A man in his late 50s with silver, slicked-back hair sits crosslegged on a drum stool cradling a cream-colored electric guitar. At a glance, he could pass for any other suburban dad paying for a guitar lesson on a Saturday afternoon, trying to recapture the memory of his youth. But when Ron Thomas plays the guitar, he's trying to recapture the memory of his son.
Last spring, he started taking lessons at Sam Ash in Westminster with the goal of perfecting one of his favorite rock & roll classics of the spandex era: Van Halen's 1978 radio hit "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love." Though he has heard the song hundreds of times, being able to play it perfectly is a different story.
He mutters to himself impatiently when he messes up. A couple of times, Thomas' fumbling fingers cause words of frustration to crack through his manicured, snow-white mustache.
"Aw, c'mon! Damn it, you got this," he says to himself. "One more time . . ."
Recently, he accepted an invitation to perform at the Action on Film International Film Festival this September in honor of the second annual Kelly Thomas award, named after his son for a select movie focused on justice, community and civil rights. Four years after Kelly died from being beaten by Fullerton police officers, it's still humbling for Thomas to see various organizations and people from all walks of life invested in keeping his son's memory alive. There was no way he could turn down the invitation. So here he is, practicing on a Saturday, trying to summon his inner Eddie Van Halen.
By the end of Thomas' lesson, the tips of his middle and ring fingers are raw and sore from the frets. He looks up at his teacher and holds his left hand in the shape of a peace sign, proudly revealing two budding calluses.
"I may not be John Lennon," Thomas says, "but when I die, the coroner will definitely know I was a right-handed guy who played guitar."
Unfortunately, he'll also be remembered for living every parent's worst nightmare. Two years after Fullerton police officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli were acquitted of brutally beating Kelly to death near a downtown bus station, he struggles to put his life back together. Only recently has Thomas, an avid collector of rare guitars, found the strength to pick up his instrument again. His love of music is also driven by the support he has gotten from various musicians who've written songs about Kelly and that bloody night in Fullerton.
Though not a day goes by when Thomas isn't devastated by his son's violent death, he consoles himself by remembering the special bond they shared through music: Both enjoyed playing guitar together, often for hours at a time.
"They would sit there all day sometimes, talking about music," says Kelly's younger brother, Kevin. "'Dad, I like that riff, show me this song, check this out'–that's how they talked to each other when they played. Like best friends."
Judging from the photos in Thomas' home, it's as if Kelly never grew up to endure his terrible fate. Childhood photos of Kelly are scattered through every room of Thomas' single-story house in Cypress. With his freckles and red hair, Kelly transforms from a toddler to an elementary-school kid to a teenager; the photos stop sometime around his early 20s. You can see his shiny locks in various stages of growth, including the longhaired-hippie look he sported during his time playing in a band and worshipping Metallica, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Grateful Dead.
On a small table, Thomas keeps one photo that reveals how Kelly ended up, a homeless man isolated by paranoid schizophrenia. Here, Kelly appears to be in his mid-30s, with scraggly clothes and his face covered by a bushy red beard, leaning against the white wall of the Fullerton train depot. He looked that way up until the night he was approached by police on suspicion of vandalizing cars in the parking lot near the Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen. An argument with officers on July 5, 2011, led to a violent altercation and savage beating from officers Ramos, Cicinelli and Joseph Wolfe that left Kelly with broken bones in his face and cracked ribs, choking to death on his own blood.
"The video, the audio, the image of my son's hands in the air, and then he gets beat down and killed," Thomas says. "If they can do that to him, then nobody stands a chance . . . nobody."
Thomas avoids being alone for too long with his thoughts of that terrible night. Thankfully, his three dachshunds–Rocky, Biscuit and Taffy– are ready to distract him the minute he walks through the door. "Where's my guard doggies?!" Thomas coos, stooping down to pet the rambunctious wiener dogs who are yapping, wagging their tails and jumping at his knees.
The house contains such man-cave essentials as a worn-in recliner parked in front of a giant flat-screen TV and a wooden humidor stuffed with fancy cigars. Squadrons of hand-painted remote-control planes dangle from the ceiling of his garage. And a painting of him on his boat at sunset hangs on a wall near the living room.
But his most precious possessions are hidden inside his closets. For years, he has collected rare, vintage guitars. His arsenal of more than a dozen guitars runs deep into the tens of thousands of dollars. Among the collection are a burgundy 1980 Gibson Les Paul, a rare late-'60s Fender D'Aquisto Elite, a gorgeous cherry-red Epiphone jazz guitar, even a '60s Japanese knock-off of a Fender Stratocaster that his great-uncle once played in Roy Rogers' backing band. The value that some of the guitars hold is more sentimental than monetary. He still has his first bass, an Electra four-string that his grandmother bought for him in 1969, shortly before he joined the U.S. army.
All of his shiny, well-preserved instruments are entombed in coffins lined with crushed velvet, waiting to be opened and admired. In his bedroom, he flips open the latches of a case holding an immaculate, gold pearl 60th-anniversary Fender Strat he bought as a present for himself just before Christmas last year.
"I saw it sitting at this guitar shop, up above on display, and the salesman goes, 'Yeah, I'm really thinking of getting this one. . . . I should be able to get it in another month,'" Thomas says with a smirk. "And I'm like, 'Well, I'm sorry 'cause I'm taking it now.'"
He also has the old Spanish acoustic guitar that Kelly used to jam on when the two would practice together. They'd learn countless pop and rock tunes by ear and out of various songbooks Thomas had lying around.
The divorced father of three already had experience helping to raise a disabled family member. Growing up in OC in the 1960s, Thomas was charged with caring for his younger brother Richie, who had cerebral palsy. This made him better equipped to care for Kelly, who started showing signs of mental illness in his 20s. At the very least, it made Thomas a lot more patient with his son. And Thomas' experience playing the ukulele, bass and guitar made him an ideal music teacher for Kelly.
Though Thomas did what he could to keep tabs on his oldest son, Kelly could be tough to handle as his mental illness intensified with age. Nasty fights between the two of them weren't uncommon when Thomas tried to make him stay, which, after the age of 18, he couldn't legally do. But music always managed to help patch things up. Thomas still remembers picking Kelly up from a board-and-care facility where, he says, his son occasionally chose to stay when he didn't want to live at home (though Kelly usually preferred to live "on his own or in nature"). Every so often, he'd take Kelly to big concerts, such as Boz Scaggs at the Greek Theatre or Bob Dylan at the El Rey.
Memories of those times feel like they were a lifetime ago to Thomas, who admits that the time he has spent trying to get justice for Kelly hasn't allowed him to fully mourn his son. "I still haven't grieved for my son because it's not over; my fight is not over," Thomas insists. "I need justice. But money from a civil trial isn't justice. To me, that's not justice. I'll never be okay with this–ever. It's not a money issue with me. But if I don't sue them, I'm basically telling them, 'No harm, no foul.'"
That drive has followed Thomas throughout his life–as a Vietnam vet, a former Orange County sheriff's deputy, even a black belt in jiu-jitsu (he actually holds the title of Sensei Ron). The tragedy further inspired him to tap into his role as a leader of the grassroots protest group Kelly's Army, which rallied regularly in front of the Fullerton police station.
The only thing missing from Thomas' protests was a suitable soundtrack.
In a steamy, cramped room at Bomb Shelter Rehearsal studios in Garden Grove, rapper Nu3tron (pronounced Neutron) is screaming hard enough to give himself an aneurysm. The muscles in his neck tighten, his face glistening with sweat, as he grips the mic with a clenched, tattooed fist and glares into a camera lens. Behind him, a husky drummer thwacks on the snare drum, as a guitarist and bassist join in with fat, explosive rhythms inspired by Rage Against the Machine. The band Capitol Kill's aggressive hip-hop groove and crunchy distortion roars behind Nu3tron's rhymes on their new single, simply titled "Kelly Thomas":
"It was July 10, 2011, and we got an angel in heaven/92 arrests, and he lost his breath/Begged for his life, and they hit him in the neck/Yelled for his dad, no one came to his aid/The cops went home and still got paid/A mother and a father put their son in a grave/Land of the free, home of the brave."
Like many who saw the verdict of the murder case read back in 2013, Nu3tron says his disgust with the legal system prompted him to write the song that led to his band being formed. "The song was already made before I met Ron; it just felt like destiny," Nu3tron says. "I always knew that with this album, I wanted to do something bigger than just a record, especially just some hip-hop record. I wanted everything to be bigger. From the music to the movement."
Currently, Capitol Kill are in the process of shooting a video for the song, which is also the lead single from their debut album, Uncle Sam's Pistol. Though the band is still new, Nu3tron has been around the OC hip-hop scene for years and toured multiple times across the country.
It was either fate or pure luck that a local radio show asked him to come on the air to talk about his song. The DJ happened to be a friend of Thomas' and told Nu3tron she'd like to introduce him to the father of the man he was singing about.
"To me, Ron's a superhero. If you look at this guy, he lost his son; he lost everything," he says. "He had a chance to take his [settlement] money and run; it was good enough for most people. But it's not about the money to him–it's about justice."
Thomas says the anger and descriptions of Kelly's murder made it hard to listen to the song. But he was impressed by it, regardless of how much it differs from his normal taste in music. "The lyrics just brought all of it back again for me. It was painful but also so humbling that he's talking about my son."
"Kelly Thomas" is the latest in a diverse array of tunes in a variety of genres–folk, country, rap, metal, rock and, of course, punk–inspired by Kelly's death.
Few bands are as outspoken about Kelly as the Adolescents. Last year, the legendary elder statesmen of OC punk released their seventh album, La Vendetta, the cover of which featured the cartoon depiction of a homeless man taking a baseball bat to a red piñata resembling Ramos' head. Tony Cadena's caustic vocals on the lead track, "A Dish Best Served Cold," portray violent scenes of a pack of coyotes stalking their helpless prey.
The video taken of Kelly's beating inspired Cadena, who is also a parent of a child with learning disabilities. "This is like David going up against Goliath," Cadena says. "And that's what I admire about Ron. He's not gonna stop. Many people in law enforcement are as concerned about what happened as we are. There's also a secretive 'we watch our own' kind of attitude that needs to break down. We should watch over everybody. Attacks on police are unacceptable, and attacks on civilians are also unacceptable."
In Thomas' battle for justice, help from the Adolescents has resulted in some of the greatest gestures Thomas has ever received. When they opened for the Offspring at the Pacific Amphitheatre in 2014, Thomas was invited to come out and introduce them in front of thousands of fans.
Some artists have found ways outside of music to communicate Kelly's story. Cherie Currie, former lead singer for '70s proto-punk girl group the Runaways, decided that instead of playing her axe in honor of Kelly, she'd pick up a chainsaw. Aside from being a solo artist in her own right, Currie went on to make a name for herself in the art world as a professional carver. One of her finest pieces to date was a bench she made in honor of Kelly that was carved primarily with a chainsaw. The backrest is carved into a beautifully stained and lacquered acoustic guitar, just like the one Kelly used to play with his father.
Currie included details such as finely carved birds, music notes and an open book (symbolizing Kelly's love of reading). It was one of the few pieces to cast a positive light on Kelly's memory. The bench, which took her about two weeks to make, was auctioned at the Fullerton art walk.
"I felt an amazing amount of gratitude that I could do something that beautiful," Currie says. "At the [art walk] event, I noticed a lot of the artwork there was very dark, and a lot of it was against the police department. What I loved about my piece was it was something of beauty and of hope. Because in the end, that's something that Kelly would've wanted."
Four years after Kelly's murder, the makeshift bus-station memorial referred to as Kelly's Corner is a scar covered in ribbons and photos and balloons and flowers. Thomas doesn't get a chance to visit it very often. For him, his son's memory doesn't end there. Thomas is still fighting; his civil case is coming up at the end of August. As a former member of law enforcement, he has been asked to help instruct sheriff's deputies in LA County and the LA Police Department in how to deal with the homeless and mentally ill. And he's mapping out plans to get in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to one day change the police officer's bill of rights, which prevents certain disciplinary information about officers to be made public.
His job also includes staying strong for his family and his supporters, which isn't always easy.
"What people don't know is I always went home alone. I always went home alone and cried for Kelly," he says, fighting back tears. "So I put on a big face, the leader of Kelly's Army protesting out there and getting all this stuff done, doing speeches, news interviews. People thought I just rode off into the sunset every day to fight more battles. No . . . not at all."
Thomas is preparing for the civil case to be one of the most brutal things he'll have to endure, with defense attorneys questioning his commitment to his son, challenging his credibility as a parent who should've done more to help him or forced him to live with him instead of wandering the streets. Among his supporters, there's always the need to be cautious of opportunist groups and individuals trying to use his notoriety to champion their own causes instead of gaining justice for Kelly.
It's times like these when the musicians around him feel as if they're the only people who truly understand the message he's trying to get out. "All the musicians I've met have been so supportive," Thomas says. "Because they have a whole different way of looking at things. They don't like being picked on. It's not about fighting the establishment. It's more about 'Hey let us all live.' But then, when you violate their comfort zone, they come out not in violence, but in song."
One of the most worrying things on Thomas' mind is trying to figure out what happens after this battle for justice is finally done. In life and in death, Kelly has been the driving force to keep Thomas going. When the last court case is over, that will be a tough reality to face. Even though playing music might not fully get his life back to normal, he says, it's a start. For the foreseeable future, when he finds himself alone with nothing but his thoughts, he'll try to make sure he has a guitar in his hands.
Now, on his lunch breaks from his day job as a corporate safety manager, Thomas enjoys wandering out to his Chevy Tahoe, popping open the driver's side door, digging out Kelly's old acoustic and practicing his Van Halen chops. Because when he promised he'd be ready to play that song for Kelly at the film festival in September, he meant it. When it comes to his son, he can still keep his promises and keep Kelly first in his heart. And as long as he's alive and strumming, no one can take that away from him.
Music for Hunger: Remembering Kelly Thomas, featuring Grimace, Play, Mega Fiasco, Nu3tron and Capitol Kill, C4mula, and more, at the Yost Theater, 307 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, (888) 862-9573; www.yosttheater.com. May 30, 8 p.m. $5; all proceeds benefit the homeless. All ages.