GENEVA — Moments after a city police officer was convicted of choking a woman during a heated incident more than two years ago, Jason MacBride turned and simply nodded to the victim, Maria Leach.
“First of all, my thoughts are with Ms. Leach,” MacBride, Ontario County’s first assistant district attorney, said after Jack Montesanto was found guilty of criminal obstruction of breathing. “Despite her struggles, no one deserves to be treated that way.”
Following a three-day Geneva City Court trial, a jury convicted Montesanto of the misdemeanor charge Wednesday after two-plus hours of deliberations. He faces up to a year in jail when he is sentenced Nov. 19.
Leach, who was in court for the verdict, cried on the shoulder of City Councilor Laura Salamendra after the decision. They left shortly afterward.
Montesanto’s attorney, Jon Getz, spoke briefly to a Times reporter after the verdict.
“We respect the (jury’s) decision, but completely disagree with it,” Getz said, adding that he will assess the appeals process.
Montesanto, a 10-year veteran of the Geneva Police Department at the time, was arrested about a month after the early-morning incident in July 2019 at the Public Safety Building. A short time before it happened, he and GPD Officer Bret Steve had gone to an apartment building on Main Street, next to the National Guard Armory, to check on a neighbor’s complaint of loud music.
That response resulted in Leach being warned. However, Montesanto and Steve arrested her for a noise violation and disorderly conduct when they returned after fielding another complaint. Geneva PD Sgt. Nick Bielowicz, the shift supervisor, also went to the scene and testified during the trial that Leach was intoxicated and yelling profanities at officers.
Leach was taken to the Public Safety Building, where Montesanto choked her in a holding cell after a face-to-face confrontation that including yelling by both. The incident was caught on a police body camera and seen by the jury.
Geneva Police Chief Mike Passalacqua learned of the incident two days later, suspended Montesanto with pay, and asked the Ontario County sheriff’s office to investigate the matter. Passalacqua later placed Montesanto on unpaid suspension, which remains in place today, and Montesanto is still on the GPD roster.
Passalacqua did not respond to an email from the Times on Montesanto’s employment status after the verdict, or a comment on the jury’s decision.
There were only two witnesses during the trial: Bielowicz and Geneva PD Sgt. Tyler Turner, a 24-year veteran of the department who does the agency’s in-service trainings on use of force. They both said choke holds were not authorized by the police department either at the time of the incident or now.
Getz called no witnesses for the defense, and Montesanto did not testify.
In his closing summation to the jury, MacBride said while Leach was highly intoxicated, profane and disrespectful, Montesanto and Steve escalated the situation by yelling at her on Main Street and at the police station. In particular, MacBride said Montesanto was heard on body cam footage referring to Leach as “garbage ... an alcoholic ... and disgusting.”
“You know how he felt about Maria Leach,” MacBride said. “They insulted her ... made snarky remarks and pushed her buttons.”
MacBride also took exception to Montesanto’s report shortly after the incident, in which Montesanto claimed he did not choke Leach but pushed her chest.
“This was no push to the chest. This was a full squeezing of Maria Leach’s throat for six full seconds,” MacBride said. “For six seconds, you could not hear a peep out of her. He was angry. He was tired of dealing with Maria Leach and he wanted to shut her up.
“Jack Montesanto is not above the law. Maria Leach, whether you like her or not, is not beneath the law.”
In his closing summation, Getz said Leach was “agitated, abusive and aggressive from the start” and squared off with officers from the time they arrived on Main Street. Getz said that continued at the police station.
“Forty minutes of bad behavior by Ms. Leach led to this. It goes into what happened and why,” he said. “She was in his face, spitting in his face ... and gouged Officer Montesanto’s arm and kneed him in the groin.”
Getz added that Montesanto had no intent to impede Leach’s breathing and was trying to put handcuffs back on her when she became aggressive.
“You have to look at the totality of the circumstances,” Getz said. “Asking nicely for Ms. Leach to do something was not working.”
Shortly after the verdict, Canandaigua City Court Judge Jackie Sisson Sherry, who was appointed to preside over the trial, extended a temporary restraining order that bars Montesanto from having any contact with Leach. Montesanto, free on his own recognizance since his arrest, remains that way until he is sentenced.
MacBride said the Geneva PD investigated the matter shortly after it happened and cooperated fully with the sheriff’s office probe that led to Montesanto’s arrest.
“This verdict does not represent the Geneva Police Department. Ninety-nine percent of the officers are top-notch,” MacBride said. “This verdict will go a long way toward seeing this defendant does not work as a police officer again.”