Reginald Thomas Jr. was clutching a fire extinguisher and reportedly had a knife under his arm when Pasadena police officers arrived at his girlfriend's East Orange Grove Avenue apartment. He was inside with her and two teenagers.
Six Pasadena officers would fight with the 35-year-old man. One officer, in the most detailed account yet, described in an interview with internal affairs a struggle in which Thomas was repeatedly shocked with stun guns, battered with batons, and punched and kicked in the head.
Officer Aaron Villacana said he hit Thomas with a “hammer fist” in the face twice so hard his hand broke. His colleagues were able to restrain Thomas, a man who by his family’s account struggled with mental illness. He died shortly after at Huntington Memorial Hospital.
More than a year after the Sept. 30, 2016, encounter that Villacana described as “hellacious,” the city of Pasadena settled a lawsuit by Thomas’ girlfriend and children for $1.5 million. But the case is far from over.
The Los Angeles district attorney's office is still reviewing whether the officers' conduct was criminal. An internal police investigation is still ongoing, though so far none of the officers have been disciplined, said city spokeswoman Lisa Derderian. An autopsy remains under seal at the behest of L.A. County sheriff's detectives who are investigating the deadly struggle.
Thomas’ death was the latest in a series of controversial killings involving black men and Pasadena police that spurred protests.
Caree Harper, the family attorney, said the officers killed Thomas and should face some level of criminal charges for using deadly force. His body was battered and bruised from “beating and kicking,” Harper said, noting that her expert witness found evidence of positional or restraint asphyxia and an illegal use of force.
Pasadena officials said in a statement that the settlement, which still needs a federal judge’s approval, is not an admission of liability or fault.
“Expert investigators determined that Thomas’ death was not caused by the use of force by police in their effort to restrain him, but rather by Thomas’ ingestion of lethal levels of illegal narcotics, including PCP and methamphetamine, which had caused his erratic behavior,” the statement said.
Harper said the city’s assertion about the cause of Thomas’ death is false.
Police received multiple 911 calls before responding to the home. One of the teenage relatives in the apartment in a 2:45 a.m. call told a police dispatcher to “hurry up” and that Thomas was on drugs with a knife and fire extinguisher near the front door.
In federal court documents filed in defense of the city and officers is the testimony of an expert witness for Thomas' family. Lawyers for officers and the city had sought to exclude the expert opinion from any trial and include it as an exhibit in the federal court record.
The expert’s report includes parts of the compelled statement of Villacana, the officer who struck Thomas. Such statements are rarely publicly available and cannot be used in the criminal inquiry. They are only for the internal department investigation as the officer is ordered to answer questions.
Villacana said that when he arrived Taser wires were already hanging from Thomas, who held the fire extinguisher at both ends while he screamed at the top of his lungs.
The officer said Thomas exhibited all the signs of excited delirium — a phenomenon frequently cited by officers related to drug usage, in which the person seems to possess super-human strength in resisting officers.
After the initial struggle, Thomas managed to close the door for a few seconds before six officers rammed their way back into the apartment.
"The fight at the door was so hellacious," recalled Villacana, according to the court document. Officers shocked Thomas several times with their stun guns.
As officers repeatedly hit Thomas with batons, Thomas grabbed Villacana’s baton, the officer said. "And we're at tug of war," Villacana said in the court document. "The only way to defend myself at that point and my fellow officers that were there … was to deliver two strikes, uh, kicks to the head to retrieve the baton.”
The officer said he realized at that point that other members of Thomas’s family were still in the apartment.
“She was yelling at me, ‘Why are you kicking him?’” according to Villacana’s account. The officer said Thomas appeared to try to bite him, so he delivered “two strikes to his face.… When punched down I just felt discomfort.” Villacana said he realized he had broken his hand.
Eventually, officers handcuffed Thomas and tied his ankles to stop him from kicking, Villacana said.
"As soon as that latch went on the handcuffs from the hobbled … I didn't hear screaming and yelling anymore,” Villacana said in the court document.
As Thomas’ head hung down, he lost consciousness and his pulse faded, so police unshackled him and an officer began CPR, according to Villacana’s account.
Roger Clark, a retired L.A. County sheriff’s lieutenant and police force expert for Thomas’ family, said in the report that Thomas showed signs of intoxication but was not aggressive.
Officers shocked Thomas 12 times in a minute, Clark said — far more frequently than national guidelines advise for Taser usage. He called the kicks and blows to Thomas’ head “out of policy, reckless and excessive.”