From his days as a record-setting, star high-school and college running back in Fullerton in the late '70s and early '80s, Tony Bushala learned that when the ball is put in your hands, you must charge forward regardless of large, menacing obstacles.
Nowadays, it's not defensive linemen aiming to tackle Bushala—a successful real-estate developer and owner of the feisty Friends for Fullerton's Future blog—but an infinitely more powerful opponent: angry cops.
Police officials have told him in writing to stop publishing critical, investigatory articles about the recent gruesome killing by officers of an unarmed, slightly built 37-year-old homeless man, Kelly Thomas. Not only has he refused, but he's also charging forward, determined to expose police corruption. "What the cops did to Kelly was just so wrong," he says. "We have to stand up and say, 'That stuff is not happening here.'"
Bushala is influencing increasing numbers of normally knee-jerk, pro-cop Orange County residents. On a perfect late-July Saturday, hundreds of people—businessmen, grandmothers, parents, lawyers, students, ex-cops, laborers, teachers, etc.—gave up their weekend pleasures to gather in front of the Fullerton Police Department (FPD). The protest was somber and, at times, angry.
Investigating an unconfirmed report of a man attempting to burglarize vehicles on July 3, six officers surrounded Thomas and beat him so savagely his face and head were grotesquely mutilated. They must have known (and, perhaps, didn't care) that this man suffered from schizophrenia because in recent years they'd repeatedly ticketed him for relatively minor issues such as urinating in public. While officers kicked and kneed him in the head, fired Tasers into his body, and struck him with their weapons, Thomas—lying on the concrete in a bloody mess—cried out the final three words of his existence: "Dad! Dad! Dad!"
Fullerton doesn't seem like a spot where a movement against police brutality would have a chance. It's a tranquil, middle-class city with gorgeous, tree-lined, hilly neighborhoods. Residents hold sharply conservative political views, attend church regularly and put "I support law enforcement" stickers on their car bumpers.
But in response to the Thomas killing, the July 30 protesters chanted and shouted, enticing drivers of passing vehicles to vigorously honk their horns in support. They also waved less-than-subtle placards: "Fullerton Police = Murder," "Justice for Kelly Thomas," "End Police Brutality," "Shame On the FPD 6," "No More Excessive Force," "Who Do You Call When Cops Murder?" "It's 'Protect and Serve,' Not 'Beat and Murder,'" "Kelly Thomas: Beaten to Death by Egotistical Merciless Cops," "Fuck the Police," "Police Are Not Above the Law," "FPD Employs Murder[er]s," "Guilty: Proof Is in the Beating," "Keep Crooked Cops Off Our Streets" and "I Support Police, But Not This Time."
Fullerton's ethical cops must be humiliated that six of their colleagues couldn't figure out how to subdue one 135-pound guy without literally crushing his face. Despite puzzling efforts by reporters at The Orange County Register to depict the incident as a "fight" or "tussle," it was neither. It was a vicious killing.
Nevertheless, the Thomas death would have never rocked the community if it weren't for Bushala. While the mainstream media steadfastly ignored the case, he and his blog team dug into the event. Bushala says he became a man on a mission the instant Ron Thomas, the victim's father, showed him cell-phone photographs of a wildly disfigured Kelly lying in a hospital bed in a police-induced fatal coma.
"I saw those pictures, and my jaw dropped," recalls Bushala. "I said, 'No way. That is sickening. What is wrong with these cops?'"
Believing residents needed to see the handiwork of their police officers, he asked Thomas—a former Orange County Sheriff's Department deputy—to release the photos to him for publication. Grieving terribly and unsure how to proceed, Thomas said "no" for weeks. Bushala persisted.
"I was trying to get Tony to go on a boating trip with me to the lake for a quick vacation," says Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, a longtime Bushala neighbor. "He kept saying he couldn't go until he got one thing done. Let me put it this way: Tony is a guy who likes to walk close to the flame. He was determined for the public to see a photograph of Kelly after the cops beat him to death."
Almost three weeks after the incident, Thomas realized the story of what he calls his son's "murder" was getting lost. He'd tried to get KABC-TV to show its viewers the image, and they refused, saying it was too disturbing. So he finally let Bushala publish the picture.
The move transformed a story that had minor, fading local interest—cops kill people on a regular basis in Southern California—and captured the attention of not just the national media, but also journalists overseas. Suddenly, Los Angeles-based TV-news crews arrived in Fullerton. KFI-AM's John and Ken, prominent talk-show hosts in LA, began devoting hours on-air exclusively to the topic.
"Because Tony exposed this, I'm getting angry, emotional emails from people all over the world," says Fullerton City Councilman Bruce Whitaker, who has called for a prompt, thorough probe. "The picture really struck a nerve."
The nightmare for the police department prompted its PR unit to inflate the injuries allegedly suffered by the cops involved in the incident and to disseminate false, inflammatory information about the deceased. When that failed, it attempted to muzzle Thomas by offering him $900,000 to settle the case before all the details are publicly known.
So far, FPD has lost the battle to squelch the story. Investigators in the Orange County district attorney's office, as well as FBI special agents, are now probing the incident. Susan Kang Schroeder, a spokeswoman for the DA's office, promised her agency will eventually make public its findings and could, if the facts support it, file criminal charges against the officers.
Bushala, however, isn't resting. He's now demanding authorities release the video recordings of a city camera that captured the incident. Several times during the protest, he got the crowd to join him in his chanting of "Release the video!"
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Though many protesters standing near Bushala were unaware of his identity, one woman approached and hugged him.
"Thank you so much, Tony," said Christine Walker, a self-identified Fullerton enthusiast who knew Kelly and described him as sweet. "Without you, none of this would have happened. You are a hero."
Bushala—sunburned and sweating from six hours of protest—pointed to the energetic protesters. "Those are the heroes," he said. "What's important is getting justice for Kelly. We have to hold the police accountable for what they did."
This column appeared in print as "Kelly's Heroes: Fullerton police savagely killed Kelly Thomas, and businessman/blogger Tony Bushala isn't letting anyone forget."