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.
* * *
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.
"Jeanette said she was going to call the police," said Reeves. "I told her not to, that he would leave. He was just picking up cigarette butts and, like he'd always done, meander away. She said, 'No, he's breaking into cars. I'm going to call the police.' I said, 'No, he's not breaking into cars.'"
DeMarco then asked Reeves for the number to Fullerton police dispatch. He supplied it, she lit a cigarette, walked 5 feet away, to the other side of the entrance gate and made the deceitful call claiming she'd witnessed Thomas trying to break into cars. Nobody else was around, but the bouncer heard every word she uttered to the dispatcher.
"Jeanette made the phone call where she falsely accused [Thomas] of breaking into cars," said Reeves. "The police arrived within minutes. The police beat him to death. . . . I believe the phone call was made to make it sound like he was armed and dangerous—a man committing a crime."
That was Reeves' version of events, assertions that Dubin made him repeat over and over during the deposition. The lawyer asked if it were possible he'd mistaken the details of the night of Thomas' beating with another night. Without hesitation, the bouncer shook his head and replied, "No," according to a videotape of the interview.
"She was standing next to me, and we were both looking at the same vantage point of Kelly Thomas," said Reeves. "And that's why I believe it to have been a false police report."
Dubin pressed again, asking him if he'd change his story—if, in fact, DeMarco never stood beside him that night before calling police and if almost all the other key details didn't happen. The question visibly rocked Reeves. After a pause, he replied, "I don't know how to answer that."
* * *
On the night of Thomas' beating, Slidebar had two surveillance cameras posted in the vicinity of the restaurant's entrance: one behind and above the bouncer's station, and a second one near the roof. Reeves was not aware of the second camera, and according to his testimony, he underestimated the view range of the camera above his station.
Dubin, who worked in cooperation with Slidebar attorney Steven A. Fink during the deposition, handed the bouncer a photographic still from video taken in the minutes surrounding the call to police. The image undermined the crux of Reeves' story: that DeMarco had been standing with him watching Thomas, that they had discussed Thomas' conduct, and that he'd heard her call to the police. He studied the photograph—he is standing alone, with his manager nowhere in sight—and said, "Uh, I was always told our eye, our video, didn't go past the, um, didn't go out into the street."
Popoff's attorney asked Reeves if he would like to change his testimony if confronted with videotape of the events leading up to Thomas' killing. The bouncer didn't say a word. He licked his lips, turned toward his lawyer, Ryan Kroll with Solomon, Saltsman & Jamieson, and asked, "May I speak to my counsel?"
Dubin refused, and Reeves then complained he didn't understand the question.
"I'll represent to you that we have you on videotape during this alleged time that Kelly Thomas walks by and so forth," said Dubin. "Knowing that you're about to see that, is there anything you'd like to change about your sworn testimony given under penalty of perjury today?"
Reeves looked deflated. Long gone was his earlier confidence. With a solemn face, he explained, "If I'm on tape with anybody surrounding me, the traumatic event has caused me to forget."
Before Dubin could pounce, Kroll rescued his client by calling for a break. When the deposition resumed, the bouncer saw footage that eviscerated his version of events in several critical ways, including:
• DeMarco never stood next to him at the podium; the two couldn't have, as he insisted, watched Thomas together for six consecutive minutes before the call to Fullerton P.D.
• Contrary to Reeves' story, he couldn't have known what DeMarco observed about Thomas' activities in the parking lot or that she fabricated anything; while the bouncer was busy looking in the opposite direction from Thomas, dealing with arriving customers and chatting with co-workers, DeMarco is seen emerging not from inside the restaurant, but from the section of the parking lot where Thomas roamed.
• Thomas wasn't pacing back and forth, stopping only for discarded cigarette butts and to watch television, as Reeves claimed, but was rather zigzagging through rows of cars, as DeMarco reported.
• Given the substantial distance between himself and DeMarco when she emerged onscreen, already on her cell phone with police, Reeves couldn't have supplied her the number for dispatch, argued with her to not make the call or protested her action immediately afterward, as he claimed.
When Dubin was done showing him the videos, Reeves declared himself "confused." He then suggested the footage might not be genuine. But the attorney vouched "as an officer of the court" that the time-stamped videos documented the precise minutes leading up to Thomas' beating. He re-asked the bouncer if he wanted to match his story to the visual evidence.
"I'm sticking with my testimony," said Reeves, who also learned that phone records undermined his assertion that DeMarco had only made one call during the period. In fact, as Dubin pointed out, the manager had also called her husband from the parking lot when she observed Thomas.
Reeves eventually grew so frustrated with Dubin's dissection of his story that he accused him of being too confrontational, tossed his microphone on the table, and prematurely ended the deposition by walking out and refusing to return.
* * *
Reeves' credibility has issues other than the videos. In his lawsuit, he claims he was fired from Slidebar two months after the Thomas killing "in furtherance of a conspiracy between Popoff and his managers to prevent and dissuade anyone from providing information to law-enforcement agencies." Not only had the bouncer already spoken to the DA investigator before his firing, but also DeMarco had arranged the interview by supplying Reeves' contact information.
During the deposition, Dubin asked the bouncer, "Did anybody ever tell you not to speak to the DA?"
"No," replied Reeves, who was also interviewed by the FBI and, as in the interview with the DA, never claimed that DeMarco lied in her call to police.
In the lawsuit, the bouncer also insisted he immediately confronted DeMarco for filing a false report on the night of the incident and refused to remain silent with his co-workers in a noble act of honesty for Thomas' memory. But in his deposition, Reeves changed that story. He told Dubin he remained quiet for weeks because he didn't want to risk his job.
But according to Popoff and a state judge, Reeves' firing had nothing to do with Thomas. The bouncer violated company policy by allowing three inebriated women back inside the restaurant through a side entrance after a manager had ordered them tossed out; afterward, Reeves caused a scene in front of dining customers when he was involuntarily relieved of his shift.
In paperwork documenting his official firing the next day, Reeves confirmed the side-entrance incident and, in a section in which he was allowed to vent in his own writing, he had his first chance to document he was being fired because he refused to remain silent about DeMarco's police call. He declared at his deposition that he had exposed the retaliation in the paperwork. Dubin handed him a copy. Reeves reviewed it and admitted, "I was wrong." He'd omitted the central theme of his eventual lawsuit because, he explained, he'd been "flustered."
Still later, when he sought state unemployment benefits before filing his lawsuit, he didn't cite the call and retaliation then, either. During a telephonic appeal hearing of the denial of benefits, Reeves failed to tell a judge considering the merits of his firing about his alleged confrontation with DeMarco over the Thomas call. She upheld Popoff's declaration that the bouncer had been fired for "insubordination" over the side-entrance incident.
During the October 2012 deposition, Dubin asked Reeves why he didn't tell the unemployment judge he was fired for refusing Popoff's alleged anti-Thomas conspiracy-cover-up demands. "I was never given the opportunity to bring that up," he explained. "The judge wouldn't allow me."
Yet, according to an audio recording of the hearing obtained by the Weekly, Reeves had multiple opportunities to raise the Thomas incident as the cause of his dismissal—but didn't.
Instead, he spent all of his allotted time during the 24-minute hearing complaining he should have been allowed to override a manager's decision to boot the three drunken women and to argue with management in front of customers. The judge repeatedly asked him if he wanted to confront DeMarco, who was on the line, about any other issues. Each time, Reeves said, "No."
About seven months after his unemployment-benefits appeal failed, Reeves couldn't keep a job elsewhere. He found himself in what he admits is a "depressing" situation: living off handouts from relatives. That's when Reeves, who earned $12 per hour at Slidebar, filed his lawsuit demanding $4 million for lost wages and emotional distress.
After the disastrous deposition, Reeves' lawyers refused to back down. They filed an amended complaint that fixed several errors and added a new allegation: The fired bouncer is entitled to damages because he now claims Popoff twisted the ends of his handlebar mustache, and the trauma from that alleged contact is contributing to his emotional inability to work.
"It's gotten ridiculous," said Dubin. "The videos are beyond conclusive that his story is a complete fabrication. This lawsuit is completely frivolous, and there's no justification for keeping this [case] going."
Efforts to interview Reeves about the discrepancies between his story and the videos were not successful by press time.
* * *
On a recent afternoon at his restaurant, Popoff is still incredulous about what he sees as Reeves' ongoing sham lawsuit. The accomplished vocalist/guitar player for Lit was out of town touring with his band—prepping for the release of their first album since 2004—when the fired bouncer's lawyers sent an unexpected notice of their lawsuit plans.
"They attached a cover letter that said they were going to file a lawsuit if I didn't pay them money," he recalled. "I refused, and they've cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in business. If I were smarter, maybe I would have paid them to go away at the beginning."
Popoff—who'd been generous with the local homeless community prior to the police killing of Thomas by paying for meals and motel rooms—paused and shook his head. "But I couldn't let them get away with what they are doing."