Kelly Thomas, OC Homicide No. 43: Cop Accused of Beating Homeless Man to Death

Kelly Thomas was beaten senseless by Fullerton Police officers on July 5, and he was taken off life support five days later.

With the district attorney's announcement Wednesday of a felony murder charge against one cop, Thomas can now be officially added to the Weekly's 2011 homicide count.

He is victim No. 43.

Based on the DA's account:

Around 8:23 p.m. on July 5, Fullerton Police dispatch received a report of a homeless man looking in car windows and pulling on vehicle handles in the Fullerton Transportation Center parking lot near East Santa Fe and South Pomona avenues.

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Dispatch sent Officer Joseph Wolfe and a second officer in a separate patrol vehicle to the scene at 8:34 p.m. The second cop was pulled off the call after Officer Manuel Ramos radioed in to say he was already in the area and would take the lead. Wolfe and Ramos arrived in separate police vehicles at 8:37 p.m.

Ramos and Wolfe confronted Thomas at the center's north bus entrance lane, detaining but not arresting him. Fullerton officers had past contact with the homeless man with mental issues. He was not viewed as a threat before, and on this night he was shirtless, wearing pants with no bulges and carrying a backpack. The officers did not pat him down for weapons.

The cops instructed Thomas to sit on the curb and asked to check his backpack. At 8:42 p.m., Thomas gave the backpack to Wolfe, who stepped to the rear of his patrol vehicle to review the contents while Ramos stayed with Thomas. 

Wolfe determined some mail in backpack belonged to someone other than Thomas. Meanwhile, Ramos, who was about two feet away from Thomas, ordered him to put his legs out straight and place his hands on his knees, instructions Thomas, who was bipolar and schizophrenic, had difficulty following the orders.

Ramos' instructions became increasingly aggressive. He stepped away from Thomas for a moment, walked over to Wolfe 15 feet away, said something to his colleague, and then returned to the homeless man, making a showing of putting on Latex gloves. With a hostile tone, he again ordered Thomas to sit with his hands on his knees and legs outstretched. Thomas would comply with the orders at first but then eventually move his arms behind him to lean on them.

As Wolfe twice called more officers to the scene--a total of six uniformed police ultimately surrounded Thomas--Ramos and Thomas engaged in the following exchange:

Fullterton Transportation Center
Fullterton Transportation Center
OCTA

Ramos: Put your hands on your fucking knees.

Thomas temporarily complied and then switched positions to be seated upright with his knees bent and his feet flat on the floor. Ramos again barked at Thomas to put his legs out straight and place his hands on his knees.

Thomas: Which is it, dude?
Ramos: Both!
Thomas: I can't do both.
Ramos: Well, you're going to have to learn real quick.

Thomas again tried to comply, but Ramos moved to the homeless man's left side, leaned over in a menacing manner and made two fists with his gloved hands, making a point of showing them to Thomas.

Ramos: Now, see my fists?
Thomas: Yeah. What about them?
Ramos: They are getting ready to fuck you up.
Thomas: Start punching, dude.
Ramos: If you don't fucking start listening.
Thomas: That sucks.
Ramos: Yeah.

Ramos stood back upright until Thomas put his hands behind him on the ground. Ramos then leaned over.

Ramos: Put your fucking hands on your knees.
Thomas: Which is it?

It was at that time, 8:52 p.m., that things would turn ugly. Thomas would take a beating and tasering that would last nine minutes and 40 seconds--until he was handcuffed, ankle retrained and motionless on the ground with six cops using their combined weight to pin him to the ground.

Before Thomas lost consciounsess, he struggled, yelled, and pleaded, "I can't breathe," "I'm sorry, dude," "Please," "Okay, okay," "Dad, dad," and "Dad, help me." He was scared shitless and severely bleeding, but the cops did not back off.

Here's how it went down:

Ramos grabbed Thomas' left arm. Thomas pulled his shoulder back to release Ramos' grip. Ramos reached Thomas' arm, but Thomas swept the officer's hand away with his own and stood up so that he was facing Ramos. The officer removed his baton and Thomas lifted his hands to chest-height, with his palms open in a defensive stance to block Ramos. Thomas began to back away but in no way assaulted Ramos

Wolfe then ran over, drew his baton and continued to approach Thomas as the homeless man backed away. Wolfe struck Thomas' left leg with his baton, and Ramos took a swing with his to the homeless man's left thigh, although it may not have hit.

Thomas turned and ran in front of one of the parked patrol vehicles. As Ramos chased directly after him, Wolfe ran the opposite direction around the back of the patrol vehicle and met Thomas and Ramos on the other side. A physical altercation began. Both officers tackled Thomas. Wolfe kneed and punched Thomas lying on the ground. Ramos punched Thomas several times in the left ribs, using his hands to hold Thomas' neck, and partially lying on Thomas to use his own body weight to pin the victim to the ground. The other officers then arrived.

Among the first was Fullerton Police Corporal Jay Cicinelli, at 8:54 p.m. With his two colleagues on top of Thomas, and Ramos' arm entangled with the homeless man's, Cicinelli kneed Thomas twice in the head. He tasered Thomas four times, three of these being "drive stuns" that last about five seconds and are directly applied to the skin. The fourth was a dart deployment where two darts connected to wires are ejected from the Taser to skin or clothing, and giving a 12-second jolt. Thomas screamed and yelled in pain.

Cicinelli also used the front end of his Taser to hit Thomas in the head and facial area eight times. Thomas made no audible sound while being hit with the Taser. The last hit from the Taser was the last strike to Thomas.

Officer Kenton Hampton arrived just after Cicinelli. While the other cops were struggling with Thomas, Hampton placed a handcuff around the homeless man's left wrist and assisted with putting hobbling ankle restraints on him. Hampton then used his bare hands to hold Thomas' legs down while the beating and tasering continued.

Two minutes after Cicinelli and Hampton's arrival, Fullerton Police Sergeant Kevin Craig rolled up. He would add his knee to Thomas' shoulder and back area to further minimize the homeless man's movement.

The sixth and final Fullerton Police officer, Corporal James Blatney, arrived at 8:57 p.m. He helped Hampton apply the ankle restraints and hold down Thomas' legs.

At 9 p.m., an ambulance and Fullerton Fire Department paramedics arrived. Thomas, who was having trouble breathing, arrived at St. Jude Hospital at 9:19 p.m. He was immediately transferred to UCI Medical Center, arriving there at 10:05 p.m.

He never regained consciousness. Suffering from brain injuries, facial fractures, rib fractures, and extensive bruising and abrasions--and with the agreement of his grief-stricken family--Thomas was taken off life support. He died at UCI Medical Center at 2 p.m. on July 10.

The death certificate from the county coroner lists the manner of death as homicide and the cause of death to be "anoxic encephalopathy with acute bronchopneumonia," (asphyxia) caused by "mechanical chest compression with blunt cranial-facial injuries sustained during physical altercation with law enforcement." The toxicology report shows that Thomas had no illicit drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of the incident.

The Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA) took over the Fullerton Police Department investigation of Thomas' beating three days before the homeless man died. On Wednesday, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced Ramos, 37 and a 10-year veteran of the Fullerton Police Department, has been charged with felony second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Currently held at Orange County Jail in lieu of $1 million bail, Ramos faces a maximum state prison sentence of 15 years to life.

The district attorney also announced that Cicinelli, 39 and a 12-year FPD veteran, has been charged with felony involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force. He's out of custody on $25,000 bail and faces four years in state prison if convicted.

Rackauckas said the evidence so far does not support criminal charges against: Wolfe, 36, and a 12-year FPD veteran; Hampton, 41, and a 5-year FPD veteran; Craig, 44, and a 15-year FPD veteran; and Blatney, 42, and an 18-year FPD veteran.


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Needless to say, Wednesday was a busy day at the OCDA. What follows on the next page are the statements the agency provided to the media.
 
September 21, 2011

OCDA CHARGES TWO FULLERTON POLICE OFFICERS FOR THE BEATING-DEATH OF 37-YEAR-OLD HOMELESS MAN

Ramos and Cicinelli at Wednesday afternoon's arraignment
Ramos and Cicinelli at Wednesday afternoon's arraignment
Pool photo by Paul Rodriguez/Orange County Register

SANTA ANA - Orange County District Attorney (OCDA) Tony

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas addresses the media Wednesday.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas addresses the media Wednesday.
Photo by R. Scott Moxley/OC Weekly

Thank you all for coming.

During the pendency of this investigation, we have heard over and over again the word "justice."  The public has been crying out for "justice for Kelly."  In order to make sure that "justice" was done, the Orange County District Attorney's Office was entrusted with the task of investigating this case and getting to the truth.

Since July 7th, we have been in pursuit of the truth as to all of the facts and circumstances of what happened on July 5th at the Fullerton bus depot.

Our Office took this responsibility faithfully and seriously.

We executed the task thoroughly and efficiently.

In Orange County, we generally trust our law enforcement - and with good reason.  I believe the law enforcement we have in Orange County is second to none.  My office works every day with police officers from 26 agencies who are dedicated, hard-working, and make daily sacrifices to protect and serve their communities.  We must do everything we can to make sure we protect that trust, including prosecuting police officers if they violate the law.

In our pursuit of the truth, the Orange County District Attorney's Office conducted a thorough investigation over the span of 11 weeks.  You will get a full, extensive list of all evidence considered - among which includes:

* video tapes including those from two cell phones, the surveillance video from the Fullerton Transportation Center poll camera, and bus camera videos;
*151 witnesses;
*police reports written by all involved Fullerton Police Department personnel;
*medical reports;
*examination of physical evidence such as batons and Tasers; and
* the Coroner's report.

We also conducted all relevant legal research to determine the applicable law in this case.

After considering all of the evidence in this case and applying it to the law, I am charging Officer Manuel Ramos with one felony count of second degree murder and one felony count of involuntary manslaughter. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 15 years to life in state prison.

Corporal Jay Cicinelli is charged with one felony count of involuntary manslaughter and one felony count of the use of excessive force.  If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of four years in state prison.

The biggest shame about this case is the fact that it could have been avoided. This never had to happen, and it never should have happened.

We are alleging the following facts to support the reasons for our charges: Ramos set in motion the events that led to the death of Kelly Thomas by committing an act that was dangerous to human life with conscious disregard for that life. His actions were reckless and created a high risk of death or great bodily injury, and a reasonable officer would know that acting the way Ramos did would create such a risk.

Cicinelli used excessive force when he assaulted and beat Kelly Thomas, acting recklessly, under the color of authority without lawful necessity.

At about 8:37 p.m. on July 5th, Ramos and Wolfe responded to the Fullerton bus depot in separate vehicles.  Ramos knew Kelly Thomas from prior contacts as a homeless person who hung out in the area, and he did not believe Kelly Thomas posed them any risk.  Kelly Thomas was shirtless with a backpack, wearing pants with no obvious bulges, and the officers did not think it was necessary to pat him down for weapons.

During the detention, Officer Wolfe stepped 10 to 15 feet away to the rear of his police vehicle to review the contents of the backpack while Ramos gave instructions to Kelly Thomas, who was sitting on the curb, from two feet away.

It was obvious that Kelly Thomas had difficulty following Ramos' directions to sit with his legs straight out and place his hands on his knees, and it would be obvious to any reasonable observer that Kelly Thomas had cognitive issues and difficulty in following Ramos' instructions.

After several minutes of increasingly-aggressive instructions, the bus depot video shows Ramos escalating the contact to a physical altercation.  It was 16 minutes from the initial time of contact to the beginning of the physical altercation and engagement in unlawful police conduct.

Ramos made a deliberate showing of putting on Latex gloves while he approached Kelly Thomas and stood over him. Ramos repeatedly instructed Kelly Thomas to sit with his hands on his knees and his legs outstretched.  Kelly Thomas would temporarily comply and then move his hands behind him in order to lean back on them, or bend his knees in a sitting position.

Ramos stood over Kelly Thomas threateningly as he put on a pair of Latex gloves.

He ordered, "Put your hands on your F-ing knees."

Ramos then leaned over Kelly Thomas in his menacing manner, made two fists with his gloves on, and lifted his fists to show Kelly Thomas as he said, "Now see my fists?  They are getting ready to F you up."

This declaration was a turning point - a defining moment.

Ramos was telling Kelly Thomas that this encounter had changed from a fairly routine police detention into an impending beating at the hands of an angry police officer.  By making this declaration of violence against Kelly Thomas, Ramos instilled in the victim a reasonable fear that his life was in danger by a police officer who wanted to use his fists to F him up.

Police officers have a right to use reasonable force in the performance of their lawful duties, but citizens have a right to self-defense - even against the police - if they are not using reasonable force in the performance of a lawful duty.

Ramos took this contact from a lawful detention to an unlawful use of excessive force when he lifted his fists and told Kelly Thomas that he was getting ready to F him up.

There followed a brief exchange of words as Kelly Thomas remained seated. Then Ramos grabbed Kelly Thomas by the back of the arm. Kelly Thomas pulled away, stood, and began stepping away from Ramos.

Then the baton came out. Kelly Thomas lifted his hands to chest-height with his palms open in a defensive stance. Ramos yelled at Kelly Thomas to "get on the ground."

Officer Wolfe ran over toward the altercation from behind the car.  The evidence does not indicate that Officer Wolfe knew the exchange that had taken place between Ramos and Kelly Thomas or that Ramos had threatened Kelly Thomas and was engaging in unlawful excessive force.

The physical altercation began as Ramos swung his baton and chased after Kelly Thomas.  Ramos punched Kelly Thomas several times in the left ribs after tackling him to the ground, using his hand to hold Kelly Thomas's neck, partially laying on Kelly Thomas to use his body weight to pin Kelly Thomas to the ground, and holding him for other officers responding to the call for help to use their physical force on Kelly Thomas.

Ramos caused Officer Wolfe to come to his rescue and apply force on Kelly Thomas including tackling him, kneeing him, punching him three or four times, and using his body weight.

Cicinelli arrived at the scene at 8:45 p.m.  He kneed Kelly Thomas twice in the head and used his Taser four times on Kelly Thomas, including three times as a "Drive stun" for approximately five seconds each.  The fourth was a dart deployment, in which two darts connected to wires were ejected from the Taser and affixed to Kelly Thomas for approximately 12 seconds. Kelly Thomas screamed and yelled in pain while being Tased.

Cicinelli used the front end of the Taser to hit Kelly Thomas in the head and facial area eight times while multiple officers pinned Kelly Thomas to the ground with their bodies.

All of this happened with no audible sounds from Kelly Thomas.

When Kelly Thomas did not scream in response to these blows, it should have indicated to Cicinelli that Kelly Thomas was down and seriously injured.

The rest of the police officers who arrived at the scene - Officer Hampton, Sergeant Craig, and Corporal Blatney - arrived later in response to the calls for assistance. The evidence does not show knowing-participation in an unlawful act on the part of these three officers. Thus, no charges are being filed against them at this time.

From what is visible on the video tape, Kelly Thomas' appeared to be acting in self-defense, in pain, and in panic.

Kelly Thomas' numerous pleas of "I can't breathe, I'm sorry, dad, help me," - to no avail.

Kelly Thomas' screams - to no avail.

Kelly Thomas not responding to repeated blows to the head - to no avail.

The growing pool of blood from Kelly Thomas as he became unresponsive - to no avail.
Ramos is charged with murder for recklessly creating the dangerous situation that placed Kelly Thomas' life in jeopardy and also creating a volatile situation for other responding officers.

We simply cannot accept that in our community it is within a police officer's right to place gloves on his hands, show his fists to a detainee, and threaten that he will F him up.

That is not protecting and serving.

Ramos had to know that he was creating a situation where Kelly Thomas feared for his life and was struggling to get away from an armed police officer who was going to F him up.  Ramos had to know other officers would come to his aid and Kelly Thomas was going to get hurt - badly hurt.

This conduct that I just described is unacceptable.

It falls far short of the professional, reasonable police conduct our community has every right to expect, and do receive from thousands of police officers who risk their lives for us every day in Orange County.

All people in this great country of ours have a constitutional right to be free from the imposition of unlawful and excessive force under the color of law.

That is the rule of law, and we will proceed to enforce it.

Thank you and I will now call on you to answer your questions.


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