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Fullerton officer charged with murder in Kelly Thomas death

Fullerton Police Department Officer Manuel Ramos (Left) and Corporal Jay Cicinelli (Right) in booking photos.
September 21, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
A Fullerton police officer has been charged with murder in the death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man who died following a confrontation with police in July.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas gave an explicit description of what happened the night of Thomas' beating at a press conference Wednesday morning.

Rackauckas said a wide array of evidence was used in this case, including video from cellphones, public surveillance and bus cameras, as well as interviews with 151 witnesses, police reports, medical reports and physical evidence.

After reviewing all the evidence, Officer Manuel Ramos, 37, was charged with one felony count of second-degree murder and one felony count of involuntary manslaughter. If convicted, Ramos faces 15 years to life in state prison.

Ramos did not enter a plea and was being held on $1 million bail. His arraignment was set for Monday.

Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, 39, was charged with one felony count of involuntary manslaughter and one felony count of using excessive force. If convicted, Cicinelli faces four years in state prison.

Cicinelli posted $25,000 bail and was scheduled to return to court in November.

In the D.A.'s moment-by-moment narrative, Thomas, 37, was described as being shirtless with a backpack on the night of July 5. He said Thomas' backpack did not have any obvious bulges, and the officers didn't think he needed to be patted down for weapons, indicating that they didn't view Thomas as a threat.

Rackauckas said Ramos was giving instructions to Thomas, and it was obvious that Thomas was having trouble understanding his orders, which were to sit on the ground with his legs stretched out and his hands on his knees. Rackauckas said surveillance video from the bus depot shows that Ramos' orders became increasingly aggressive, and the altercation became physical 15 minutes after initial contact.

The D.A. said Ramos made a deliberate showing of putting on latex gloves in front of Thomas and stood over him in a "very menacing manner." Ramos then balled his gloved hands into fists, lifted them over Thomas' face and said, "Now see my fists? They're getting ready to [expletive] you up."

Rackauckas even took out a pair of latex gloves and formed fists as he recounted the events. He said when Ramos made this declaration, the encounter "went from a fairly routine police detention to an impending beating by an angry police officer."

After more words were exchanged, Ramos grabbed Thomas near the arm. Thomas pulled away, stood up and began taking steps away from the officer. Ramos took out his baton, and Thomas put his hands up, palms open in a defensive stance. That's when Ramos swung his baton, chased down Thomas, tackled him to the ground and punched him several times in the ribs.

Rackauckas said Ramos held Thomas by the neck and pressed his body weight against him. He also said Ramos told the other officers to help hold him down.

When Cicinelli arrived at the scene, Rackauckas said he kneed Thomas twice in the head and used his Taser on him four times. The first three times were direct stuns lasting approximately five seconds. The fourth time was a dart deployment, where two darts connected to wires launched out of the gun and remained affixed to Thomas for about 12 seconds. Thomas screamed out in pain.

Rackauckas said Cicinelli then used the Taser gun to hit Thomas in the face eight times. This was all done while Thomas remained pinned to the ground by the weight of other officers. But this time, there were no more cries of pain - just silence.

Rackauckas indicated that the cause of death was asphyxiation, meaning the officers were on top of Thomas' chest and he couldn't breathe.

From video evidence, the D.A. said "Kelly Thomas appeared to be acting in self-defense, in pain and in a state of panic. His numerous pleas of 'I'm sorry,' 'I can't breathe,' 'Help dad' (were) all to no avail. Screams, loud screams, didn't help."

Thomas died five days later in a hospital.

As for the other officers involved, Rackauckas said the evidence does not show any knowing participation of unlawful acts on their part. They all remain on administrative leave.

Thomas' father, Ron Thomas, a former Orange County sheriff's deputy, said he was pleased with the charges but still suffers every day as a result of his son's death.

"That's exactly what I hoped for," he said of the charges. "It makes me feel fantastic that this is happening, it's the justice we need."

Ron Thomas has been vocal in calling for murder charges against the police officers involved. He also wants the mayor and other council members to step down.

"The three of them need to go. The mayor, [Councilman Don] Bankhead and [Councilman Pat] McKinley need to go. They haven't acted as leaders. They haven't said anything at all. They haven't come forward and done a thing. Only two of the council members have," Thomas said.

The FBI has launched an independent investigation to determine if officers violated Kelly's civil rights in the altercation.

The Los Angeles Office of Independent Review is also investigating the incident.

Ramos' attorney, John Barnett, said in a statement that his client was simply doing his job.

"Officer Ramos did what he was trained to do and he committed no crime," Barnett wrote. "He was confronted with a suspect who was combative and refused to comply with his lawful order. He was non-compliant, resisted and set these tragic events in motion. To charge a peace officer with murder under these circumstances is unprecedented and just wrong."

Fullerton's acting chief of police, Kevin Hamilton, addressed members of the news media in the afternoon.

"We respect the decision of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas," Hamilton said, adding that his department was fully cooperating with the D.A.'s office.

"This has been a tragic event for Kelly Thomas, the Thomas family, the community, the police department and for all of those involved," Hamilton said.


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