Crime & Justice

Fullerton slowly healing after death of Kelly Thomas

Ron Thomas, the father of victim, Kelly Thomas, stands next to a memorial for his son on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011, at the Fullerton Transportation Center in Fullerton, Calif.
Ron Thomas, the father of victim, Kelly Thomas, stands next to a memorial for his son on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011, at the Fullerton Transportation Center in Fullerton, Calif.
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

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It’s been more than a year since Kelly Thomas, a homeless, mentally-ill man, was severely beaten by six Fullerton police officers. He died five days after the violent confrontation at the Fullerton Transportation Center in July 2011.

Thomas's beating and death launched an upheaval in Fullerton.

Two police officers face criminal charges, with a third officer still under investigation. The Fullerton police chief stepped down. Three members of the city council were removed from officer in a recall election.

Loretta Van der Pol, a longtime Fullerton resident, said she and her husband saw Kelly Thomas many times when they went to a restaurant near the city's Transportation Center.

"You would see him talking to himself and he never accosted anybody. Sometimes you’d see people talking to him but he didn’t follow people. He wasn’t panhandling. He didn’t do anything like that,” she recalled.

“We didn’t know who he was at the time but we would always see him sitting on the benches right about the time we got there," said Van der Pol. "Very quiet, very slight, kind of hunched over. And he would just be sitting quietly. And, then it was so astounding to find out what had happened to him.”

A video of last summer's confrontation between Thomas and police shows officer Manuel Ramos asking the homeless man questions. A struggle ensues that involves Thomas, Ramos, officer Joe Wolfe and Thomas. Four other officers arrive to assist.

The officers use a Taser, a baton, fists and elbows to subdue Thomas. As the struggle continues, an audio recording of the confrontation picked up Thomas shouting, “Dad, help me! They’re killing me.”

“He didn’t follow Ramos’ program to the letter," said Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas' father. "With his schizophrenic mind, he couldn’t. And he appeared defiant to Ramos, defiant to Wolfe. And so they beat him and beat him and beat him.”

Ron Thomas' photograph of his son's bloody, swollen face a few days after the beating sparked outrage in Fullerton.

After Thomas died, two council members urged Police Chief Michael Sellers to resign. He went on medical leave a month after the beating, and he retired last February.

Three other council members - Don Bankhead, F. Richard Jones and Pat McKinley - remained mostly silent about the beating. They said the city attorney had told them to withhold opinions on Thomas’ death.

Their silence added to the uproar, said Van de Pol. She said the beating, and how city leaders handled the incident, made her angry.

“I think acknowledging that pain and that grief in the very beginning and then aggressively going forward with making sure it was thoroughly investigated would have made a big difference," she said.

"But there was this stonewall from the very beginning, where there was just an absolute refusal to say anything, there was no expression on their faces."

Frances Riggs, another longtime Fullerton resident, said the Thomas beating brought into sharper focus how some of the city council members accepted what she termed “attitudes and behavior” of some city police officers.

“Now, I’m somewhat embarrassed by Fullerton,” said Riggs.

Changes are underway within the city's police department.

Special investigator Michael Gennaco submitted three reports to city leaders on the beating incident, how police officials responded, and what improvements in policy and training are needed.

Among the new policies in place: a mental health expert is now assigned to work with Fullerton police.

Rusty Kennedy, the executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, lives in Fullerton.

“Any kind of a confrontation with people that don’t have the mental capacity to respond logically to either verbal commands or physical commands or whatever else, is just a real dangerous situation," said Kennedy. "Doing the wrong thing can escalate rather than de-escalate.”

Ron Thomas has filed a civil suit against the city. His ex-wife settled her civil suit against Fullerton for $1 million.

Despite his civil suit, Thomas said he’s focused on the criminal case.

“It’s a true tragic story, that our police officers can beat somebody so severely to where they die and the whole time he’s begging for his life and forgiveness and they continue to tase and beat him,” said Thomas.

Two officers charged in connection with the beating of Kelly Thomas, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, are expected to go to trial in early 2013. A third, Joe Wolfe, seen swinging a baton in a video of the incident, remains under investigation. All three have been dismissed from the police force.

But Thomas wants Wolfe to face charges too.

“He took the first strikes at Kelly and then of course he delivered the two big elbows,” said Thomas, describing what he saw in a videotape of the beating of his son.

And, as Thomas waits for what he calls “Justice for Kelly,” the echoes of his son’s cries are forever seared into his memory.

“To hear Kelly and his screams for me to save him fade away, get lower in audio and further apart and then almost like a gurgle faded away into death calling for me," said Thomas, haltingly. "That haunts me every day that haunts me every night."