Kelly Thomas was a 37-year-old homeless man suffering from schizophrenia who was beaten to death by police officers. Medical records show that bones in his face were broken and he choked to death on his own blood. The coroner concluded that compression to his thorax made it impossible for Thomas to breathe and deprived his brain of oxygen. His parents were forced to remove him from life support five days after his beating. He was initially taken to St. Jude Medical Center, but transferred to the UC Irvine Medical Center, where he went comatose and was never able to recover.
Officer Manuel Ramos was charged with one count of second-degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter. Corporal Jay Cicinelli and officer Joseph Wolfe were both charged with one count of felony involuntary manslaughter and one count of excessive force. All three have pled not guilty.
On July 5, 2011, at 8:30 p.m., officers responded to a call from management at the Slidebar that someone was vandalizing cars. While investigating, officers found Thomas, who was disheveled and shirtless. When officers attempted to search him, he resisted, according to officers. The officers then repeatedly tasered him, hit him, and threw him to the ground. A video surfaced of the horrific event. Thomas can be heard repeatedly screaming in pain. When officers repeatedly tasered Thomas, he could be heard screaming for his father. Six officers were involved in the arrest of Thomas, who was unarmed and had a known history of mental illness. Between 1990 and 2011, police responded to incidents involving Thomas 92 times. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas gave a detailed account of the events during a press conference on September 21, 2011. He said that Thomas did comply with the officers’ demands. Rackauckas provided evidence, including recording devices carried by officers, surveillance videos, etc.
At one point, Officer Ramos put on latex gloves and asked Thomas, “Now see my fists? They are getting ready to f*** you up.” Rackauckas described how Thomas begged for his life as he was beaten to death.
Thomas audibly tells officers multiple times that he can’t breathe. The police department confirmed that no one had significant injuries other than Thomas. Several rallies were held in support of Thomas’ family. On August 2, 2011, a public city council meeting was held where at least 70 members of the public expressed criticisms of the police’s handling of the incident. The session lasted three hours. On Saturday August 6, 2011, a large street protest was held outside of the Fullerton City Hall. Activists at that protest, numbering in the few hundreds, called for the public release of surveillance video shot by cameras at a nearby bus depot and carried signs reading, “End Police Brutality.” About a month later, the officers were arrested and charged. Local law enforcement officials raised money for the officers’ bail and defense fund to show their support of the defendants.
In early 2012, a recall election qualified for the ballot in Fullerton and in June of 2012, Don Bankhead, F. Dick Jones, and Pat McKinley were all recalled for not sufficiently responding to the beating. Police Chief Michael Sellers resigned in February of 2012 after going on unspecified medical leave. There were also allegations of a coverup and allegations that Slidebar had an anti-homeless policy. A former employee, who filed a wrongful terminal lawsuit, Michael Reeves alleged that the Slidebar had a policy of doing “anything necessary” to keep loiterers away and that it was a lie when the caller reported that Thomas was breaking into cars. The company simply wanted the police to respond faster. At first, Slidebar and its management denied having anything to do with the incident, but eventually admitted this past summer that an employee did report Thomas to the police, but Jeremy Popoff, the owner, declined further comment. He did say though that the employee did not use the phrase “breaking into cars” and the establishment does not have an anti-homeless policy.
On May 16, 2012, press reports indicated that the Fullerton City Council settled its lawsuit with Thomas’ mother reportedly paying her a million dollars in damages. Thomas’ father’s lawsuit is ongoing.
The trial for two of the officers is set for November of 2013. The third officer will be tried separately. All of the officers were let go from the Fullerton department in the summer of 2012. Former Fullerton Police Department ex-Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, 41, and Officer Manuel Anthony Ramos, 39, will face trial in November in relation to the beating death of Thomas.
Jury selection is scheduled for sometime in the first two weeks of November with the trial starting on November 18th. Joe Wolfe (below right) is scheduled to go to trial next year, that date is expected to be set on January 24, 2014.
Video and audio captured the incident. The officers are not charged with falsifying their reports of the incident. The video shows that while Wolfe went through Thomas’ backpack, Ramos and Thomas engaged in a prickly exchange. Three more officers joined Ramos, Cicinelli, and Wolfe and that’s when a violent struggle ensued that left Thomas bloody and unconscious, an incident that killed him less than a week later.
It was determined by Orange County Superior Court Judge William Froeberg that there should be no gavel-to-gavel coverage due to “high emotions”. He said, he didn’t want to “further inflame…” people’s emotions by allowing TV coverage in a case with a “considerable amount of animosity.” He went on to say he didn’t want to add to the “explosiveness” of the high-profile nature of the case. He did say he will allow two pool cameras (one still and one TV) for opening arguments, closing arguments, the verdict, and if applicable the sentencing.
“Now we’re ready for battle, and it’s going to completely drain me to go through it all…” said Ronald Thomas, Kelly’s father, “But this is what we’re here for…”
In the video footage, which will most likely be entered as evidence, Ramos and Wolfe ask Kelly questions and a few moments later, Ramos demands that Thomas “get on the ground now, Get on the ground!” At that point, Thomas is struck by a baton and officer Wolfe yells, “Take him down…” The rest of the video shows Thomas screaming and pleading with officers, “Please don’t dude. Please!” stun gunning, beating, and holding Thomas down.
Kelly Thomas’ last captured words were, “Help me.”
Ramos faces 4 to 15 years if convicted (depending on the count). Cicinelli and Wolfe face four years if convicted.