Betrayal comes full circle, says a Salt Lake City gang investigator who developed PTSD, then lost his job

( Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune ) Former Salt Lake City police investigator Break Merino was terminated in July 2017 after he developed post-traumatic stress disorder and central serous retinopathy, a severe related condition that caused cortisol to build up behind his retinas. A decorated officer, Merino was instrumental in investigating the Tongan Crip Gang in Utah, one case that he says contributed to his PTSD.

The cloud blurring the view from Break Merino’s damaged left eye swells and recedes with memories: A drug dealer’s kid, covered in feces and unable to speak after years imprisoned in a pen. The limp weight of a drowning victim. The daughter of a man whose skull he fractured with a baton.
But in the center of it all, where his vision is clearest, Merino can track a theme in the stress of his life as one of Salt Lake City's most street-savvy investigators:
It started with his sources — the relationships he cultivated and sometimes burned. The people he persuaded to snitch.
Merino once embedded in immigrant neighborhoods on Salt Lake City’s west side, where he made friends, mentored kids, got invited to family cookouts — and then helped lock up 17 men connected to the Tongan Crip Gang.
But now, sitting in his darkened house, unemployed and 60 pounds lighter, Merino says his distress isn’t just from the persistent anxiety over being found out, over breaking trust. It isn’t just over what he saw and did on the streets.
Betrayal comes full circle, he says. After post-traumatic stress disorder caused a cortisol buildup that began blinding his left eye, after an interrupted suicide attempt, after being directed to what he considered a counterproductive therapy program and seeking desk work he could do from home, Merino says he was fired under a city policy restricting medical leave. The department’s union abandoned his case amid its own political upheaval, he says.
Now he is taking legal action on his own — seeking financial compensation — and calling out what he describes as a “punitive,” “political” department where he says officer expertise isn’t valued.
“Some of this work comes with a price,” says Merino, 41. “Before you know it, you’re just panicking and you don’t know how to get it under control, and there’s just no place to turn — and when you do turn and ask for help, it’s ‘How can we throw you away? We don’t want to deal with it.’”
The city is pushing back.
“We believe that any claim of discrimination … will be found without merit,” says city human resources director Julio Garcia. “The city does care about its employees. Terrible things do happen, but we have to fill those positions.”

‘The guy has a gift’

His former supervisor, retired Deputy Chief Isaac Atencio, says Merino was a rare find in policing: street smart, people smart and creative.
Merino’s collection of accolades — multiple awards, a stack of commendations from commanders, recognition as a gang expert for federal prosecutions — reflects his ambitious policing style during his 17-year career, according to Atencio and other officers who were close to him.
“The guy has a gift,” says Atencio. “He was probably getting more done than any of the other detectives they had working in there.”
Especially unusual, Atencio says, was Merino’s comfort with street culture — something Atencio chalks up to Merino’s upbringing in a Utah policing family; his father also was an officer. Where other officers might see gangs as uniformly sinister, Merino saw nuance in the hierarchies and community ties, Atencio says.
That made him the perfect fit for the case that would make his career.
Merino had joined Atencio’s gang unit in the mid-2000s, after stints with SWAT and patrols in Glendale, where the Tongan Crip Gang (TCG) for years had been gaining notoriety.
The gang was interlaced with families and neighborhoods — and its members weren’t all the same. A few were dangerous and powerful, Merino says. Others, he says, were decent kids hanging out with their friends and getting into low-grade trouble.
To deal with the gang without needlessly ripping apart a community and its families, enforcement would need to be more surgical, Merino says, and that meant someone would need to know its structure intimately.
The gang unit devised a plan: Merino would coach youth football in Salt Lake City’s Tongan community and build relationships to learn the gang’s inner workings.
“I knew from there we could grow and get into more areas and start helping more … identify and generate informants and then branch out,” Merino says.
Some administrators balked.
“‘Coaching football? I need stats!’” Merino recalls one deputy chief saying. “And I’m like, so, I can go out today and make 13 arrests on misdemeanors and scratch out citation after citation, and I won’t have near the impact I’ll have if I’m coaching that team.”
It worked. Merino gradually gained trust in the neighborhood.
It wasn’t an act just to get close to his targets: Merino’s wife and daughters often joined him at family parties in Glendale, and his family still has close friends there.
Merino wasn’t undercover, per se. He was well known as Glendale’s neighborhood Officer Friendly, someone who wouldn’t cuff a kid for petty crime and helped out where he could with rides and groceries, community members say.
“They knew his position, they knew he was an officer, but they also knew they had a friend on the force,” says one of Merino’s former informants, who is part of Glendale’s Tongan community and still has ties to TCG members.
But his role shifted as he worked his way up the hierarchy, Merino says. Some members believed he was a “dirty cop” because they kept avoiding charges — but they didn’t know he was holding out for something bigger.
When federal racketeering indictments came down on 17 TCG members, based in part on evidence Merino had gathered, he knew the defendants weren’t the only ones blindsided. The case had wiped out almost “an entire generation” of young men from the community, Merino says — and he, the white police officer who had been welcomed at weddings and funerals, was part of it.
He wanted to move in support programs: after-school activities, social workers and treatment for drugs and mental illness, post-prison rehabilitation.
“What people didn’t know was that the [gang] leadership did keep kids in line a little bit,” Merino says. “As soon as they were gone, I knew it was going to create a vacuum. … It’s going to be awkward at first, but get back in, and then we’ve got to fill this void with something positive.”
There was no money for that, Merino was told.
He was moved to a training position in the department’s police academy, leaving behind a bewildered community with less than he says he wanted to give.

‘I feel responsible’

Training other officers should have been less stressful than working the streets.
But as time passed, Merino says, he became more anxious. He’d had nightmares since 2006, when he and three other officers got into a deadly fight with Alvin Itula, a man who was wrongly listed as having an arrest warrant due to a clerical error.
While trying to subdue him, Merino struck him with his baton while another officer fired a Taser at him. Although medical examiners said Itula died not from Merino’s baton strikes but of drug-induced delirium and the officers were cleared in the death, Merino’s memory lingers on one detail: Itula’s daughter, watching the whole thing.
“I feel responsible,” Merino says.
The night terrors and anxiety gnawed at Merino. He started drinking to get to sleep and waking up nauseated from panic. Violent scenes from his patrol days flashed inexplicably into his mind.
Then the fallout from Merino’s Glendale days became inescapable: After TCG member Siale Angilau was shot to death by a federal marshal while lunging at a witness during his trial in 2014, gang resentments against Merino revived. Officers learned of retaliation threats and told Merino to send his family out of town. Federal agents installed cameras and alarms around Merino’s Davis County home, where he paced the rooms day after day with his gun and a fire extinguisher. TCG was known to use Molotov cocktails in revenge hits, Merino says, and they knew where he lived.
But Merino’s dread, he says, was not just about the new threats.
For years he had worked in Glendale followed by a creeping fear that he would be exposed as a traitor. PTSD can produce an elevated sense of peril. But stalking around his own house alone for two weeks, blinds drawn, ears tuned to every passing car, it felt more like an awful premonition come to pass.
When his wife, Courtney, and their daughters returned home, Merino was different, Courtney says. He kept beating his path around the house, scanning for attackers — a habit his then−10-year-old daughter nervously picked up. Now 14, she still circles the house before bed, religiously checking each lock and window in her nightly patrol.
The whole family is in therapy.
As Merino’s anxiety peaked, he says he confessed to his sergeant that his marriage was failing and he was struggling to function. He says the sergeant suggested transferring him back to patrol — considered a step down professionally and a greater risk for PTSD.
“That right there was my first clue that reporting (anxiety) to them was not going to work in my favor,” Merino says. “So I quit talking about it to anybody. But the symptoms didn’t go away or lessen, they just intensified.”

Merino eventually was returned to investigations, developing confidential informants for the department’s intelligence unit. But he didn’t feel safe or effective: Basic tactics for high-risk interviews — having a backup team nearby, taking care to protect informants from being pegged as snitches — weren’t being used, he says. Getting time and resources to ferret out crime networks also was tricky, he says.
He also was truly undercover, working sources who didn’t know he was a police officer. And as his PTSD symptoms worsened, vigilance bled into panic.
“All of a sudden one day you’re getting up and you’re throwing up or nearly throwing up because you know today you’ve used up all your lives. You’ve had too many close calls — and all of a sudden you’re going, ‘What is creating this irrational thought?’ And you can’t put your finger on it. So the whole day you’re going, ‘I’m going to get killed today. I’m going to get killed today. I’m going to get killed today — or I’m going to get someone else killed.’ You’re driving yourself crazy because your subconscious is looking for this dangerous thing that doesn’t exist.”
Meanwhile, working undercover revived Merino’s anxieties around manipulation.
“You’re starting to reach out to people … and you’re getting really close to them, and it’s like — God, but at some point I might have to burn you to get this [other] guy,” Merino says.

‘The house of cards came down’

Finally, in February 2016, Merino says, “the house of cards came down.”
He was helping search for a man with a knife in City Creek Canyon when his vision started to blur. By the time he got back to the station, he couldn’t see at all through his left eye, and pressure was building up behind it.
An ophthalmologist took a quick look and asked what sounded like an odd question: Had Merino had an “eventful” career as a police officer?
Merino scanned back through 16 years of threats; chases; shootings; deaths; undercover deception; a baby with second-degree burns all over her body after she had been dipped in hot water as punishment for crying; a distressed firefighter, shot a few yards away from Merino during a standoff.
Merino was diagnosed with central serous retinopathy, a vision disorder that flares up when the stress hormone cortisol creates a fluid buildup in the eye.
He spent the next 16 months on leave and briefly working from home while undergoing conflicting treatments. He was given benzodiazepines to treat his vision, which could be permanently damaged without immediate relief — but they are known to worsen PTSD. He says the department worker’s compensation firm ordered him to undergo a type of psychotherapy that he says forced him to engage with traumatic memories without a strategy to cope with being triggered by them. His physical symptoms grew worse, he says.
After eliminating the treatment, Merino began to improve — but the setback was demoralizing, he says. In December 2016, Merino says, a deputy chief told him the city had begun enforcing caps on medical leave, and he’d be fired if he couldn’t return to work.
One night when Courtney and his daughters had gone out, Merino says he got out a gun.
“I had made up my mind,” he says. “The girls left and I was going to do it — and they just happened to come back through the door five minutes later.”
He hid the gun and didn’t consider killing himself again, he says.
But in July 2017, Merino says, he received word he was fired. He says he lost an array of benefits and has been on two-thirds pay since then, under worker’s compensation insurance.
He was stunned, he says, that there was no role for him to play in the department while he was recovering — for example, advising the gang unit or doing background investigations from home.
Merino’s history made him a valuable asset, says retired FBI agent Juan Becerra, who was connected to the TCG cases.
“He is a very good investigator, but talent is not as important as having institutional knowledge,” says Becerra. “He had knowledge of what was going on in the street. He could talk to people. When you have somebody who has that kind of experience, which nothing else teaches you … it makes them very important.”
Merino’s police union, the Salt Lake City Police Association, was no help, he says. His termination came amid a divisive election for the union presidency, he says, and his first meeting put him between the former president and an attorney who had supported the new one.
The attorney said his firing was lawful, he says; a union representative recommended a civil-rights lawyer who said Merino’s case was good, but the union didn’t pay a retainer and legal action stalled.
The association did not return calls requesting comment.

‘Protections don’t last in perpetuity’

Now Merino is on his own; he hired a lawyer and filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission in May alleging wrongful termination.
Though Merino says administrators invoked a new three-month cap on leave, Garcia says Salt Lake City has long allowed its police chief to grant officers up to 12 months leave — but no longer.
“You have to have cops on the street. You have to have firefighters fighting fires,” he says.
He noted that an employment policy overhaul after Jackie Biskupski became mayor includes improved parental leave, tuition reimbursement for training and worker’s compensation and long-term unemployment packages.
“We have these programs to help our employees who find themselves in these difficult situations,” he says. “But these protections don’t last in perpetuity.”
Peer support coordinator Sgt. Lisa Pascadlo says the department has become more accommodating of PTSD cases in recent years and she believes officers are less afraid of seeking help. She called Merino’s case “a heartbreaker” but says “things have changed since then.”
Merino says the department’s unwillingness to keep the door open for him shows a pattern of favoring instant rewards over long-term investment in expertise and strategy.
His assignment to develop informants, for example, was led by inexperienced officers, he says. He recalls intervening to stop supervisors from managing informants in a way that he knew could be seen by judges as coercion or a civil-rights violation.
“We can’t do it that way,” he recalls saying. “I’ve already been through court on this.”
Retaining experienced officers is a problem, acknowledges Salt Lake City police detective and spokesman Greg Wilking — but he says it extends throughout the profession.
“There’s an awful lot of experience that is being lost in our police department, and it’s because people aren’t sticking around,” he says. “That’s institutional knowledge, that’s a lot of hours time-tested and proved, and we are losing that experience. People are checking out after 20 years, if they can make it to 20 years. … That lack of experience — yeah, that hurts.”
Meanwhile, Merino says, his work networking in Glendale has gone to waste.
“Now they’ll pull you over and arrest you for the stupidest things,” says the informant, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “The younger guys — they hate all police officers now, they hate everyone now.”
Angilau’s sister Tolina Tausinga cautiously accepted Merino’s friendship in the years after her brother was shot to death in court. Merino was trying to rebuild ties in Glendale, and Tausinga had become a community activist.
“I didn’t trust anyone with a badge, but [Merino] … kept coming to see how he could help me,” Tausinga says. “Break Merino is one of the only officers I can honestly say, even though it hurts me, I respect.”
Tausinga eventually took a community outreach job with the department and Merino hoped to partner with her permanently to redevelop plans for gang prevention. But her position lost funding, Merino got sick, and now, she says, police relations in Glendale have deteriorated. She called Merino’s termination “a huge loss.”
Gang enforcement strategy changes quickly in the Salt Lake Valley, where gang activity crosses city lines and various task forces have led investigations over the years, Wilking says.
“A lot of those directives change based on different administrations,” Wilking says, adding that citizen experiences with gang investigators may reflect that more than a philosophical shift within one department.
Officers who are injured on the job are a priority for hiring if they can return within three years, Garcia says. But Merino says he isn’t looking to return to the department, which he describes as “retaliatory.”
After everything, he says, some of the strongest ties to his old policing life are the sources he worked. They still come to visit and invite him to family get-togethers, even after he made his career manipulating loyalties in their communities.
“Guys that I thought were close — we’ve been in shootouts together — I haven’t heard from them once,” he says. “But then my CIs [confidential informants] come up to see me.”
As for the “thin blue line” of police solidarity, Merino says: “It’s very thin.”

( Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune ) Break Merino stands near a sketch of himself from the Salt Lake City Police Department thanking him for his "outstanding service and dedication to The Team" from January 2004 to September 2010 on the SWAT unit. Merino was terminated after taking leave for post-traumatic stress disorder, including a PTSD-related condition where cortisol builds up behind his retinas, causing vision impairment in his left eye.

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