The Fullerton Police Department Are the Bullies In Blue

Long before officers beat Kelly Thomas to death, the city's cops ran roughshod over anyone and everyone

Nordell couldn't believe it. "That was stunning," she says, "stunning that the people under him had not reported it."

Thanks to Nordell's persistence, everything was hammered out. At a council meeting this October, a year after the raid, Hamilton issued not only a humble apology to the Nordells, but also a department directive on how to avoid similar incidents in the future.

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Davis Barber/OC Weekly file photo
Ron Thomas, father of Kelly, has been at every city council meeting since Fullerton police officers beat his son to death.  He usually sits near the front so he can see every council member—and they can see him.
Miguel Vasconcellos
Ron Thomas, father of Kelly, has been at every city council meeting since Fullerton police officers beat his son to death. He usually sits near the front so he can see every council member—and they can see him.

On July 6, the day after the Kelly Thomas beating, Fullerton City Councilman Bruce Whitaker got a phone call from city manager Joe Felz, who relayed information from Sellers: Something bad had happened. In trying to "bring [a suspect] under control," the police had injured a man—but there were several other factors Whitaker needed to know. Thomas had "bolted" from the officers and "fought really viciously," leaving a couple of officers with "fairly significant" injuries. Police suspected Thomas was high on drugs "because he just fought with almost superhuman strength," Felz told Whitaker. And there was probable cause for the detainment: Thomas stole mail out of multiple mailboxes.

The only problem, though, was that information was full of lies: Thomas wasn't high, he didn't steal any mail, he put up almost no fight, and none of the officers was seriously injured. After he found that out, Whitaker made public claims of a deliberate police cover-up. "I think a certain level of wishful thinking that this would just go away may have led to this cover-up of a sort, or at least some sort of a plan that was agreed to, that even despite all physical evidence that it wasn't working, they just adhered to it," he says. "They've really stuck to that plan."

Whitaker already had a suspicion something was amiss with the Fullerton police. In April, 52-year-old Dean Francis Gochenour was found hanged in his jail cell. The Los Angeles Times quoted Captain Tim Kandler as saying there were "no apparent suspicious circumstances" in Gochenour's death. But Whitaker had heard through the grapevine that the officer who booked the inmate had had some type of exchange with the inmate. Whitaker also heard that as soon as the arresting officer found out Gochenour had hanged himself, he took his digital audio recorder off (which all Fullerton police officers wear on their belts, and are supposed to activate before any interaction with the public) and smashed it repeatedly against a stone wall to destroy its memory. Whitaker says he was "troubled greatly" by the allegations, adding that Felz eventually confirmed there was  "something unusual" and that someone had destroyed the voice recorder.

He asked for a tour of the city jail, which wasn't granted for months, not until Hamilton took over as interim chief in mid-August. Whitaker has asked the police department for any videotape that might show the area where Gochenour supposedly hanged himself, but, he says, requests have been "stonewalled." Fullerton Police Department spokesperson Andrew Goodrich says there's little anyone can say about the allegations because the investigation is ongoing, but added that the first person who found Gochenour definitely didn't destroy his recorder.

Although he asked for his resignation, Whitaker says, he thinks the "seeds of what we're dealing with now were planted before Sellers came along." And the paramilitary tactics McKinley instituted certainly haven't disappeared. This summer, Whitaker says he got a call from a flabbergasted friend, who told him she saw about two dozen officers pour out of their cars and ransack a baby shower in Lemon Park. The 5-acre, 65-year-old park is known for its spray pool for children and 12 Chicano murals, many painted in the 1970s with the blessing of the Fullerton Police Department. The officers made the crowd, mainly black and Latino men, lay face-forward "in the grass and dirt, with shotguns held at their backs for 45 minutes," Whitaker says. The officers said they were responding to a call that someone in the area had a weapon. The heavily armed hullabaloo resulted in a single arrest: one person on a warrant for a moving violation. Goodrich defends the officers' actions, saying the department takes allegations of someone having a gun very seriously and that Lemon Park is a "common place for gang activity."

By then, the department was in siege mentality after Thomas' death. But even weeks after the killing, the Fullerton Police Department continued its sketchy behavior. At a bus stop, a local attorney approached Ron Thomas, Kelly's father, to tell him he felt detectives had prodded him to pin wrongdoing on his son. Police found papers from the man's firm in Thomas' backpack, so they contacted him. The attorney told them he had thrown the papers away in a trashcan on a public sidewalk, meaning Kelly had every right to pick them up. Goodrich says a detective did call to ask about the letter in Thomas' possession, but, he contends, it was just a typical interview and there was no coaxing involved.

In the months since then, Ron's disbelief at such a digression by police officers has almost entirely disappeared. Now, he says, he realizes it was only a matter of time until the department's culture of abuse and tendency to "brutalize into submission" escalated to murder. Had he been less vocal and less active in finding other victims, he thinks the murder would have been swept under the rug. "They thought he was going to be a John Doe in the morgue," Ron says. "Or maybe they thought, 'We don't give a shit if he's got a family; we get away with everything that we do.'"

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