FULLERTON, CA — In 2011, a group of police officers brutally beat an unarmed homeless man to death on a street corner with clubs, fists, and repeated electric shocks. The story got national attention when the video of the attack showed the mentally ill man wailed for his father as police bludgeoned him mercilessly. The story reached its heartbreaking conclusion when a jury announced that the police officers who had been charged with his death would all walk away as free men. The frustrating story shows that even in the rare instances when police officers face criminal charges for their brutality, their position of power makes it incredibly easy for them to get away with murder. The only objection the Fullerton Police Department had with the behavior of their officers was their use of profanity.
The incident took place approximately two and a half years ago on a hot summer night in Fullerton. On July 5th, 2011, at approximately 8:30 p.m., police were investigating a report of parked cars that had been burglarized. Their efforts brought them near a bus station where they approached a shirtless “homeless-looking man” carrying a bag. That man was a local transient named Kelly Thomas, 37, who was always found downtown and suffered from schizophrenia.
Many officers of the department were familiar with Thomas, including Officer Manuel Ramos, who initiated contact with him on the street corner. Thomas was chronically homeless and had been the subject of police attention in the past. With his mental illness, he lived by sifting through garbage cans and sleeping on benches. But Thomas was not prone to violence, a department spokesperson later stated.
Police officers spent several minutes questioning Thomas. They asked him if he had drank alcohol that day, and about the contents of his bag. Thomas had an obviously hard time following basic commands and displayed a lot of cognitive issues.
Allegedly police believed that Thomas may have been the burglar, but did not attempt to handcuff him while he was seated, posing no threat. Instead, Officer Ramos turned away to fetch a pair of rubber gloves, then placed them on his hands, and leaned over Thomas to threaten him.
“See my fists, they’re going to f*** you up,” the officer menaced.
Thomas was soon on his feet and two officers closed on him with batons already raised in their hands. Thomas backed up and resisted when they tried to cuff him.
Things escalated swiftly. Thomas was violently taken to the ground. They wrestled with him and bludgeoned him with fists and batons. They called for backup.
More officers arrived and Thomas was attacked by an even greater force. The third officer on the scene, Jay Cicinelli, beat Thomas with the back of a taser and shocked him several times. They struck him in the back of the head with their elbows and a flashlight. Officer Joseph Wolfe joined in the fray by viciously striking Thomas with a baton while he lay helpless. Police hogtied him and slammed his face into concrete. A total of six officers participated in subduing him as he squirmed on the ground, confused and pleading for help.
A crowd gathered and gawked for the several long, agonizing minutes that police repeatedly beat and tasered Thomas until he was an unrecognizable bloody mess.
Audio of the incident captures Thomas’s voice desperately crying for his father and the distinctive sound of electric shocks repeatedly being used against him. “Dad! … Dad! … Dad! … Dad!…” the man wailed. He could be heard apologizing and saying he couldn’t breathe.
“Dad, they are killing me!” were among his last words. Eventually Thomas stopped moving.
Officers were recorded laughing with EMTs over Thomas’s listless body, next to the pool of blood shimmering in the streetlights.
“I got the end of my Taser and I probably–just probably smashed his face to hell,” Cicinelli bragged while Thomas lay unconscious. “I f**king beat him probably 20 times in the face with this Taser.”
A coverup began immediately as police confiscated cameras from witnesses of the assault. Police even went so far as to rip the film out of one female witness’s camera after the incident. But the theft of cameras would not keep the truth from being exposed, as a surveillance camera mounted to the bus station captured the confrontation and the violence.
After the beating, two of the officers reported injuries after the assault. When asked what parts of their bodies had been injured, Goodrich said, “It was more than just their fists,” but would not elaborate. The gang evidently had sore fists and sore elbows from hitting Thomas so many times.
Thomas suffered from severe head and neck injuries. He remained in a coma for five days and was was taken off life-support on July 10th.
“When I first walked into the hospital, I looked at what his mother described as my son … I didn’t recognize him,” said Ron Thomas, Kelly’s father.
“This is cold-blooded, aggravated murder,” he said, after reviewing the available witness testimony and video evidence. “My son was brutally beaten to death.” Thomas said that his son was probably off his medication and didn’t understand officers’ commands.
Ron Thomas — himself a retired sheriff’s deputy from Orange County — immediately took up his son’s cause, demanding accountability and raising awareness. At a Fullerton Town Council meeting the month after the killing, he stated, “I just wonder where my son’s rights went as a citizen. Where were his rights? Listen to my son beg those officers, ‘Please, please, God, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ And the last words of his life, ‘Dad! Dad!’ I want you to hear that for the rest of your life like I will.”
A report from NBC-4 News on July 27, 2011, stated that all but one of the offending officers were back on patrol at that time. As pressure mounted and national attention grew, the six were placed on paid administrative leave.
Mark Turgeon, who witnessed the struggle, said this in an interview days after the attack:
Well, when I came up here, I saw two cops on top of a homeless guy right here, that I know. They were pretty much beating him up, telling him to ‘stop resisting.’ And then more police came, and they started beating him with a flashlight in the back of his head. And he wasn’t moving around at all, but more came and they started tasering him. It was just a horrible sight.
The police were saying, ‘Quit resisting, quit moving, quit resisting arrest,’ you know, and the guy wasn’t moving. He had his arm in front of him and his head was down already, and he wasn’t moving at all. They just kept going.
They asked me to make a statement. No one else really wanted to. I told them, ‘You guys killed this guy. You murdered him.’ They said: ‘Well we don’t see it that way,’ but I saw the whole thing clear.
It was like a rampage. It was like a feeding frenzy. Like if you were to go watch National Geographic, where the wildebeest gets too close to the water, and the alligator—it was just terrible. It was completely out of line, completely uncalled for, completely too much force. It was brutal.
It didn’t seem like [the police] were angry but it seemed like they had a vengeance. And they were letting it out on him. It was erratic. It was like piranhas.
He wasn’t even moving, but he was yelling for his dad. ‘Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad!’ When he went silent, everything stopped finally.
Rare Criminal Charges
To the district attorney’s credit, the decision was made to charge 3 of the officers involved.
Officer Manuel Ramos, 39, was the original person in contact with Thomas and was the officer who put on gloves before administering a beatdown. He was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. He was the first policeman in Orange County history to be charged with murder for an on-duty incident.
Officer Jay Cicinelli, 41,who used the stun gun to jolt Thomas and then used it as weapon to hit him in the face, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and assault under color of authority.
Officer Joseph Wolfe, 37, was indicted by the Orange County grand jury on involuntary manslaughter and excessive-force charges a year after Ramos and Cicinelli were charged. Wolfe appeared on video striking Thomas repeatedly with a baton.
City officials grew incredulous with the D.A.’s decision. Councilman Pat McKinley — who is also the former police chief — gave this statement in a television interview: “When people say there were six people beating on one guy— You can’t get six people around one guy! You start hitting each other.”
A trial was conducted for Ramos and Cicinelli beginning in December 2013 in front of Superior Court Judge William Froeberg and a jury of twelve.
“The people’s view of this is Kelly Thomas was acting in self defense,” said Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. “We don’t expect our police officers to mistreat people because they don’t like them. Our laws don’t allow police to take a dislike to someone and then administer a punishment. It’s for police to gather the evidence, make the arrest, if necessary.” He added: “It’s one of the major differences between us and a police state.”
The attorneys representing the police made Kelly Thomas sound like a menacing figure who intimidated the police officers. They argued that Thomas was so aggressive that the first two officers had to call for backup so they didn’t “lose the fight.” Defense lawyer Michael Schwartz said that Thomas’s wounds were caused by him “overexerting” himself while compassionate police officers restrained him. Essentially, the Fullerton Police argued that Kelly Thomas killed himself.
Schwarz argued that his gruesome appearance in the hospital was exaggerated and mostly due to superficial wounds, and blamed his death on his heart, saying, “His heart couldn’t take it.” Pathologists, however, confirmed that Kelly’s enlarged heart was not part of the cause of death. There was also no signs of drugs in his body, despite the defense’s attempt to paint Thomas as a drug addict.
Schwartz added, “A tragedy? Yes. A crime? No. Sometimes tragedies happen in this world.”
The prosecution pressed on. “There’s no statement of arrest,” said Rackauckas. “He never tells Kelly Thomas he’s going to be arrested, as opposed to being f***ed up by the defendant’s fists.”
“(Kelly Thomas) was just trying to survive is all he was doing,” argued the district attorney. “Look at the kinds of things he was saying: ‘Please sir,’ ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘I can’t breathe.'”
Fullerton Police Officer Stephen Rubio testified in court on the behalf of the defense. He said that he had trained Cicinelli and Ramos, and that he watched the 33-minute surveillance video of Kelly Thomas’s death. He testified that the only “slight” violation of department policy that he witnessed was the use of profanity.
Prosecutors later brought in John Wilson, a FBI special agent who specialized in training and tactics. “I have problems with everything that happened after Ramos put the gloves on,” he testified, saying that after studying the case for 60 hours he was convinced the force used by police was “clearly” excessive.
Wilson stunned the courtroom when he suggested that the Fullerton Police started the fight and Thomas had a right to end it using any force necessary to protect himself — including lethal force. The comment drew hissing sounds from the department lackeys that filled the courtroom.
Operating As Trained
On January 13th, 2014, the jury reached its verdict after two days of deliberation. Ramos and Cicinelli were acquitted of all charges, drawing tears of joy from police officers and tears of anger from the Thomas family and their supporters. In light of this, the District Attorney dropped charges against Officer Joseph Wolfe as well.
“What this means is that all of us need to be very afraid now,” said Ron Thomas. “Its carte blanche for police officers everywhere to kill us, beat us, whatever they want. It has been proven right here today that they’ll get away with it.”
“I’m feeling horrible. You know, the injustice is just unbelievable,” he added. “Completely innocent on all counts — they brutally beat him to death, we’ve all seen that, but yet they’re innocent on all counts. Unreal.”
“I guess its legal to go out and kill,” said the victim’s mother, Cathy Thomas. “It breaks my heart. Part of me died that night with Kelly, part of me died that night, part of me died in court. I feel dead inside,” she said. “They got away with murdering my son.”
Defense attorney John Barnett’s comments might be interpreted as sarcastic if they came out of anyone else’s mouth: “These peace officers were doing their jobs. They were operating as they were trained.”
In regard to the burglary complaint, the only property recovered from Thomas was some discarded letters that he picked up out of a trash can.
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