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Police killing of Kelly Thomas rattles Fullerton

by Amber Stephens Friday, Aug. 26, 2011 at 8:47 AM
amber.stephens@gmail.com

Thomas was a 37-year-old schizophrenic homeless man who died in a hospital after a violent July 5 run-in with Fullerton police next to the Fullerton Transportation Center. Police officers confronted Thomas after a call about an individual breaking into cars in downtown Fullerton. According to witness accounts, six officers used force against Thomas resulting in what appears to be a brutal beating at the hands of law enforcement. Thomas was taken off life support five days after the encounter. According to his family, Thomas battled with schizophrenia and he voluntarily drifted the streets of Fullerton and nearby cities. In the weeks following his tragic death, a community unites for justice.

   Jim Arambula was sitting at the bus stop at the Fullerton Transportation Center when two men in suits came up to him.

The men identified themselves as officials from the Orange County District Attorney’s office. They proceeded to question him about Kelly Thomas.

Thomas was a 37-year-old schizophrenic homeless man who died in a hospital after a violent July 5 run-in with Fullerton police next to the Fullerton Transportation Center.

Arambula told the DA officials he was not present during the incident but would see Thomas nearly everyday near the bus depot.

“He was harmless,” said Arambula when asked about Thomas’ demeanor.

The men took down his contact information and walked away.

Arambula, who stopped to look at the makeshift memorial for Thomas before he took the bus home on Aug. 9, said the questioning happened a few weeks after the incident.

The Orange County District Attorney investigates all officer-involved deaths. Most investigations take anywhere for six to nine months. Interviews are typically conducted with the officers involved, as well as on-scene and character witnesses. Along with any physical evidence gathered, it is then determined if criminal charges are warranted.

According to a Aug. 7 article in the Los Angeles Times, the six officers involved had not spoken to the District Attorney’s office up to that point.

At first, the story made only local news and raised concerns among residents. However, as weeks passed, it gained more coverage as more information started to surface.

A local blog, Friends for Fullerton’s Future, began to play a big role in the releasing of information about what may have happened that night.

The blog’s mission statement is in support of intelligent, responsible and accountable government. Most of the posts have a “tea party”-esque libertarian overtone and its authors have been known to try to rile up local politicians on matters such as use of taxpayer money, redevelopment, increased water rates and their claims of labor union influence over local government.

A photo posted by the blog showed a badly beaten, bruised and bloodied up Thomas that caught the attention of, not only local, but national news outlets as well.

Video taken by a bystander was released showing what appears to be Thomas’ last waking moments. He can be heard screaming “Dad! Dad!” as bystanders look on.

There was also a video taken by bus surveillance showing witnesses speaking to a bus driver about what they just saw. One of the witnesses tells the driver “They were kicking the s--t out of him.”

In the days that followed, anonymous law enforcement sources talked at length on KFI 640 AM talk radio about the incident. There were also demands for the city surveillance tape that captured the beating from overhead to be released to the public.

Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas’ father, was vocal to the media about the lack of cooperation he has experienced with the Fullerton Police Department in the weeks following his son’s death.

The case was handed over to the Orange County District Attorney two days before Thomas died. The FBI started to investigate incident at request of Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson.

On August 6, about 400 protesters demonstrated in front of the Fullerton Police Department. The crowd was mixed, consisting of community members both young and older. Two diametrically-opposed groups – the left-wing ANSWER LA and the right-wing Oathkeepers – both rallied in support for justice for Kelly Thomas.

Jeff Levine, a lifelong resident of Fullerton, attended the protest in support of Thomas. Levine lived on the streets himself up for a period of time until last year. He said he would see Thomas around the downtown area frequently.

“He was not the type to break into cars,” he said. “Kelly didn’t want anything from anybody. He would keep to himself and he wouldn’t bother anyone.”

Levine said while he himself was living on the streets, he would encounter police frequently. He said at times he was subject to random searches. He was also cited for unlawful camping in the city, just as Thomas was during his time on the streets.

He said he encountered at least one officers speculated to be involved, Officer Jay Cicinelli, in the past. Cicinelli worked for the Los Angeles Police Department and was shot six times while on duty just weeks after graduating from the academy in 1996. He lost his left eye, which now is a glass replacement. He has been with the Fullerton Police Department for 13 years.

Levin was not a witness the night of the incident, however he said the officer gave him an eerie vibe when he was face to face with him in the past.

“There was something about him, the way his gaze was with his real one eye and the other one made of glass,” he said. “I got the creeps just looking at him.”

Andy Anderson, a Cal State Fullerton graduate and organizer of the protest, has lived in downtown Fullerton for five years. He said he has seen the police presence in the city change over the time he’s lived in the city.

“I have seen the police step up their aggression and be disrespectful not just in downtown but all over the city,” he said.

Anderson said he wants those who were involved to be held accountable and he’d like to see change in the city as a whole. He said he wants Fullerton to feel like a safe place for everyone.

“I’ve always been a strong advocate for change on small level,” Anderson said. “If we speak out and tell our leaders that we refuse to let this happen then we can change the way things are handled from police procedures to getting a permanent homeless shelter built in Fullerton.”

He credits Tony Bushala, owner and founder of Friends for Fullerton’s Future blog, for bringing attention to Thomas’ case.

“If it weren’t for his blog releasing photos and video, I don’t think any of these protests would have the turn out they have been getting,” he said. “We are all thankful for him because we want to see to it that what happened that night won’t ever happen again in our city.”

Visit my blog The Other Side of the Tracksfor videos from protests and a timeline of events of this local tragedy that has made national news headlines.
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