When violent inmates at Fresno County Jail won’t stop yelling and screaming in their cells, they’re often paid a visit by a certain correctional officer.
This particular CO is 6-feet-2 and 280 pounds worth of tough- and mean-looking former Fresno State Bulldogs football player. Except when Toamalama Scanlan opens his mouth, what comes out aren’t angry threats.
What comes out are soothing, calming Samoan chants.
“They look at him in confusion like, ‘Why are you singing to me?’ ” said Fresno County Sheriff’s correctional officer Eulalio Gomez, a member of Scanlan’s unit.
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“It actually stops them from their behavior because they can’t register what’s happening. It’s something that all the inmates know, that he’s the Samoan guy who sings to them and calms them down.”
He tries to accomplish things without using force, which at the end of the day we all want.
Fresno County Sheriff’s corrections officer Eulalio Gomez
Gomez was inside the jail’s front lobby on the morning of Sept. 3, the day Scanlan and fellow officer Juanita Davila were severely injured while confronting a paroled rapist and sex trafficker who pulled out a handgun and started shooting.
Davila left the hospital Friday and returned home. Scanlan remains in critical condition from a bullet that entered the top rear of his head and exited through his cheek. He also suffered a hand injury that may be the result of that bullet or a second.
Almost right away, Scanlan started fighting back. The 40-year-old married father of six has made slow and incremental progress in the two weeks since the shooting.
“After he got shot, on the gurney, he had his thumb up when the EMTs were talking to him,” Gomez said. “Right now, in the hospital, he still puts his thumb up for people.”
Besides doctors and nurses at Community Regional Medical Center, Scanlan is being tended to by family members visiting in shifts from their Clovis home. Scanlan can recognize voices and this week began to display facial expressions, emotions and show increased movement in his extremities.
“He wasn’t really moving his left side, but now he is,” said oldest son Robert Scanlan, who returned home from a mission in American Samoa when he heard the news.
“The doctor went to give him a shot and he started resisting with his left. The doctor sat him up. He’s able to move his eyebrows now. He can open his eyes, but they’re not (alert).”
I know in his mind right now he’s worried, but I also know he’s fighting.
Robert Scanlan, 20-year-old son of Toamalama Scanlan
Doctors are “really amazed” at the progress, according to sister Tava’e Scanlan, who flew in from New Zealand and attended Thursday’s barbecue fundraiser for the wounded officers’ families.
“I know my brother and his state of mind,” she said. “He really lives for his kids. He’s not ready to go, because of them. I know that for sure.”
Malama (as he’s known to friends) and wife Tepatasi have two sons and four daughters whose ages range from 4 to 20. The couple met at a Bay Area dance in the mid-’90s. He was a college football player at Iowa Wesleyan, in town visiting friends. She was a student at UC Davis. After they fell in love, it was decided he couldn’t be so far away.
Scanlan transferred to Fresno State in the spring of 1995. He joined the Bulldogs as a walk-on and spent that year on the scout team. In 1996, which became the last of coach Jim Sweeney’s 19 seasons, he earned a scholarship, started 11 games at defensive end, and recorded 43 tackles and four sacks.
“Right away when he came in, he made an impression on us with his spirit and with his quickness,” teammate Marlyn Jackson recalled. “He was explosive off that line.”
Scanlan was known for his quick, forceful hands and a spin move. He also knew how to gain a psychological edge, as Vince Branstetter, a freshman tight end on the ’96 team who lined up opposite Scanlan during practice, can attest.
“He’d give me this scary look, make his eyes real wide, and tell me, ‘The battle has begun,’ ” said Branstetter, the offensive coordinator at Fresno City College. “Sounds funny now, but at the time it made you kind of fearful.”
43 tackles made by Toamalama Scanlan for Fresno State in 1996
Scanlan’s teammates didn’t need long to discover the then 6-2, 250-pounder possessed something of dual nature: warm and cheerful off the field; fierce and intimidating on it.
Born in Mountain View and raised in American Samoa from age 9 through high school, Scanlan also was intensely proud of his heritage. The Bulldogs became accustomed to his chants and dances.
“He brought a lot of culture,” said Jackson, who coaches defensive backs at Fresno High. “We got a vibe off of that. It was real.”
Whenever Scanlan bumps into one of his ex-Bulldogs teammates around town, the other guy can expect a giant bear hug.
That realness carries over to Scanlan’s post-football life. Whenever he bumps into one of his ex-teammates around town – and there are quite a few – the other guy can expect a giant bear hug.
“There’s very few people I’ve ever come across who are as warm and friendly,” said Warren Fortier, a Fresno real estate agent who was the Bulldogs’ starting tight end in ’96. “He’s just a sweet man. Even in his job, it didn’t harden him.”
Scanlan has been a correctional officer for 10 years. Before that, he spent seven years as a juvenile probation officer. Co-workers describe him as the first to lend assistance, the first to answer a call – someone they can always count on.
On that fateful morning in the jail lobby, Scanlan was responding to Davila’s plea for help.
“He was fighting a gunfight with an electric taser,” said Gomez, president of the Fresno County Public Safety Association.
He’s the type of guy who gives his all. It’s kind of fitting, and sad, now that he’s in a different type of battle.
Vince Branstetter, former Bulldogs teammate
That a person such as Scanlan, who would rather calm inmates with soothing song than control them with force, would fall victim to such a senseless act of violence makes my blood boil. What’s someone with a rap sheet like Thong Vang even doing on our streets?
The outrage is tempered, only slightly, by the community’s response: the $37,450 raised by Thursday’s barbecue; the $26,670 (as of Saturday morning) donated to the injured officers on GoFundMe.com; the prayer ceremonies and vigils at Fresno Christian High, where Scanlan volunteers as an assistant coach, and Buchanan, where 16-year-old Tao Scanlan Jr. is a junior nose guard.
“There’s no words to describe all the love and support we’ve received,” sister Tava’e Scanlan said. “If I could find it in the dictionary I will, but it’s beyond words that we can express.”
Every day when Scanlan leaves for work, as well as when he comes home, he hugs and kisses his kids. Dad insists.
Every day when Scanlan leaves for work, as well as when he comes home, he hugs and kisses his kids. It doesn’t matter how old they get. Dad insists.
“At a young age we started veering away from that,” Robert Scanlan said. “One day he sat us all down and said, ‘Hey, the reason why I do this is because in my line of work, you never know. I may never come home. When I tell you to give me a hug and kiss it’s because I really mean it and I really love you guys.’ ”
A father’s immense love for his family, and their love for him, now fuels Toamalama Scanlan’s fight from a hospital bed. Never doubt that hugs, kisses, thoughts and prayers have the power to heal.