Ken Cantamout is an 18-year San Francisco Police Department veteran turned private investigator who retired from police work in 2003 so that he could devote more time to being a cowboy.
As a much-in-demand Bay Area PI who has worked a string of high-profile cases (including a stint for convicted murderer Scott Peterson's defense attorney Mark Geragos), Cantamout can afford to play part-time rancher. He bought a 21-acre spread in the Sierra foothills east of Stockton and, being a cop at heart, didn't hesitate to volunteer his services as a Calaveras County sheriff's reserve officer.
So imagine his surprise upon receiving the terse letter from Sheriff Dennis Downum saying that his application had been rejected, without offering an explanation.
Cantamout, 53, has an impeccable record as a San Francisco cop. His personnel file is brimming with testimonials, including one from U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. He couldn't imagine why the good sheriff of Calaveras might not want him — that is, unless it was because Cantamout is gay.
But Cantamout is one cowboy who isn't ready to ride off into the sunset.
He has sued the sheriff in federal court, claiming that discrimination based on his sexual orientation is at the root of his being rejected as a non-paid, volunteer peace officer in the bucolic — and conservative — county in the heart of California's Gold Country. “The easy thing would be to shrug it off and move on,” says Cantamout, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall and easily distinguishable by his oversized handlebar mustache. “When you run into a perceived injustice, you can't just turn the other way. That's not who I am.”
Sheriff Downum, a former Oakland cop who is unopposed this year in seeking a fourth four-year term as sheriff, did not respond to interview requests for this story. But both county counsel James Jones and Downum's personal attorney, Mike Woods, insist that sexual orientation had nothing to do with the veteran ex-cop's rejection.
“As we get into [pre-trial] discovery, it will become apparent that there were very clear and legitimate reasons for denying his application,” says Woods, who calls the lawsuit “without merit” and “based on speculation.” He declined to identify a reason, however, citing the litigation.
Meanwhile, Joel Siegal, Cantamout's San Francisco attorney, says he smells “a pretext.”
“Here we have a former police officer with unassailable credentials who is offering his services for free to a county that, by its own acknowledgement, can use the help, and they reject him without so much as saying why,” Siegal says. “Under the circumstances, I would say that's suspicious.”
Cantamout says his own suspicions escalated when, after being greeted warmly at first by everyone he met at the sheriff's department, “the phone suddenly stopped ringing” after a background investigator for the department showed up unannounced at his house when he wasn't there and met his partner.
At about the same time, he says, the department gained access to his SFPD personnel file. Although the file contained plenty of accolades, it also included information about his having never been married and his once having moonlighted as an instructor for the “Finally, a Gay Traffic School.”
Then came a surprise.
In May of last year, Cantamout received a brief letter from the sheriff's investigator, Vickie Chew, informing him that “per the sheriff's administration” no more applications for reserve officers would be processed until the department had filled all its available slots for paid, full-time officers.
“That seemed kind of odd to me, since everyone I'd talked to over there had been telling me how much they needed reserves,” says Cantamout, who, in addition to his ranch, maintains a home in Redwood City, near his Bay Area private investigation business. “It's a huge rural county and the response times in emergency situations aren't what they should be. The feedback I was getting was, 'Hey, great, can we ever use someone like you.'”
Several weeks after the note from Chew, Cantamout received the letter from the sheriff. Consisting of only three sentences, it informed him that he had failed to pass a background investigation and was “therefore not eligible” for the reserve force, without offering information as to why.
“I was stunned. I mean, I thought, 'What was this?' I was a career police officer in San Francisco and retired in good standing. And I suddenly don't qualify to be a volunteer in Calaveras County?” Cantamout said it “felt like a 'welcome to Brokeback Mountain,'” referring to the movie about persecuted gay cowboys.
Neither did the rejection make sense to some of his former police colleagues.
“Ken's the type of guy who I would think any police agency in the country would be lucky to have,” says retired SFPD captain Dave Maron, who was Cantamout's boss in support services for four years in the 1990s. He has an outstanding record and was well liked by the people he came in contact with.”
As an SFPD officer, Cantamout twice was nominated for medals of valor, once for defusing a situation aboard a crowded Muni bus in the Fillmore in which a deranged man stabbed him with a knife after threatening several passengers. Cantamout, who was off-duty at the time, subdued the man without injury to anyone other than himself.
Another time, Cantamout, who was a fire department paramedic before joining SFPD, was credited with saving the life of a stabbing victim in a McDonald's restaurant in the Haight by staunching the man's bleeding until paramedics could get there.
He made a name for himself early in his SFPD career by requesting to be assigned to violence-prone Bayview-Hunters Point, an assignment that other officers preferred to skip. He credits his mustache with helping to build bridges with Bayview gang members. In five years there, he says, he never shot anyone and there was never an excessive use of force complaint filed against him.
Ironically, the mustache later got him in hot water with the police brass and he went to court to contest a departmental order that he shave it off. But shortly afterward he went on disability leave after being injured in a car accident while chasing a felon. When he returned, he was assigned to the narcotics squad, whose plainclothes officers are subject to the same dress and grooming requirements of uniform personnel, and the mustache issue became moot.
“I told the investigator basically that Ken was an exemplary cop,” says a former San Francisco police colleague, who asked not to be identified. “In my opinion, there's nothing else a person could conclude about him.”
Vicky Chew, the background investigator, is a former Calaveras County sheriff's employee turned private investigator with whom the sheriff's department subcontracts to do its background investigations. Her husband, Jack Chew, another sheriff's department alum, heads the reserve force to which Cantamout applied. Vickie Chew declined to discuss the Cantamout case, citing the lawsuit. Jack Chew did not respond to an interview request.
One person who shares Cantamout's suspicions about the way the sheriff's department handled the matter is Jerry Cadot, from Out of the Motherlode, a gay outreach group in Calaveras County. “On the surface, his allegations don't surprise me,” Cadot says, adding that there are no openly gay officers in the Calaveras County sheriff's department. “If you're gay over here, you learn to stay invisible unless you like being harassed and ostracized.”