Kelly Thomas: The Aftermath of a Local Tragedy

   Jim Arambula was sitting at the bus stop at the Fullerton Transportation Center when two men in suits came up to him.

The men identified themselves as officials from the Orange County District Attorney’s office. They proceeded to question him about Kelly Thomas.

Thomas was a 37-year-old schizophrenic homeless man who died in a hospital after a violent July 5 run-in with Fullerton police next to the Fullerton Transportation Center.

Police officers confronted Thomas after a call about an individual breaking into cars in downtown Fullerton. According to witness accounts, six officers used force against Thomas resulting in what appears to be a brutal beating at the hands of law enforcement.

Thomas was taken off life support five days after the encounter. According to his family, Thomas battled with schizophrenia and he voluntarily drifted the streets of Fullerton and nearby cities.

Arambula told the DA officials he was not present during the incident but would see Thomas nearly everyday near the bus depot.

“He was harmless,” said Arambula when asked about Thomas’ demeanor.

The men took down his contact information and walked away.

Read more below about Thomas and the hundreds of protesters who demonstrated in front of the Fullerton Police Department. Watch video and see a regularly updated timeline of events about a local tragedy that has made headlines across the country.

Breaking 9/21/11: The OCDA has charged Officer Manuel Ramos with felony second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Corporal Jay Cicinelli has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of police force. Read more at the Los Angeles Times.

Arambula, who stopped to look at the makeshift memorial for Thomas before he took the bus home on Aug. 9, said the questioning happened a few weeks after the incident.

The Orange County District Attorney investigates all officer-involved deaths. Most investigations take anywhere for six to nine months. Interviews are typically conducted with the officers involved, as well as on-scene and character witnesses. Along with any physical evidence gathered, it is then determined if criminal charges are warranted.

According to a Aug. 7 article in the Los Angeles Times, the six officers involved had not spoken to the District Attorney’s office up to that point.

Kelly Thomas Memorial on Aug. 9

At first, the story made only local news and raised concerns among residents. However, as weeks passed, it gained more coverage as more information started to surface.

A local blog, Friends for Fullerton’s Future, began to play a big role in the releasing of information about what may have happened that night.

The blog’s mission statement is in support of intelligent, responsible and accountable government. Most of the posts have a “tea party”-esque libertarian overtone and its authors have been known to try to rile up local politicians on matters such as use of taxpayer money, redevelopment, increased water rates and their claims of labor union influence over local government.

A photo posted by the blog showed a badly beaten, bruised and bloodied up Thomas that caught the attention of, not only local, but national news outlets as well.

Video taken by a bystander was released showing what appears to be Thomas’ last waking moments. He can be heard screaming “Dad! Dad!” as bystanders look on.

There was also a video taken by bus surveillance showing witnesses speaking to a bus driver about what they just saw. One of the witnesses tells the driver “They were kicking the s–t out of him.”

In the days that followed, anonymous law enforcement sources talked at length on KFI 640 AM talk radio about the incident. There were also demands for the city surveillance tape that captured the beating from overhead to be released to the public.

Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas’ father, was vocal to the media about the lack of cooperation he has experienced with the Fullerton Police Department in the weeks following his son’s death.

The case was handed over to the Orange County District Attorney two days before Thomas died. The FBI started to investigate incident at request of Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson.

Protesters in front of the Fullerton Police Department on Aug. 6

On August 6, about 400 protesters demonstrated in front of the Fullerton Police Department. The crowd was mixed, consisting of community members both young and older. Two diametrically-opposed groups – the left-wing ANSWER LA and the right-wing Oathkeepers – both rallied in support for justice for Kelly Thomas.

Jeff Levine, a lifelong resident of Fullerton, attended the protest in support of Thomas. Levine lived on the streets himself up for a period of time until last year. He said he would see Thomas around the downtown area frequently.

“He was not the type to break into cars,” he said. “Kelly didn’t want anything from anybody. He would keep to himself and he wouldn’t bother anyone.”

Levine said while he himself was living on the streets, he would encounter police frequently. He said at times he was subject to random searches. He was also cited for unlawful camping in the city, just as Thomas was during his time on the streets.

He said he encountered at least one officers speculated to be involved, Officer Jay Cicinelli, in the past. Cicinelli worked for the Los Angeles Police Department and was shot six times while on duty just weeks after graduating from the academy in 1996. He lost his left eye, which now is a glass replacement. He has been with the Fullerton Police Department for 13 years.

Levin was not a witness the night of the incident, however he said the officer gave him an eerie vibe when he was face to face with him in the past.

“There was something about him, the way his gaze was with his real one eye and the other one made of glass,” he said. “I got the creeps just looking at him.”

Andy Anderson, a Cal State Fullerton graduate and organizer of the protest, has lived in downtown Fullerton for five years. He said he has seen the police presence in the city change over the time he’s lived in the city.

“I have seen the police step up their aggression and be disrespectful not just in downtown but all over the city,” he said.

Anderson said he wants those who were involved to be held accountable and he’d like to see change in the city as a whole. He said he wants Fullerton to feel like a safe place for everyone.

“I’ve always been a strong advocate for change on small level,” Anderson said. “If we speak out and tell our leaders that we refuse to let this happen then we can change the way things are handled from police procedures to getting a permanent homeless shelter built in Fullerton.”

He credits Tony Bushala, owner and founder of Friends for Fullerton’s Future blog, for bringing attention to Thomas’ case.

“If it weren’t for his blog releasing photos and video, I don’t think any of these protests would have the turn out they have been getting,” he said. “We are all thankful for him because we want to see to it that what happened that night won’t ever happen again in our city.”

Also posted on LA Activist

Timeline of events: The aftermath of the police killing of Kelly Thomas
Will be updated as developments continue

July 7, 2011 – The Fullerton Police Department requests the Orange County District Attorney takes over the investigation of Kelly Thomas’ death.

July 10 – Kelly Thomas is removed from life support. According to Fullerton Stories, Ron Thomas said a doctor determined through an MRI the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head and lack of oxygen to the brain.

July 18 – Weekly protests organized by Fullerton resident Andy Anderson start taking place outside of the Fullerton Police Department. Vigils arranged by Thomas’ family proceed weekly.

July 20 – Fullerton Councilmember Bruce Whitaker releases a letter pushing for the release of city surveillance footage that captured the events from overhead of the bus depot. Information is also released by Fullerton Police Public Information Officer Sgt. Andrew Goodrich that the two officers were found to have soft tissue damage, not broken bones as previously reported.

July 21 – Ron Thomas tells the media he was offered $900,000 by the Fullerton PD’s lawyers for an out-of-court settlement rather than going through with a civil case against the City of Fullerton.

July 22 – Video is posted on Fullerton Stories and Friends for Fullerton’s Future websites taken by a bystander where audio could be heard of witnesses reactions as well as Thomas pleading with officers and yelling helplessly for his father.

A photo of Kelly Thomas taken by his father Ron in the hospital is posted on Friends for Fullerton’s Future and starts to circulate massively on the Internet.

In the days that follow, national and international coverage of the incident starts to grow with coverage by the Huffington Post and CNN. Los Angeles radio hosts KFI’s John and Ken start to dedicate most of their air time to the case.

July 27 – The Orange County District Attorney releases a request to the public for any information regarding the case.

July 28- Fullerton’s Future blog creates a post about the close connection between the chief OCDA investigator assigned to the case and Fullerton Police Chief Michael Sellers.

July 29 – Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson announces the FBI has started to look into the incident from the angle of whether or not Thomas’ civil rights were violated, at his request.

July 30 – The media reports the five remaining officers involved have been taken off front line duty at the department. Previously only one officer involved was on administrative leave.

August 1 – Details start to surface about one of the officers’ identities when an anonymous caller on KFI’s John and Ken Show give a description of one of the officers speculated to being involved. The source did not name the officer but said he was let go from the Los Angeles Police Department after being shot in the eye only three weeks into being on official duty. The officer has a glass eye and was confirmed to be a Fullerton Police officer.

Aug. 2 – The five remaining officers are switched to administrative leave. A video posted on Fullerton’s Future shows bus surveillance capturing witnesses talking to a bus driver about what they saw.

The OC Register reports homeless individuals in Fullerton feel heightened tension with law enforcement in the weeks following the incident.

A standing room only city council meeting stretches for over four hours featuring 70 public commenters, including Ron Thomas. Councilwoman Sharon Quirk-Silva responds at length to the commenters, stating more needs to be done in the city to protect the homeless and mentally ill. Mayor Jones said he wants to keep his emotions separate from public statements, but he did say the death of Thomas is devastating, however he has been told to be silent on the matter.

Aug. 3 – Councilwoman Quirk-Silva requests to the city manager that police chief Mike Sellers to resign. On the same day, OCDA Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder gives an interview on CNN.

At this point, Schroeder confirms the office has interviewed 80 persons, and it is expected to interview 20 more. She admits the city surveillance tape is “heartaching” to watch.

Fullerton Police Public Information Officer Sgt. Goodrich was scheduled to appear but backed out at the last minute. At this point, Chief Sellers released his first public statement in lieu of the interview that consists of only two sentences: “This was tragic for our community. We are in the midst of an investigation.”

Aug. 4 – FFFF blog posts the names of five of the officers speculated to be involved. The officer description by the anonymous KFI caller fits Officer Jay Cicinelli.

Aug. 5 – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sends out a press release to the media stating the OCDA is incapable of impartiality in cases relating to officer-involved deaths.

The OC Register reports Thomas such severe mental illness that county officials repeatedly described him as “gravely disabled” as they sought to have him committed. The article also goes into Thomas’ past brush-ins with the law, including assault with a deadly weapon after he hit his grandfather in the head with a fireplace poker in 1995 and his many citations after living on the street including unlawful camping and trespassing. He also escaped from treatment centers, telling his father he hated them and was scared of them.

There is also a post by purported “hactivist” group Anonymous vowing to target police and city government Web assets.

Aug. 6 – Attendance estimate for the protest in front of the Fullerton Police Department grows to about 400 demonstrators.

Aug. 7 – Julian Porte, 25-year-old musician from Santa Fe Springs, posts a Bob Dylan-esque protest song called The Ballad of Kelly Thomas on Sound Cloud.

Aug. 9 – Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas speaks out for the first time and tells the Los Angeles Times he has not seen evidence so far suggesting Thomas was intentionally killed by officers

Aug. 11 – Chief Michael Sellers goes on medical leave after pressure to step down. Capt. Kevin Hamilton steps in as acting chief.

District Attorney Rackauckas states on CNN “there is no question force was used”, however the legal question of whether it was unnecessary and/or excessive is what his office is investigating. He acknowledges the family’s loss and promised a “fair result” coming soon from his office.

Aug. 12 – Fullerton City Council directs its attorney to draw up a contract with Michael Gennaco to conduct an independent review of Kelly Thomas’ death. Gennaco oversees Los Angeles County’s Office of Independent Review, which monitors officer misconduct.

A press conference is held by Ron Thomas and his lawyer announcing the filing of a civil suit.

Acting-Chief Hamilton confirms the officers watched the city surveillance video before writing their reports. This was criticized as “bad practice” by a former LAPD official, according to the Los Angeles Times

A recall effort, headed by FFFF blog, is underway as recall notices are delivered to City Hall for the three City Council members whom supporters of the recall feel don’t represent the City’s interest in regards to the case.

Councilman McKinley appears on CNN and admits he may have hired the six police officers involved when he was Chief of the department.

At this point, the Justice for Kelly Thomas Facebook group has almost 1,800 members. Members provide live and ongoing commentary for the developments in the case.

The Justice for Kelly Facebook fan page has over 6,000 “likes” and the original video showing Thomas’ arrest taken by a bystander has garnered almost 700,000 views.

PBS SoCal features a roundtable discussion with Ron Thomas, Councilman Whitaker and FFFF blogger Chris Thompson. There is footage of a separate interview with the Orange County District Attorney.

Aug. 14 – A video is posted, purportedly by hactivist group Anonymous, announcing their support for Justice for Kelly Thomas.

Aug. 16 – The Fullerton City Council meeting has over 50 people speak during the public comment session over a two hour period. The Council officially hires Gennaco for an independent review into the Fullerton Police Department.

Aug. 17 – Ron Thomas meets with Mayor Jones for a two hour one-on-one discussion. Both told the OC Register afterwards they were satisfied with the meeting. Ron told the media in a news conference that Jones has considered resignation. The city released a statement stating Jones has no such plans.

Aug. 18 – The acting Fullerton police chief ordered an internal-affairs investigation into the October arrest of 35-year-old Veth Mam of El Monte- who was later acquitted of attacking a police officer and resisting arrest. One of the officers speculated to be involved with the Thomas arrest, Kenneth Hampton, was also involved in the arrest of Mam. A video posted on youtube has been said to contradict officer testimony. Ron Thomas’ lawyer, Garo Mardirossian, is also representing Mam in a federal lawsuit against the department.

Aug. 20- ANSWER LA leads a march in downtown Fullerton from the police department to the bus depot where Thomas died. About 200 demonstrators participated in the march while about 100 remained in front of the station. See video here.

Aug. 22 – The Associated Press runs a story claiming Fullerton Police are “increasingly under siege” after Thomas’ death.

Aug. 24 – The DA declines public information requests from the OC Register regarding the names of the officers involved citing a “significant number of threats” towards the officers made publicly and directly to the office.

Aug. 29 – The OC Register reported the DA is halfway finished with their investigation. Nearly 100 witnesses have been interviewed and key evidence such as the cause of death and toxicology reports are still pending.

Aug. 31- Mark Cabaniss, an attorney from Kelseyville, Calif., posts an editorial on The Greater Long Beach website exploring the DA’s options in regards to pressing charges. Cabaniss poses a felony murder charge appears to be the most fitting, according to details about the case in the media.

September 1 – FFFF blog posts police reports from the night of July 5 supplied through a records request. None of the reports show an incident mirroring the alleged original reason for the call on Thomas.

However, the original reporting of the story quoted Sgt. Goodrich saying there was a police call about a man appearing to break into cars. The incident may not have proceeded to an actual police report at the time Thomas was in custody by police. It’s also unclear whether or not Thomas was formally arrested or detained for questioning. In addition, a recording of the police call nor a record of a dispatch may be available if the call was made to a non-emergency number.

Sep. 6- The regularly scheduled Fullerton City Council meeting was cancelled. ANSWER LA had sent out e-mail blasts encouraging supporters to “flood the City Council chambers” demanding justice for Thomas’ death.

City Spokeswoman Sylvia Palmer Murdick told OC Weekly every year the council members get together and pick one summer council meeting to skip.

Ron’s attorney Garo Mardirossian appears on the KTLA news showing illustrations the injuries sustained during Thomas’ fatal beating. The illustrations show Thomas’ broken cheeks, broken nose, fractured ethmoid plate (the ethmoid bone is a bone in the skull that separates the nasal cavity from the brain) and broken ribs. According to Mardirossian, Thomas was brain dead the night he was taken to the hospital. A photo gallery of the illustrations can be found here.

Sep. 7 – Ron Thomas and lawyer Garo Mardirossian hold a press conference going over the illustrations that were featured in the KTLA broadcast. Mardirossian contends Kelly Thomas died of head trauma as a result of injuries sustained during the beating. Ron calls his son’s death an “aggravated murder.” Documentation of the medical records can be found here. Link also includes Taser Warnings which warns against intentionally targeting a taser to the chest, where Thomas had taser wounds.

Sep. 8- LA Times reports Ron Thomas accuses the OCDA of foot-dragging with their investigation into his son’s death.

Before Thomas, the most recently publicized officer-involved death investigation by the OCDA was the case of Julian Collender, which took one year for the DA to complete and release its findings that exonerated the officer of wrong-doing.

A group of about 25 protesters gathered in front of the OCDA’s office in Santa Ana.

Fullerton Assemblyman Chris Norby asked California Attorney General Kamala Harris to join the investigations into Thomas’ death.

Sep. 9 – Fullerton Police Chief Sellers extends his medical leave for another 30 days.

Sep. 10 – Drivers who honk in support while driving past Justice for Kelly protesters are cited by police officers for illegal use of the feature. According to Sgt. Goodrich statements to the OC Register, it’s in violation of California vehicle code section 27001, which says motorists may only use their horns “when reasonably necessary to insure safe operation” of a vehicle. Goodrich also told the OC Weekly “It’s not just the horn honking, but leaning on the horn.”

Sep. 16 – Officer Kenneth Hampton, speculated to be involved in the beating, is tied with a third instance of alleged police brutality.

Sep. 20 – According to the OC Register, the OC Sheriff-Coroner’s report was sent to the OCDA’s office. The DA’s office confirms that a decision of whether or not to file charges will be announced the following day.

Sep. 21 – The OCDA charged Officer Manuel Ramos with felony second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Corporal Jay Cicinelli was charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of police force. Read more at the Los Angeles Times.

Amber Stephens