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Is Tony Bushala OC's Newest Kingmaker?

The founder of Friends for Fullerton's Future blog says his war on bad government didn't start with the Kelly Thomas beating, and it's not over yet

Is Tony Bushala OC's Newest Kingmaker?

Tony Bushala first met Manuel Ramos more than 20 years ago when Bushala played drums with Teatro Cometa, a theater group that performed bilingual one-act plays in Fullerton in the late 1980s and early '90s. Ramos, who was about 10, was the son of one of the actresses; his uncle, Bushala's best friend at the time, directed the troupe. Occasionally, Ramos would sit quietly in the audience and watch rehearsals.

Bushala, now 53 and a millionaire many times over, eventually moved on from drumming to managing his father's extensive properties in Fullerton and elsewhere, becoming a real-estate developer and a vocal opponent of city government. In 2006, Bushala was riding his bicycle when he bumped into Ramos, who was now a hulking, overweight guy in his mid-30s, dressed in the uniform of the Fullerton Police Department.

Ramos was sitting in the driver's seat of his patrol car, which was parked in a lot near Highland Avenue, just north of downtown. Bushala approached the driver's-side window and introduced himself. Though Ramos recognized Bushala, he didn't seem particularly friendly. Without so much as shifting in his seat or stretching his mouth into a smile, he simply extended his hand.

Tony Bushala
John Gilhooley
Tony Bushala
Bushala protesting against police brutality
Marisa Gerber
Bushala protesting against police brutality

"I don't know if he was being a dick so much as he was just being a little lazy to not get out of the car," recalls Bushala. "You see somebody you know, you stand up and shake their hand."

Bushala quickly forgot the perceived slight and didn't think about Ramos again until early August 2011. On the evening of July 5, Fullerton cops had confronted Kelly Thomas, an unarmed homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia. Because Thomas didn't immediately comply with their commands, the officers Tased him repeatedly and beat him so badly he suffered a smashed cheek bone, a shattered nose and broken ribs. The first media outlet to publish a graphic photograph of Thomas in the hospital was Friends for Fullerton's Future (fullertonsfuture.org), a rollicking political blog that Bushala founded four years ago. The image of Thomas' lifeless, unrecognizably swollen face, half-hidden behind breathing tubes, would quickly be broadcast around the world. It had been taken by Thomas' father, Ron, a retired Orange County sheriff's deputy, just hours after the beating. His son was taken off life support on July 10.

Now, a month after the beating, Bushala was about to break another major story by giving the world the names of the six officers involved in the incident. Among them was Ramos, who had sparked the lethal confrontation by menacing Thomas, standing over him as he donned a pair of latex gloves, threateningly telling him, "These fists are ready to fuck you up."

Bushala says he took no pleasure in realizing Ramos' role in the beating. "His mother is my friend," he says. "I still like her. It was sad to know that it was Manny who was one of the cops who started the fight."

In the wake of the alleged murder, Fullerton police officials sought to downplay Thomas' death, suggesting (wrongly, as it turned out) that the victim had actually injured his attackers. Worse—to Bushala, at least—was the fact Fullerton's elected leaders seemed unconcerned. Through Bushala's determination to publicize the killing and name those responsible, Kelly Thomas' brutal death has become a fountain of universal outrage that has united everyone from left-wing Occupy activists to John and Ken radio-show fans in calls for justice.

Ron Thomas gave Bushala permission to publish the gruesome photograph. "I wanted people to know what was done to my son," Thomas says. "Tony convinced me it would definitely get out there. I had no idea it would go worldwide."

It might seem unlikely for a hyper-local blog such as Bushala's to break a nationwide story. But if anyone in Fullerton could be expected to take on such a story, it would be him. By the time Ramos and his partners assaulted Thomas, Bushala had already developed a reputation as a rabble-rouser whose revulsion for certain prominent local officials knew no bounds.

Bushala blames complacent city officials for allowing such abuses to happen. He is now almost-single-handedly financing an expensive recall effort aimed at the Fullerton City Council that has gathered nearly 18,000 signatures, well more than the 10,552 required by law. The recall election, which will be held concurrently with the statewide primary on June 5, will see 13 candidates, including Friends for Fullerton's Future bloggers Travis Kiger and Greg Seborn, vying for three possible seats on the council.

Bushala's critics call him a bully who used his substantial financial resources to fund narrow political attacks against his enemies. "If you're willing to spend the money, you can qualify almost anything for a ballot," says Larry Bennett, chairman of Protect Fullerton-Recall NO, which has made Bushala the central issue of its platform.

"Bushala will stop at nothing to win," says the group's website. "He's even used the tragic death of the homeless transient Kelly Thomas to advance his radical agenda of legalizing marijuana and disbanding the Fullerton Police Department."

An unabashed libertarian, Bushala doesn't deny his support for allowing ailing Californians to smoke marijuana, which has been legal in the state since 1996, nor does he deny his deep pockets have allowed him to have a strong voice in his community.

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