By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Last June, a 30-year-old security guard shocked Southern California by announcing he could prove a criminal conspiracy led to the fatal beating of a homeless, schizophrenic man by a group of Fullerton police cops on July 5, 2011. Michael Reeves filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court, and then held a press conference at his lawyers' Playa del Rey offices, where he told reporters he'd been fired as a front-door bouncer at Fullerton's Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen as wrongful retaliation for not agreeing to keep a dark secret about the death of Kelly Thomas. According to Reeves, Slidebar employees were aware of a standing order by owner Jeremy Popoff to do "anything necessary," including commit a crime, to lure police to the establishment in hopes of removing the often-unkempt, pesky Thomas from the nearby curbs and sidewalks, as well as the customers' parking lot.
Reeves claimed he witnessed Slidebar manager Jeanette DeMarco execute Popoff's alleged orders on the night of Thomas' beating when she called 911 and concocted a brazen lie—that Thomas was "breaking into cars" in the parking lot—to summon officers to the scene. What happened next will scar Fullerton for years to come. Within 50 yards of Slidebar's entrance, a group of cops savagely pummeled the unarmed, petite Thomas until the 37-year-old permanently lost consciousness. Then, the officers stood victorious over his bloody, mutilated body and demanded paramedics treat their minor scratches before they rendered life-saving measures to the victim.
Because police officials pretended the incident had been routine, news of the shocking death was tardy. Weeks later, Friends for Fullerton's Future, a blog run by local businessman Tony Bushala, published a photograph of Thomas' gruesomely disfigured, post-beating face. The photo helped spark international news coverage of the case and arguably the biggest public outrage Fullerton has ever witnessed. For months in late 2011 and early 2012, hundreds of placard-carrying citizens—from middle-school students to grannies—protested every weekend against police brutality outside the police department headquarters. The intensity of the anger prompted cops involved in the killing to go into hiding.
It was in that highly charged environment that Reeves unveiled his allegation that Slidebar was responsible for Thomas' demise, and, as one of his lawyers declared, "He was terminated for doing the right thing"—refusing to keep Popoff's secret. The assertion caused protesters to launch an anti-Slidebar campaign, with rallies designed to discourage potential patrons from entering the restaurant. One of the protesters' signs read, "Slimebar + Cops = Murder 1." According to Popoff, the hostile sentiments succeeded in wrecking the restaurant's popularity.
But if the campaign against Slidebar was well-intentioned, it was also, it turns out, misguided. The Weekly has learned that Reeves, a Huntington Beach resident, isn't a heroic casualty in the Thomas scandal. Evidence shows the former bouncer's story is a fiction of his imagination and a likely shameless attempt to capitalize on Thomas' tragic death with an unearned, multimillion-dollar windfall from a dubious lawsuit.
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Irvine's Eric J. Dubin is one of Orange County's best civil lawyers. Though he has routinely appeared on national-network news shows for his legal expertise, he doesn't always enjoy the celebrity status afforded to other, older (and, frankly, less skillful) members of the local bar. His accomplishments include defeating Robert Blake's high-priced legal team to win a $30 million judgment in the murder of the Hollywood actor's wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. The Michigan native who graduated from college in Arizona in 1988 also successfully sued Rose Hills Memorial Park in Los Angeles for botching funerals by losing corpses, then displaying the wrong ones to horrified, grieving family members.
In the legal showdown over the Slidebar's alleged role in the Thomas case, Reeves hired Solomon, Saltsman & Jamieson, an acclaimed firm known for representing Indian casinos and gambling interests, as well as obtaining state alcoholic-beverage licenses. The firm's top partners, Stephen Warren Solomon and Ralph B. Saltsman, are considered multitalented "super lawyers." They also produce a cable TV show, Cheap Eats, about affordable meals in LA.
Popoff chose Dubin, and he doesn't regret it. In the first three months of Reeves' lawsuit, the lawyer noted in court records, he found proof that the ex-bouncer's story, while loaded with seemingly supportive details, was "blatantly false" and a "possible extortion" attempt. "[Reeves] has created an entire lawsuit based on false statements and groundless legal theories [and] cut and past[ed] from blogs surrounding the highly publicized Kelly Thomas murder case," Dubin declared in a September 2012 filing.
The following month, Reeves—who cleaned up the bearded-biker look he maintained at Slidebar in exchange for a beige, buttoned-up shirt—sat for an eight-hour deposition in Dubin's office. For the first seven hours, he confidently answered questions about what happened during his shift the night Thomas was beaten and how he was retaliated against for not agreeing to cover up the restaurant's role in the death. His unambiguous story was this:
He arrived at Slidebar at 8 p.m., retrieved a driver's-license counter from DeMarco in the office inside the restaurant, then returned to the entrance to set up the podium at which he checked arriving customers' IDs. Within a minute, DeMarco came from the office and stood close beside him to his left. For the next six minutes, the two of them watched a shirtless Thomas pacing back and forth in front of Slidebar and picking up cigarette butts in the nearby parking lot. The homeless man was not zigzagging between vehicles, attempting to break into them or committing any crime. From the parking lot, Thomas stopped occasionally to watch the Slidebar's outdoor TVs. Nevertheless, the manager declared that she "was going to take care" of him.