As they boarded an Orange County transit bus the night of July 5, passengers recounted a disturbing story in graphic detail: A homeless man near the bus station was under attack by police officers.
“The cops are kicking this poor guy over there, all these cops,” one woman told the bus driver in a conversation captured on a grainy bus surveillance tape.
“He’s almost halfway dead,” another passenger told the driver. “They killed him.”
Exactly what happened that night has become the subject of anger and much speculation in the community.
Officers responding to reports of an attempted car break-in near the station confronted Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old schizophrenic homeless man who had become a fixture in downtown Fullerton.
Six officers fought with Thomas and Tasered him several times, according to witness accounts. He emerged severely beaten and in a coma. A photo taken of him at the hospital shows his face grotesquely swollen and covered with bruises and cuts. He died five days later after being removed from life support.
Now, both the FBI and the Orange County district attorney’s office are investigating, and the case has generated an emotional response from residents of the college town, who are demanding answers from the Police Department.
Suspicions about the incident have been heightened by two videos on which witnesses reacted to the police action. In one video taken by a bystander, Thomas can be heard screaming “Dad! Dad! Dad!” over the clicking sounds of the Taser.
“They’ve Tased him five times already,” a woman can be heard saying on the video. “That’s enough!”
“They’re freaking ruthless,” another man says, adding moments later: “I don’t know why they don’t just put cuffs on him and call it a night, instead of hitting him.”
Officials said there are other videos that have not been released, including some that might more directly capture what the officers did. Some Fullerton council members are demanding that those videos be released to the public, but the district attorney’s office has declined, citing fears of tainting potential witness testimony.
“It’s very important that if there is a trial, that the witnesses can testify what they saw as a witness, not what they saw on television or in the media,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, the district attorney’s chief of staff.
City Council members said they’ve fielded hundreds of calls and emails about the incident, some from people who live far away. On Saturday, 250 protesters stood outside the Fullerton Police Department, wearing T-shirts bearing Thomas’ name and holding signs condemning the police.
“There seems to be a general sense of outrage and fear,” said Councilman Bruce Whitaker, who called for all the videos to be released and all the officers involved to be placed on leave.
Police spokesman Sgt. Andrew Goodrich said two officers approached Thomas at the depot after receiving a report of someone trying to break into cars parked there. Thomas tried to run from the officers, who found items in his backpack that didn’t belong to him, Goodrich said, and the officers called for backup when Thomas resisted. The scene escalated as witnesses watched.
One eyewitness, Mark Turgeon, 42, who is also homeless, said he arrived at the scene to see Thomas face down on the sidewalk with one officer on top of him and another hitting him on the back of the head with a flashlight. More officers arrived and Tasered him multiple times, then hogtied him, he said. Turgeon also described seeing officers slamming Thomas’ face into the concrete after he was tied.
“They just beat and Tasered him until he stopped moving,” Turgeon said.
An initial autopsy did not determine cause of death, and coroner’s officials are waiting for additional test results.
The Fullerton Police Department has said it’s fully cooperating with investigators and is conducting an internal investigation. One of the officers involved was placed on administrative leave a few days after the incident. The remaining five were later reassigned to non-patrol duty, but late Tuesday they too were placed on administrative leave. The department has not released the names of the officers, although several names have circulated on local blogs.
Initially, police reported that two officers had suffered broken bones but later retracted the statement. Police are releasing few details about either the incident or the follow-up.
“I’m asking people, as hard as it is, to be patient and wait until the investigation is completed,” Goodrich said.
Fullerton Mayor F. Richard Jones and other city officials are urging the public to avoid a rush to judgment.
“It’s been nothing but spin and people screaming. It’s almost like a lynch mob.... It’s been fostered by people who don’t know all the facts,” he said.
But other officials said the case cries out for greater scrutiny.
Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, whose district includes Fullerton, called the federal Department of Justice’s civil rights division July 28 because he was concerned that witnesses were apprehensive about coming forward to talk to local authorities. He was told that the FBI had opened an investigation.
Nelson said that the incident makes him wonder about the culture of the Police Department. “How did we have someone on the force that thought this was in any way, shape or form going to end in anything but disaster?” he said.
Thomas’ family, led by his father, Ron, a former Orange County sheriff’s deputy, have launched a crusade against the city in search of answers. They’ve posted fliers near the bus station, asking witnesses to contact them, and have called on officials to put all of the officers involved behind bars.
Ron Thomas said an attorney representing the city had offered him a settlement of $900,000, although the family has not filed a suit. A city spokeswoman and the attorney, Bruce Praet, declined to comment.
Court records show that Thomas had racked up a number of criminal convictions over the years, most for petty offenses. In 1995, he was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.
But Cathy Thomas described her son as a bright, loving boy who opened doors for his mother and wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up so he could buy her a house. But after the onset of schizophrenia in his early 20s, he struggled, going on and off medication and on and off the streets, she said.
Thomas would periodically show up at his mother’s home in Placentia but wouldn’t say where he had been staying. She believed her son had been in Fullerton for five or six months.
“The police officers who patrol there would have known him. They knew Kelly, they knew he had mental problems, and yet they did this to him,” she said.
His parents and people who knew Thomas from Fullerton said he was still a gentle person. He lived a lot in the past, his mother said, often speaking about friends and incidents from his school days.
“He didn’t deserve this,” she said. “He didn’t deserve it at all.”
A makeshift memorial has been set up at the bus station, where sunflowers, heart-shaped balloons and signs surrounded a lamppost. Well-wishers, some of whom had never met Kelly, stop by to light candles and leave offerings for the man who died nearly a month ago.
“He was harmless,” said Amanda Hendrie, 22, who remembered that Thomas used to visit the Target store where she works. “You could tell that something was wrong, but it wasn’t a violent sort of disturbance.”
Los Angeles Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report