confirmed that he lived there.
Santiago, who on Friday entered the courtroom wearing an orange jumpsuit and with his hands cuffed, did not speak at the hearing. Tearful family members spoke on his behalf, asking the judge for leniency.
“My son has never gotten in trouble,” Santiago’s mother said while sobbing. “I know my son would never hurt anyone.”
Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge Dwight D. Jackson said it was difficult to reconcile friends’ and family members’ accounts of a loving father and son with the man seen screaming with his gun aimed at Cunningham in the video.
“Perhaps you were bored or perhaps you wanted to show off,” Jackson said. “You degraded that man.”
Ultimately, the judge said, Santiago’s actions diminished the work of police officers everywhere.
Cunningham, who sat in the courtroom with his wife during Santiago’s sentencing, said his family is working with lawyers on a civil case. Learning that the former officer said he felt he deserved an apology was upsetting, Cunningham said.
“I really don’t know how much time it will take for him to learn that his actions were wrong,” Cunningham said. “It’s outlandish.”
Cunningham said he was pleased with how county authorities handled his complaint. The police department brought the case to the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office for a criminal investigation after Cunningham filed a complaint, and the department conducted an internal review. Department officials condemned Santiago’s actions and fired him Dec. 18.
Cunningham said he was saddened for Santiago’s family but didn’t recognize the man relatives described in court.
“That guy that they spoke on,” Cunningham said, “was not the guy I encountered that day.”