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Councilman removes posting on Duenez Facebook account
Lathrop Councilman Omar Ornelas - photo by Photo Contributed

LATHROP – It wasn’t the first time that Lathrop Councilman Omar Ornelas made a comment regarding law enforcement.

But it could have been the costliest.

After a Facebook post that he made on the page created by the Manteca family that calls for the immediate firing of John Moody – the police officer involved in the fatal shooting of Ernest Duenez – was discovered by certain Manteca officials, the fallout immediately jeopardized more than two years worth of work between the two cities that haven’t always been on the best of terms.

According to two sources, Manteca was prepared to sever talks regarding expanded sewer capacity for its western neighbor – an undertaking that began during the reign of former Mayor Joseph “Chaka” Santos during the 2-by-2 meetings he and current Mayor Sonny Dhaliwal had with Manteca Mayor Willie Weatherford and Councilman Steve DeBrum.

The city was also reportedly ready to sever all talks about Manteca and Lathrop possibly working together to provide police protection in both cities. It is an alternative that could replace the contract agreement system that Lathrop currently has with the San Joaquin Sherriff’s Department.

Ornelas said that he has known the Duenez family for some time and only intended his statement as a sign of respect for the family. He also included a picture with his Facebook post.

His Facebook posting stated:

“A while ago I put this picture up in my office so I never forget what the Duenez family is fighting for and what they are trying to do. This is not just a local issue in Lathrop or Manteca but a National and Global issue,” he wrote. “It begins at home and this grassroots movement shows what the power of love can do. The family will never forget and with this I will not forget.

“This picture will remain up as long as I’m in office, next to the U.S. Constitution. Keep up the fight.”

The post as well as the accompanying photo has since been taken down.

According to Ornelas, his comments weren’t meant to offend the Manteca Police Department in any way or to be taken as any sort of a political statement. In no way, he said, was he trying to cast blame or take a side in the issue – one that has become a tender one in local circles since the Duenez family released the graphic dashboard cam that, according to the DA report that exonerated the officer, shows Moody firing 13 shots at what appears to be a knife-wielding man trying to flee.

“I never said anything about blaming anyone and I’m not saying that it’s anyone’s fault – I never said that I stand with the family in that sense,” Ornelas said. “None of us can truly say what happened because we weren’t there. That’s why there is a system in place and it can work its way through the proper channels.

“The comments that I made were meant for the family and for them to know that I’m with them in the sense that there are better ways of dealing with issues like this. There is always room for improvement with things. I meant those comments on a full-scale level and not in any one particular instance – it was a gesture for the family and not for everybody else.”

Mayor Sonny Dhaliwal said that he hadn’t heard anything from Manteca that indicated that they were ready to break off talks – noting that he was actually in the process of scheduling 2-by-2 meetings with the City of Manteca, the Manteca Unified School District and the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District.

City Manager Stephen Salvatore also said that he wasn’t made aware of that information.

The Facebook comments weren’t the first that Ornelas has delivered regarding law enforcement issues.

Not long after getting elected he let his feelings be known after receiving complaints about a deputy that was “harassing” certain members of the community and “dressing them down” during the process – part of a five-minute rant in which he accused the unnamed deputy of being culturally insensitive.

The remarks infuriated then mayor Santos, who responded with harsh criticisms of his young colleague for airing business that should have been taken to superiors first before being laid out in the public setting.