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

Bushala kept the heat on when Ackerman was investigated by Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas for alleged illegal lobbying of state legislators during California's proposed sale of the OC Fairgrounds. Freshly termed out of office, Ackerman had taken a position on the Fair's Board of Directors. State law barred him from lobbying legislators for one year after leaving office.

Although the DA cleared Ackerman of any wrongdoing, saying "his contact was not with state legislators," online investigative-news agency Voice of OC obtained detailed billing records several months later clearly showing Ackerman had had conversations with legislators from Orange County days before they voted to sell the state-owned fairgrounds. Multiple requests for an interview with Ackerman for this story went unanswered.

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

On July 11, 2011, Bushala strolled across the railroad tracks from his office on Walnut Street to the Fullerton Transportation Center, the mammoth metal-and-brick stop where Thomas had been beaten the previous week. Just a day earlier, doctors had taken the homeless man off life support. Bushala figured he might be able to find someone, perhaps even an eyewitness whom he might interview. Standing in front of the Slidebar Rock & Roll Kitchen, just next to the transportation center, was Ron Thomas, who was putting up fliers asking witnesses to come forward.

Bushala recognized Ron from news footage and introduced himself.

"Are you the guy who put the video of the city camera that caught the beating online?" Ron reportedly asked Bushala.

Bushala had posted the video three days earlier, with narration suggesting the camera might have captured the beating on tape.

"Here's this guy who's filming the city camera," Thomas recalls. "And he's trying to explain they have this clear view, and I'm thinking, 'I've gotta find this guy.'"

Seizing the opportunity, Thomas showed him a cell-phone image of his son in a hospital bed, connected to tubes, his swollen face resting on a bloodstained pillow. Bushala asked for a copy. Thomas agreed to think it over.

"He tried to explain to me about blogging," Thomas says. "I said, 'You know what? I'm in my 50s. I don't know about blogging.'"

Bushala says he explained the importance of the photo. "It was evidence of what they did to his son," he says. "The only way people are going to understand and realize the severity of the beatdown his son got from Fullerton police was to give me that photo."

Thomas eventually gave Bushala the image, which he posted on July 28, scooping media outlets from The Orange County Register to Britain's Daily Mail in the process. "Once we published the photo, it went viral," says Bushala. "That's when the light started shining on the event in Fullerton. I think that was one of the key elements to getting six cops off the street."

Indeed, publishing the photo seems to have motivated certain people within the Fullerton Police Department to leak to Bushala the identities of the officers who had beaten Thomas. "People inside the police department started calling anonymously, pointing us in the right direction," says Kiger. "That alone shows where the culture deep inside the police department has gone wrong. Even inside, people are sick of what's happening."

On July 23, Friends for Fullerton's Future posted a cell-phone video taken by a bystander that showed several cops standing over Thomas. The static buzz of the Taser is clearly audible in the tape, which, chillingly, ends with Thomas repeatedly moaning, "Dad! Dad!"

On Aug. 4, Bushala again scooped both the local and national mainstream media by revealing the identities of five of the six officers involved: Ramos, Jay Cicinelli, Kenton Hampton, Joseph Wolfe and James Blatney. Then, on Sept. 5, Friends for Fullerton's Future published photographs taken by a witness to the Thomas beating. The series of images, though blurry, clearly show light reflecting in a pool of blood at the feet of several officers.

Kiger, one of the most prolific bloggers on the Thomas story, recounts Bushala's tenacity in the days following the beating. "He was just out there all the time, trying to find out what happened," Kiger says. "At the time, the police had done a bunch of press releases saying, 'There's nothing to see here.' He knew there was more to the story. Obviously, we weren't going to get to the bottom of it reading police press releases."

Councilwoman Sharon Quirk-Silva publicly extended her condolences to the Thomas family, and Councilman Bruce Whitaker appeared on several webcasts and suggested the possibility of a cover-up. "The primary source [of information] for me was the [Friends for Fullerton's Future] blog," says Whitaker. "I think Tony's somebody who resents falsehood being promulgated, and he's seen where traditional media is falling short. He's like many entrepreneurs that get drawn into something different; he thought, 'Hey, I can do this better.'"

Unlike Whitaker, however, Councilman Pat McKinley, Fullerton's former police chief, remained largely mum about the event, except when defending the officers involved or denying the department had a history of excessive force, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (see Marisa Gerber's "Bullies In Blue," Nov. 24, 2011). Councilmen Don Bankhead (another former Fullerton officer) and Jones took similar positions from the dais. "They failed to lead Fullerton out of what was a crisis," says Bushala.

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