LOCAL L.A. Now

Kelly Thomas trial: Family, strangers recall violent encounters

Defense attorneys for two Fullerton police officers charged with beating a mentally ill homeless man to death went through six witnesses in less than an hour Thursday, many of whom recalled violent encounters with the man, Kelly Thomas.

Attorneys for former officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, who are charged in Thomas' 2011 death, have previously said they planned to present evidence to show Thomas was not the docile victim the public has been led to believe he was after video of the beating surfaced.

The 33-minute video, which shows officers repeatedly striking Thomas with batons and also using a Taser, caused an uproar in Fullerton. Thomas, a schizophrenic homeless man who was a well-known fixture in the city, died five days after he clashed with police July 5, 2011.

Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, Cicinelli iwith involuntary manslaughter and excessive force.

The prosecution rested its case Wednesday, a week and a half after the trial began.

Among the witnesses defense attorneys called to the stand Thursday were some of Thomas' own relatives, including his grandfather, Walter Dieball, who testified that in 1995, his grandson hit him over the head with a fireplace poker while he was watching television.

“I heard the fireplace tools rattling and I looked around and he had the poker in his hand and he hit me with it,” Dieball said.

Ramos’ attorney, John Barnett, asked Dieball if the poker was heavy, tapping his podium twice with a fireplace poker.

Dieball said it was.

An image of the fireplace poker taken after Kelly Thomas struck Dieball was projected onto a screen. It was bent.

Dieball said Thomas hit him another time on the head when he was on his knees attempting to get up and another time on the back as he fled into a room.

He told prosecutors he went into the room because it had a lock, a phone to call 911 and a gun for protection. Dieball, who was pushed to the stand in a wheelchair, wore a yellow ribbon worn by supporters of Thomas.

His mother, Cathy Thomas, said that in December 2010, her son grabbed her by the throat for several minutes.

“Did you previously testify that he held his hand on you for a couple of minutes on your neck?” said Barnett.

“Yes,” she said.

“And that you were yelling for him to stop?” Barnett said.

“Yes,” she replied.

Cathy Thomas, wearing a pin emblazoned with her son’s face and a yellow ribbon, said that after yelling at him to stop several times he finally let go. After the incident she sought a restraining order, asking that Kelly Thomas stay away from her house.

A man who asked Kelly Thomas to leave the site of a 2004 Christmas party because he was being disruptive told jurors the homeless man punched him on the chin.

In 2010, Samantha Pepin, who worked at a produce stand, said Kelly Thomas threw rocks at her after she told him to leave the area.

“He was throwing enormous rocks at me telling me he was going to kill me,” Pepin said. “He found a bar and was coming at me.”

Pepin said she chased him away with pepper spray and a machete. Kelly Thomas had fled into a fast-food restaurant bathroom by the time Anaheim police arrived.

He was placed under citizen's arrest after both incidents.

Testimony is expected to continue Monday morning in the case. Judge William Froeberg said the case would likely go to jurors for deliberation the first week of January.   

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adolfo.flores@latimes.com

Twitter: @AdolfoFlores3

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