The parents of Kelly Thomas joined with supporters yesterday evening in Fullerton to mark a solemn anniversary. Five years have passed since Kelly’s fatal encounter with six Fullerton police officers at a downtown bus depot on July 5, 2011 forever changed the city. Angry protests filled the streets outside the police department’s headquarters, political recalls followed marathon city council meetings and a murder trial for ex-officers Manual Ramos and Jay Cicinelli ended in acquittal.
The gathering at Kelly’s Corner, a makeshift memorial marking the sight of the beating, gave old friends a chance to get reacquainted, none able to process how quickly five years had passed. Balloons, flowers and American flags decorated the light post at the bus depot. At its base, bags of chips, water bottles and clothing items were laid out for Fullerton’s homeless to take as needed. Volunteers Mary Sheldon and Leigh White helped set up tables with food and drinks for them with the help of others.
Cathy Thomas, Kelly’s mother, handed out yellow ribbon pins in loving memory of her son, who died five days after suffering injuries from the beating. The turnout of about fifty people warmed her heart. “I think it’s a great way to remember him to bring food and feed the less fortunate,” Cathy told the Weekly. “He’s in my heart every day. If he was still here, I would hug him so hard and never let him go.”
Ron Thomas, Kelly’s father, greeted people nearby while catching up with them. “I’m not a happy person. My son was murdered and I still grieve over that every day,” Ron said. Life after the 2014 criminal trial and civil settlement the following year has been rough. “It’s deflating knowing that there was no criminal justice at all, not even excessive force,” he says, noting the $4.9 million settlement in the civil case a “statement,” but little else. He’s not excited about the prospects for federal justice after an FBI contact told him that the report in open case had been finished a year ago only to collect dust.
Despite the bitter failures for justice, Ron continues Kelly’s legacy in positive directions. He most recently presented a “schizophrenia, homelessness and police brutality” workshop at UC Irvine’s “Reclaim Mental Health” weekend conference in May. Ron’s also been unanimously nominated to be on the board of the directors for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Orange County chapter. “He had just a big, beautiful smile,” Ron remembers of his son. “We played our guitars together a lot, and it was that father-son relationship I really miss.”
Ron shared an embrace with Stephen ‘Bax’ Baxter, an activist who found himself at odds on occasion with him “It’s the first time in Orange County history that any officer had been criminally charged,” Baxter says, reflecting on the beating. The Fullerton resident worked as an executive for a home health company before taking on the police after July 5, 2011. He tried to balance his passion for justice with work and marriage but couldn’t. The acquittals of Ramos and Cicinelli changed him. “I had faith in the legal system when I started this. I no longer do.”
Sharon Quirk-Silva, a former Fullerton councilwoman and mayor during those tumultuous times, also turned out for the memorial. “It was a huge shift in Fullerton from what was a sleepy, urban city to all of a sudden being in the middle of something not only tragic but horrific,” the current State Assembly candidate says. “It will always be something that people look at, and of course wish never happened, but have we learned anything from it?”
The question looms not just for Fullerton. The fifth anniversary of the Kelly Thomas beating is marked by another eerily similar tragedy in neighboring Anaheim, where Vincent Valenzuela III, a homeless man suffering from mental health conditions, remains in a coma after an encounter with police over the weekend. Ron brought the Valenzuela family with him during his speech to bring the gathering to a close. He told the crowd that he’d been late coming back from Los Angeles helping the family retain the legal services of Garo Mardirossian, an attorney who represented him during his trials.
“We’ve got to end this,” Ron told the gathering, before leading everyone in a moment of silence for his son. “We’ve got to end this police brutality.”