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

The Fullerton Police Department Are the Bullies In Blue

It has been three years, but the shape of the bloodstain on the street is still seared in Eddie Quiñonez's mind. Just after dusk on Labor Day 2008, two officers with the Riverside Police Department fired four bullets into his father. "My dad was a big dude, maybe 300 pounds," Quiñonez, now 27, recalls. "He basically died there, right there on the street. You could see the blood from where they dragged him."

Police reports say Quiñonez's father was holding a shotgun and that, at one point, it looked like he was starting to raise it. "They didn't warn him. They just started to shoot," Quiñonez says. A community police commission, provided with information solely from the Riverside Police Department and no testimony from the Quiñonez family, eventually cleared the cops of any wrongdoing.

Ever since then, the sight of police makes the heavy-eyed, soft-voiced Quiñonez "claustrophobic"; whenever possible, he avoids them. And that's precisely what he tried to do on June 27, 2010. The Anaheim resident was in downtown Fullerton for the night, hanging out with friends in the area's vibrant bar scene. Just before 2 a.m., he stepped out of Ziings' Bistro & Bar to take a couple of drags off a cigarette when he saw police pull over a man driving a car with hydraulics. He was about 20 feet away and remembers making a comment in passing, but not exactly what he said.

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.
Councilman Bruce Whitaker has said that much of the info the PD initially released about the Thomas case turned out to be false, calling it "a cover-up of a sort."
Miguel Vasconcellos
Councilman Bruce Whitaker has said that much of the info the PD initially released about the Thomas case turned out to be false, calling it "a cover-up of a sort."
On Oct. 20, 2010, while meaning to do a search of a probationer's home, a Fullerton PD narcotics team mistakenly raided Robyn Nordell's home
Miguel Vasconcellos
On Oct. 20, 2010, while meaning to do a search of a probationer's home, a Fullerton PD narcotics team mistakenly raided Robyn Nordell's home

Almost immediately, Officer Kenton Hampton barreled toward him. "Hey, you," he yelled at Quiñonez. "Shut the eff up. Don't interfere with my investigation."

"Your people shot my dad," Quiñonez snapped back, asking Hampton to keep his distance. The comment angered Hampton, who got uncomfortably close to Quiñonez, grabbed his left wrist, yanked it behind his back and handcuffed him.

"What are you arresting me for?" Quiñonez asked.

Hampton paused for a few seconds and announced in a mocking tone that he'd arrested Quiñonez for being drunk in public. Since he hadn't had a drink all night, he asked to be given a Breathalyzer test; the officer refused. Hampton then grabbed Quiñonez's head, slammed it against a wall, applied pressure to his head for several seconds with his elbow, then shoved him into the cruiser and drove to the department's headquarters.

Quiñonez languished in the city's jail, innocent of any crime, for four hours before being transported to St. Jude's Medical Center with head pain. Tests taken there showed there was no alcohol in Quiñonez's system, and the district attorney's office didn't file any charges against him. The next day, he made a citizen's complaint, which went ignored. "They shouldn't get away with that. I didn't want [Hampton] to think he could do it again," he says.

Yet Hampton faced no discipline.

Four months later, Veth Mam was standing off to the side of a brawl in downtown Fullerton, recording it with his cell phone. Hampton spotted him, knocked the cell phone from his hand, threw him to the ground, kneed him, and then arrested Mam for assault and battery of a police officer and resisting arrest. "Bottom line is that these officers got together and falsified a police report," Garo Mardirossian told the local media. Mardirossian is the attorney who's representing Mam and Quiñonez in civil lawsuits against the city. "There was a conspiracy . . . to write in there that Mr. Mam jumped on one of their backs and tried to choke him, when all of them knew that was a lie."

Mam, who spent two nights in jail, told KTLA-TV Channel 5 that he has been uneasy ever since. "Now when I drive, I look back," he says. "If I see a cop, I get paranoid."

Mam's case went to trial in July, and thanks to a video that contradicted the police report, an Orange County Superior Court jury found him not guilty of all charges.

Yet Hampton faced no discipline.

The trial concluded just a couple of days after another Hampton-involved case of police brutality, one with a fatal conclusion. On July 5, he and five other police officers responded to a call that someone was trying to break into cars at the Fullerton Transportation Center. Once there, the officers encountered Kelly Thomas, a scrawny homeless man with a history of mental problems who was well-known among downtown Fullerton residents and business owners. As with Quiñonez and Mam, the department manhandled Thomas—but took the assault even further, beating Thomas to death. Two officers currently face criminal charges in the case: Manuel Ramos for second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and Corporal Jay Cicinelli for involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force. Although the district attorney didn't charge Hampton for his involvement, Quiñonez, who witnessed Thomas' beating, says he saw Hampton punch and knee the victim's head and body.

Thomas' killing has brought worldwide attention and condemnation to the Fullerton Police Department. It has sparked dozens of rallies involving hundreds of protesters; spurred a recall campaign against council members F. Dick Jones, Pat McKinley (the city's former police chief) and Don Bankhead (a longtime Fullerton police officer) for their silence on the matter; prompted countywide soul-searching on how to deal with homeless people; and raised the question of how the police force could have strayed so far from its mission of protecting Fullerton from the bad guys. But for residents who have dealt with the city's force for generations, the Thomas killing wasn't surprising at all. The beating and subsequent cover-up were just business as usual—except this time, a rogue department, after years of citizen harassment, intimidation and abuse, is finally getting its deserved day in the spotlight.

*     *     *

The 107-year-old Fullerton Police Department employs 145 sworn officers and serves the city's 135,000 residents from its home base: a beautiful, red-roofed, whitewashed Spanish Revival building with arched windows and a faux bell tower. It's directly across the street from Fullerton City Hall, near downtown, not far from the wealthy neighborhoods, Korean megachurches, crumbling apartment complexes, and many colleges and universities that characterize Fullerton.

But the setting belies a department that has long courted controversy. During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan infiltrated the officer ranks, joining forces with a Klan-majority council to try to run the town for the Invisible Empire. This racist legacy influenced the department for generations, as the city fathers used the squad to enforce segregation laws that limited Mexican and African-American residents to across the tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad—conveniently just down Highland Avenue from the police headquarters.

For decades, the department's heavy hand mostly confined itself to this neighborhood, where the Fullerton Tokers Town gang has claimed its territory since the 1940s. Cholos were a convenient excuse for the police to run rampant in the name of security; in 1996, the random killing of 28-year-old Ramon Toro at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting led to Fullerton police raiding dozens of homes in a search for suspects, ripping apart mattresses and destroying furniture (see Nick Schou's "Fullerton Metal Jacket," March 29, 1996). They barged into an elderly woman's home and heaved her brain-damaged, semi-paralyzed son from the hospital bed in their living room, demanding answers about the shooting. When someone asked why the police treated them like dogs, an officer responded, "You live in this environment. You live with gang members, you'll always get treated this way."

At a community meeting a couple of weeks later, rather than apologize for the raids, then-Police Chief McKinley turned the tables on outraged community members. He had only headed the department for three years, taking the job after nearly 30 years as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, where he helped to form the nation's first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to crack down on the Black Panthers.

"Somebody in this room probably knows who fired the bullet that killed Ramon Toro," McKinley snarled to the stunned audience. "If someone could tell us who fired it, we wouldn't have to do something like that."

Two years later, police said they found Mike Mata dead in his jail cell after hanging himself. Mata had served time before, was macho and cared about what others thought of him, says his sister, Brenda, which is why the family still doesn't believe he committed suicide. Brenda thinks her brother mouthed off to the cops, who then beat him and staged the hanging.

Although the district attorney's office investigated and concluded there had been no foul play, evidence from the investigation still perplexes the family. There were bruises on Mata's body that no coroner's report explained. The department's own files noted that an inmate in a nearby cell told investigators he heard Mata make two phone calls to his girlfriend that day, asking for $50 to bail him out of jail. If he planned to kill himself, the family wonders, why would he make those calls?

They hired a detective, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, to look into the death, says Tino, Mata's brother; he told the family that jail surveillance video from that day was accidentally erased. "What a stroke of luck for them, right?" Tino asks. After months of struggling to find a lawyer and watching the process wear down their mother, they decided to drop the case and move on.

But, watching the community open up about their own allegations of wrongdoing after Thomas' death, Brenda says, has comforted her. "I just thank God that now He's shedding the light. It took a long time."

*     *     *

In 2003, the Fullerton Police Department made national headlines for a fart.

Four officers responded to a call that a woman had tried to commit suicide. Thinking she was unconscious, an officer squatted near the woman's face and ripped one, cracking, "This ought to wake her up." Another officer climbed into her bed and proceeded to air-lick her body, like a cat lapping up milk.

The woman, however, was conscious, and the matter made it before the Fullerton City Council. Police brass suspended the gassy and tongue-flicking officers for a week and a half, and the two other cops present (who stood by and did nothing) for a day and a half—but the event signaled the Fullerton cops were beyond busting up cholos and were spreading their tactics to the rest of the town.

They found their ideal stomping grounds in the city's historic downtown. What had once been a sleepy assortment of collectibles stores and antique shops set inside turn-of-the-century buildings turned into a bevy of bars, nightclubs and restaurants that attracted customers from the city and beyond. As with its longtime excuse to hassle residents in the city's barrios because of gangs, the police department used the specter of drunk coeds to apply blanket aggression to everyone.

"It was overkill," one downtown bar owner said (see Joel Beers' "The Town We—and Others—Drink In," Sept. 9, 2004). "Some bars wouldn't even call the police because one phone call about a drunk customer who refused to leave would result in six cars and 12 cops coming down and lining up in front of your business."

The following year, officers John Cross and Gregg Nowling approached a 23-year-old black man in the parking lot of the since-shuttered Rockin' Taco Cantina because they thought the music coming from his car stereo was too loud. The cops searched his car and didn't find anything, but they arrested him for giving them the wrong name. He eventually gave them his real name, and the officers saw that he had no prior arrests. They then took the man to the station, where they punched him in the back of the neck and repeatedly hurled racial slurs at him. Although Cross and Nowling were demoted for the incident, they weren't dismissed—that would happen only after Nowling lied to his superiors about being sick when he was actually on a hunting trip, while Cross was fired in 2007 for, among other things, not reporting a drunk off-duty sheriff's deputy who was brandishing his weapon at the popular cop hangout the Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen.

David Bailey, part-owner of Matador Cantina (site of the former Rockin' Taco) and a former Los Angeles police officer, says he has met with the Fullerton PD to talk about officer behavior in the area. "It's like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. You don't need to treat everybody like that all the time,'" Bailey says. He attributes the department's problems to a lack of leadership and addressing allegations. "The officers felt it was okay, in the Kelly Thomas beating, to do what they did in full view of a hi-resolution video camera. . . . That just goes to show they've done other things. You don't steal $100 from your employer out of the till until you've stolen a $1 and a $5 and maybe a $10 and a couple of $20s."

But it hasn't been just revelers and suspected gang members who receive the Fullerton PD's idea of justice. Reba Lewis, a 68-year-old retired accountant, says she has seen the cops try to justify or cover up wrongdoings with outright lies. The frail redhead was home alone prepping her home for Thanksgiving a year ago when she heard the doorbell ring. Five detectives stood on her front porch and began screaming that her adult son (who lives at home) was doing drugs and that her home of 40 years was a meth house.

"We're not cooking meth," Lewis recalls saying, her voice cracking now. "The only thing that cooks in my kitchen is sugar cookies. We just wanna be left alone, for God's sake."

But that didn't happen. Instead, the cops barged into her halfway-open garage and began searching it with no warrant and without Lewis' permission. The officers yanked open dresser drawers and rifled through them, Lewis says, adding that they found her son's wallet and took his driver's license.

The police did arrest Lewis' son for being under the influence of methamphetamines, but the case was quickly dismissed. Even still, the police haven't left the Lewises alone, periodically popping in with no warning. One time, she says, they claimed to be there for a code violation because they had heard somebody was sleeping in the garage.

Finally fed up with what she calls the "Gestapo," Lewis filed a complaint with the Fullerton police department this September, even after, she claims, an officer tried to talk her out of it. Later that day, one of the cops who illegally searched her house called her. He thanked her for inviting the police to "look around" her home, a move that flabbergasted her.

Lewis, who currently has a civil claim against the city for the search, says she's certain the officer was recording the conversation and trying to coax her into saying she let the officers search her home. The department denies any wrongdoing in this case, insisting Lewis did consent.

"They just came in and started searching," Lewis says. "I was so scared. I was by myself. Five of them and a 68-year-old lady, you know? Really brave."

A month before the police invaded the Lewis home, officers had barged into another. Robyn Nordell was typing on her computer when she noticed a group of men near an unlocked back door. Within seconds, four armed officers rushed in. After a few seconds, they realized they were in the wrong house. "I didn't know if they were good cops or bad cops," she says. "We could have been Tased; we could have been shot. That kind of thing could end in tragedy so very easily."

The cops apologized several times, Nordell says, and then went next door. She wanted to report the error immediately, but her husband suggested they wait until the following day. An officer told Nordell she could meet with the officers' supervisor on Monday, five days after the raid. "Twenty-four hours later, they hadn't responded," she says. "Even now, I get teary-eyed thinking about it. I just fell apart; I started sobbing."

That Monday, the Nordells met with Captain Kevin Hamilton (currently the acting police chief, as Chief Michael Sellers has been on paid medical leave since the Thomas killing), who treated the situation with respect and took "full responsibility." But Hamilton told them he had just heard about the raid that morning.

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.

*     *     *

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.'"

Mardirossian, who is also representing Ron Thomas in a civil lawsuit against Fullerton, says that in building the Thomas case, he has come across numerous other victims, including Quiñonez and Mam. "There's pattern and practice and a culture in that police department of bullying people," he says. "Instead of protecting and serving, [they're] now bullying and beating."

*     *     *

In September, U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford issued a scathing ruling against the Fullerton Police Department for allowing Officer Albert Rincon to stay on the job even after multiple allegations that he detained women, then either made sexual propositions to them, groped them, or did both. He never called for a female officer to help do pat-downs and habitually turned off his digital audio recorder during detentions. Both moves violated city policies, but Rincon's disciplining by superiors amounted to a course on what's "practical" in pat-downs and the importance of audio recorders, court documents show.

Two women filed a federal lawsuit against the Fullerton police, and the city sought to to have Guilford dismiss the case. That move, coupled with Rincon's light punishment didn't sit well with the judge. He called the city's handling "shocking," noting that it raised questions about the department's customs and practices around sexual assault. "Requiring Rincon to attend 'pat-down' training is weak sauce that does nothing to hide the unpleasant taste of complicity," Guilford—the presiding judge in the Mike Carona federal trial—wrote. "At the end of the day, the city put Rincon back onto the streets to continue arresting women despite a pattern of sexual-harassment allegations."

He added, "A reasonable juror could conclude, based on these facts, that the city simply did not care what officers did to women during arrest" and that such a blasé attitude "suggests a tacit authorization."

The ruling came a month after Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackaukas charged Ramos and Ciccinelli for their roles in Thomas' killing—the first time in Orange County history on-duty peace officers have been charged with murder. Together, the two developments put to rest claims by Fullerton police supporters that the department was clean and that protestors just didn't understand how difficult the job is.

Police work is hard and hardening, Ron Thomas admits, speaking of his days as a sheriff's deputy. "I saw every walk of life as criminals, so you trust no one," he says. "Everybody's bad, except my cop buddies."

Whitaker, like many Fullertonians, says he thinks most of the officers have good intentions, but the "bad apples" have gotten away with too much for too long.

"You're always going to have some outliers," he says. "You're going to have some people who will push the envelope a little bit. If they're dealt with properly, then you nip that in the bud and make sure we don't get to something like [Thomas' killing]."

As it stands, though, he fears the department has already lost the public's trust.

Brenda Mata says she doubts she'd call the local police if something happened to her in Fullerton. "I can't believe it's come to that," she says. "I used to always tell my kids, 'Tell the cops, 'Hi' and wave.

"After everything with my brother, I wanted to turn around and wave like this," she says, flipping her middle finger in the air.

The police department is "the tail that's wagging the dog," Matador Cantina owner Bailey says, and it'll take big steps to fix that. "They should just come out and fall on their sword and say, 'We screwed up. We see there's problems,'" he says.

Whitaker agrees, saying everything would need to be brought down to "bedrock" before they could rebuild. He has been looking into the logistics of disbanding the Fullerton Police Department and contracting out to the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

But considering the sheriff's department's own abysmal record, he's hardly comforted, he says. "We could be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire."

This article appeared in print as "The Bullies In Blue: Long before Fullerton police officers beat Kelly Thomas to death, the city's cops ran roughshod over anyone and everyone."

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