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.
"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."
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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.
"The blog is just a beacon to shine a light on people," he says. "The message is clear: We elected to you to represent the city of Fullerton. Not the police union, not the fire union. Unfortunately, it took the death of an unarmed man to wake people up."
* * *
Bushala is leaning forward over a long, picnic-style table in the rear of Stubrik's Steak House & Bar in downtown Fullerton, just a block from where the Thomas beating took place. The bar is filled with customers, and Bushala, who's drinking beer and eating steak, has to cup his hand over his ear to hear above the din. His cherubic face is sprinkled with salt-and-pepper whiskers. Dressed in a Dickie's-style worker's jacket and a plaid flannel shirt, he doesn't resemble someone whose net worth, which he refuses to divulge, is seven figures.
Born in Fullerton in 1958, Bushala attended Troy High School, where he excelled in sports, notably football, setting a record for most yards rushed in a season his senior year. He also played for Fullerton College; there, he was an all-conference running back in 1979. "I'd never go down by an arm tackle," he boasts.
Despite his family's fortune, Bushala spent countless hours washing dishes and busing tables in his father's restaurant, Orangefair, now a Tony Roma's, and provided minimum-wage grunt work—everything from cleaning toilets to painting walls—at his father's various properties.
After graduating from Cal State Fullerton, he went into teaching and coached the track team at Sunny Hills High School. Bushala married in 1993, and he and his wife moved into a modern, two-story house in a nice suburban neighborhood near Coyote Hills, where they raised three sons, who are now in their teens and early 20s. After separating from his wife in 2009, Bushala moved into a small Spanish Revival home in a working-class area claimed by the city's oldest gang, Fullerton Tokers Town. The house boasts a large back yard, complete with citrus trees and a chicken coop.
Until last year, Bushala also owned a sprawling swath of vacant land that he had purchased years earlier from the Union Pacific Railway. Using eminent domain, the Orange County Transit Authority (OCTA) seized the 8-acre property to make way for an extension of the Orange Line; Bushala walked away with $3.5 million from the deal. He also owns a two-story brick building just south of Commonwealth Avenue that he uses for his office; it is full of memorabilia from his father's restaurant, including a giant fiberglass fish, filing cabinets, computers and drafting tables.
Another building Bushala owns houses the Maverick Theater, an Art Deco-style venue for offbeat stage productions such as Night of the Living Dead and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. After dinner at Stubrik's, Bushala steps inside and walks past the ticket booth, eliciting nods and smiles from passing crew members. From backstage, he gently parts a curtain to reveal a cast of actors in medieval garb who are running through a dress rehearsal of The Legend of Robin Hood.
Given Bushala's extensive landholdings in Fullerton, it's no surprise that, over the years, he sought to build alliances with local politicians who might be able to help him cut through red tape at City Hall. "I was the guy who used to show up at cocktail parties with a $1,000 check," Bushala says.
He soon learned that money can't buy you love. Bushala became convinced the City Council was dominated by bureaucrats with no vision, such as Dick Jones, the council member who was mayor when Thomas died.
In 2007, a developer friend seeking to adapt a vacant mustard factory into residential housing had gone before the council with a set of plans. "The architect hired was a well-known architect for adaptive reuse projects," Bushala says. "Dick Jones looked at it and didn't like the design. Because he's a plastic surgeon, he said he knows what looks good. After that, I'm like, 'Oh, my God, there's no way in hell I'm going to sit and watch this guy get re-elected.'"
Instead, Bushala started Friends for Fullerton's Future, allowing him and his friends to post their concerns about city government, typically under pseudonyms, often about the most arcane topics: traffic cameras, water taxes, redevelopment policies. One of the first posts that went live on Oct. 24, 2008, featured a six-minute YouTube video showing Jones speaking at various meetings over the span of a year. In the first part of the clip, titled "Dr. Jones and His Monster," the councilman is blasting downtown club owners for their unruly clientele. By the end of the video, the flip-flopping Jones is urging the council to subsidize the same businesses with taxpayer money.
Blogger Travis Kiger, 32, a friend of Bushala who later became instrumental in Friends for Fullerton's Future's exposé of the Thomas beating, remembers seeing Bushala at a council meeting in 2008. "I saw him go up to the front, and he was calling something a boondoggle," Kiger says. "I said to myself, 'I like this guy.'"
Besides Jones, one of the blog's early targets was Dick Ackerman, a former Fullerton mayor and California state legislator who left office in 2008. Ackerman found himself caught in Bushala's cross-hairs in 2009 when his wife, Linda, unsuccessfully ran for state Assembly. The blog accused Ackerman, who lived in Irvine, of falsely claiming to rent a Fullerton home and subsequently changed their surname to "Hackerman."
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.
* * *
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.
Bushala wasn't alone in his frustration with McKinley, Bankhead and Jones. "McKinley, being a police chief for 16 years, knew exactly what was going on," says Ron Thomas, who also recounts a meeting he had with Jones immediately after his son's death. When he asked Jones for answers about what happened to Kelly, Thomas says Jones looked at him and said, "I have no clue what the police department does."
Adds Thomas, "If there were a city government and a mayor that cared, these officers wouldn't have been on the street. These three guys never cared."
The first major protest against the city's police and elected leaders took place on July 30; gathered across the street from the police station were about 250 people, a cross-section of society armed with signs reading, "Serve and Protect Not Beat and Neglect" and, "Lock 'em up for Murder." They were joined by almost all of Southern California's television and radio stations, finally covering what Friends for Fullerton's Future had been reporting for weeks.
The weekly protests and Friends for Fullerton's Future's ceaseless coverage produced results. On Aug. 11, 2011, Michael Sellers, then Fullerton's chief of police, retreated from the spotlight, claiming unspecified health problems; he retired on Feb. 18.
But the biggest bombshell came on Sept. 21, 2011, when Rackauckas filed homicide charges against Ramos, whom he charged with involuntarily manslaughter second-degree murder, and Cicinelli, for involuntary manslaughter and excessive force.
By then, however, Bushala had already moved from posting updates to the Thomas beating story to laying the groundwork for what quickly became a mission to unseat the majority of the five-member City Council. On the same day Sellers took his medical leave, Bushala filed paperwork creating the Committee Supporting the Recall of Pat McKinley, Don Bankhead and F. Richard "Dick" Jones. Publicly available campaign statements show Bushala and his older brother George have contributed $168,422 of their money to finance the effort.
On Aug. 19, just eight days after Bushala's recall effort went public, a group of law-enforcement unions—the Fullerton Police Officers Association, the Riverside Police Association, the Peace Officers Research Association and the Southern California Alliance of Law Enforcement—joined forces to fight the new committee. The group provided tens of thousands of dollars to fund the Protect Fullerton-Recall NO committee, which was formed by one of Bushala's favorite blogging targets, Ackerman, as well as Larry Bennett, a Fullerton planning commissioner.
Bennett claims Bushala is using the recall effort to advance his own narrow political interests as a would-be kingmaker. "Somebody who wants to spend that kind of money wants some quid pro quo in return, I believe," Bennett says. "He has a history of crossing swords with the city. He has a lot of property in town; there are code-enforcement issues that have been levied against the various properties. I think that part of it might be just to eliminate any hassle he might have from city staff moving forward."
"He's making things up," responds Bushala. "They've filed several complaints with the [California Fair Political Practices Commission]; I have hid absolutely nothing of my finances and timely filed all my paperwork." Bushala's voice increases in volume as he speaks. "He's made every claim in the world. Every time I write a check or do any political-action committee, it's all documented. He's trying to say I'm misleading people; he's full of it. He's full of himself."
On its website, the anti-recall campaign implies Bushala fleeced taxpayers thanks to the settlement he received from OCTA. Bushala points out that Ackerman represents the development firm St. Anton Partners, which, along with several other firms, applied for a subsidy from the redevelopment agency to develop a project in Fullerton's SOCO district. A city committee ranked St. Anton's project as sixth based on specific criteria, including availability of low-income housing.
"When it went to the City Council for a vote, [St. Anton Partners] got awarded $9.5 million," Bushala says. "So they went from sixth place to first, basically. I believe that happened because of the pressure with the recall, and Dick Ackerman has supported the three who are being recalled during their elections."
Bennett defends the council's decision to award the contract to St. Anton Partners, saying the initial ranking didn't properly weight the financial return on the investment. He claims that prior to the vote, a newly hired city manager re-evaluated the project's ranking. "So when they all came back and that [new] weighting was applied, the one unit that Dick Ackerman was pushing went up the list because you were getting a lot more units for a lot less subsidy," he says.
Bushala's supporters, including Whitaker, say his critics are misinformed. "Tony's foremost detractors seldom deal with facts when trying to be critical of his efforts," he says. "They attempt to vilify him in an emotional way. And I think that's a litmus test."
* * *
On an unseasonably hot afternoon, Bushala is walking through the transportation center. He stops by the Fullerton train station, a beige, Santa Fe-style building bisected by a breezeway that Bushala says he has spent nearly $491,000 faithfully restoring; $40,000 went to the city upfront to put the building on the National Register of Historic Places. The station houses a coffee shop run by his sister, as well as an office run by the attorney whose discarded junk mail was found in Thomas' backpack the night he was beaten. The building is just 100 yards south from the site of the beating.
Tony approaches the makeshift memorial adjacent to the infamous gutter; a streetlight blooms with potted flowers and is wrapped with strands of Christmas lights. There, he encounters a skinny transient who goes by the name Scooterman. Clad in a yellow T-shirt, jeans and a floppy fisherman's hat, the man says he knew Thomas as "Caveman"—because of his wooly appearance.
Describing the night of the beating, Scooterman says he saw officer Cicinelli arrive on the scene and calmly walk past officer Ramos, who was holding Thomas down. He believes Cicinelli intentionally positioned himself between a nearby camera and Thomas before he began bashing the schizophrenic man repeatedly in the head with his Taser.
"Cicinelli started doing his craftsmanship," Scooterman recalls. "What he was doing was so outlandish. I was saying 'What's going on? He's not even resisting.'"
Suddenly, a transient named Piso Flores approaches and interrupts the conversation.
"You know this guy?" he asks, pointing to the memorial. "Keep up the good work."
Flores grabs one of the potted flowers and asks if he can take it.
Scooterman shakes his head. "It was brought by the family," he responds. "But I'm not going to say you can't take it"
Flores begins to walk away with the flower.
"Nah, man, put it back," Bushala barks.
The transient turns, and the two stare each other down.
"I'm going to give it a good home, man," Flores says, puffing out his chest.
"Put it back," Bushala repeats. "It's not yours."
For a second, a conflict seems inevitable, then Scooterman quickly gets between them and tells Bushala not to worry about it. "That guy is known to cause trouble," he says.
Bushala watches Flores leave with the plant. He shakes his head, then starts to laugh. A Fullerton police cruiser rolls through the parking lot of the nearby train station. Scooterman eyes the car warily. The officer stops to make contact with a couple of men sleeping beside the platform. The police leave without incident.
"These cops are a lot more mild-mannered," Scooterman says. "They drive slower; they look calm. It's completely different. It's easier to be yourself. Before Kelly Thomas, we were scared."
This article appeared in print as "The House That Tony Built: Is Fullerton developer Tony Bushala the county's newest kingmaker?"
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