Orange County prosecutors charged two veteran Fullerton police officers in the death of a mentally ill homeless man, accusing them of a callous cascade of violence against Kelly Thomas as he begged for his life.
Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas on Wednesday said what began as routine questioning by police devolved into a “beating at the hands of an angry police officer,” with other officers eventually joining in. He stressed that Thomas did not provoke the attack and that all of his movements were purely defensive.
“This never had to happen,” Rackauckas said. “And it never should have happened.”
Rackauckas, a former paratrooper and judge, was unusually animated as he announced the charges, at one point raising his fists like a bar brawler to mimic the alleged actions of one officer.
His account of Thomas’ death was vivid and chilling, and inside his office, onlookers choked back tears and gasped at the details as he spoke. Outside, dozens of supporters of Thomas’ family watched on television monitors and erupted in an audible cheer as the charges were announced.
Officer Manuel Ramos, 37, a 10-year veteran, was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the beating death of Thomas, 37, at a bus depot. If convicted, Ramos could face a life prison term. He remained in jail Wednesday, with his bail set at $1 million, after his arraignment was delayed Wednesday.
It is extremely rare for an officer to face murder charges for actions on duty, and Rackauckas said he could not think of another such case in Orange County.
Rackauckas took the unusual step of attending Ramos’ first court appearance. At one point during the hearing, he invited Ron Thomas, who has led a crusade for justice for his son, to address the judge. After the hearing, the father expressed satisfaction that Ramos was facing serious criminal charges.
“He’s wearing handcuffs right now — which is great — for the murder of my son,” he said. “I hope the man is hurting, hurting inside.… I’m completely torn up, but I’m satisfied to an extent.”
A second officer, Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, 39, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force; Cicinelli faces a maximum prison term of four years. He pleaded not guilty, posted bail of $25,000 and was scheduled to be released from custody late Wednesday.
All told, six police officers with a combined 72 years on the force participated in the July 5 physical altercation at the Fullerton bus depot. Ramos was the first; according to Rackauckas’ account. Ramos stood over a frightened and disoriented Thomas and made a show of snapping on latex gloves.
“See my fists?” Ramos asked Thomas.
“Yeah,” Thomas replied. “What about them?”
“They are getting ready to f— you up.”
“Start punching, dude,” Thomas replied.
In the next nine minutes and 40 seconds, Thomas was tackled, hit with a baton, pinned to the ground, punched repeatedly in the ribs, kneed in the head, Tasered four times and then struck in the face with the Taser device eight times, Rackauckas said.
Any response from Thomas was “in self-defense, in pain and in panic,” Rackauckas said.
According to an 11-week investigation, Thomas initially struggled, his screams echoing across the parking lot: “I can’t breathe!” “I’m sorry, dude!” “OK, OK!” “Please!” “Dad, help me.” But, Rackauckas said, the beating continued even after Thomas stopped struggling and screaming, even after blood began pooling around his body.
Hospital records showed that Thomas suffered brain injuries, a shattered nose, a smashed cheekbone, broken ribs and internal bleeding. The cause of death, Rackauckas said, was “mechanical compression of the thorax,” basically being crushed and unable to breath. There were no traces of drugs or alcohol in his body. He died five days later after he was taken off life support.
Much of the evidence came from a recording device attached to Ramos’ uniform, which all Fullerton officers wear. The investigation also included 151 witness interviews, seven surveillance videos and two videos recorded by witnesses on their cellphones.
Ramos’ attorney, John D. Barnett, said the officer was doing his job under difficult conditions.
“Officer Ramos was confronted that evening with a non-compliant suspect with a history of violence,” said Barnett, who represented one of the Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King in 1991. “Officer Ramos had the responsibility and the duty to detain, restrain and arrest him.… This was an attempt to use less force, not more.”
Barnett contended that the charges would have a chilling effect on policing.
“Police officers who risk their lives daily … now have to be concerned with being charged in the courtroom for simply performing their duties,” Barnett said.
Cicinelli’s attorney did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Rackauckas was deliberate in pointing out that the case should not be viewed as a broad indictment of police in Orange County.
“In Orange County, we generally trust our law enforcement — and with good reason,” Rackauckas said. “I believe the law enforcement we have in Orange County is second to none.”
But he added that authorities must work to protect the covenant between the community and law enforcement — “including prosecuting police officers if they violate the law.”
Rackauckas cited numerous aspects of the case that made criminal charges inevitable. Thomas, who suffered from schizophrenia, was a well-known character in downtown Fullerton — indeed, Rackauckas said, Ramos knew Thomas from his patrols in the city.
The district attorney also said Thomas was clearly unarmed, non-combative and appeared confused by his interaction with police, who had been summoned to the depot to investigate reports of a man peering into car windows and pulling on the handles of parked cars.
Ramos repeatedly ordered Thomas to sit upright on a curb with his legs out straight and his hands on his knees. “I can’t do both,” Thomas told Ramos.
“Well, you’re going to have to learn real quick,” Ramos replied.
“It would be obvious to any reasonable observer that Kelly Thomas had cognitive issues and difficulty in following Ramos’ instructions,” Rackauckas said.
Rackauckas said the turning point in the confrontation came when Ramos threatened Thomas.
“He was going to hurt him for no apparent reason,” Rackauckas said.
The turning point for Cicinelli, the district attorney said, came when the officer — after using his Taser four times on Thomas, once near Thomas’ heart — began beating Thomas in the face with the device itself. Rackauckas called that behavior “gratuitous and unnecessary,” and noted that the investigation showed that Thomas offered no response to those blows, indicating that he was “down and seriously injured.”
“That is not ‘protecting and serving,’ ” the district attorney said.
Rackauckas said the four other officers were not charged largely because they did not witness the exchange between Ramos and Thomas and were unaware that Ramos had issued threats.
Times staff writers Nicole Santa Cruz and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.