An emotionally powerful video of the last moments in the conscious life of mentally ill Fullerton transient Kelly Thomas was the key evidence presented Monday at the preliminary hearing for two Fullerton police officers charged with multiple felonies — including one charge of murder — in Thomas' death.
The video, presented to a packed courtroom, shows the bare-chested, 37-year-old screaming over and over for his father and crying out that he can’t breathe as the officers beat him outside the Fullerton bus station on July 5, 2011.
Among the courtroom audience members was Thomas’ father, Ron Thomas, who leaned slightly forward in his courtroom chair, intently watching the video.
Thomas died on July 10 of suffocation and head injuries, according to the county coroner. Paramedics said he was unconscious and having trouble breathing when they arrived. He never regained consciousness.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas charged Officer Manuel Ramos with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Cpl. Jay Patrick Cicinelli was charged with involuntary manslaughter and felony use of excessive force. Four other officers involved in the beating were not charged.
The preliminary hearing is being held to determine whether there is enough evidence for the two officers to stand trial.
The video was created by combining silent footage from a camera at the bus station and audio from recorders worn by officers. It begins with several minutes of footage showing officers, who apparently knew Thomas to be a local transient, trying to get him to tell them his name.
Thomas suffered from severe, untreated schizophrenia, and in the video, some of his answers don't seem to respond to the questions. At one point, he tells Ramos and Officer Joseph Wolfe, the first two on the scene, that he doesn’t speak English. Then he talks about not knowing his name.
The first blow comes from Wolfe’s baton as Thomas appears to have his empty hands outspread and is backing away from the officers.
Loud gasps of “Oh!” came from several of the roughly 100 courtroom spectators, many of them supporters of the Thomas family, as the videos showed the first blows and Thomas was heard screaming, “I’m sorry Dude. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Officers can be heard telling Thomas to put his arms behind his back while he yells that he can’t breathe.
Courtroom staff stopped the video after more emotional reactions from spectators to police blows and screams for help from Thomas.
Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm told the audience that he understood the reasons for their reactions but that their behavior was “distracting to me.” He asked those who couldn’t watch without audibly reacting to leave the courtroom, and at least one woman did.
Thick leaves on a tree branch obscured sections of what happened when Thomas was on the ground. But his screams can be heard when a Taser is fired, and at another point his bare feet are seen thrashing in the air.
Toward the end, the printed transcript of the voice recordings quotes Kelly Thomas saying “Daddy.”
“Relax,” replies Officer Joseph Wolfe.
“Okay,” said an unidentified officer.
Kelly Thomas calls for his father at least twice more. His last audible words are “help me, help me.”
Toward the end of the video, paramedics take an unconscious Kelly Thomas to an ambulance and lights at the bus station shine on a large pool of blood.
After he lost consciousness and before paramedics arrived, a transcript of the officers’ conversation shows Cicinelli saying “… I ran out … we ran out of options, so I got the end of my Taser and I probably … I just start smashing his face to hell." Then after a pause, Cicinelli says, "He’s on something dude.” In the next few minutes, he repeats “he was on something” and “this guy’s on somethin [sic].”
According to the coroner’s report, there were no drugs or alcohol in Thomas' system.
Earlier, Dawn Scruggs, a Fullerton Police Department crime scene investigator, testified under cross-examination by Ramos’ lawyer, John Barnett, that she arrived at the bus station to find Ramos “shocked, exhausted.” Asked by Barnett whether Ramos also said it was “the worst fight of my life” and “I’ve never had anyone fight like that before,” Scruggs said it was true.
Fullerton Fire Department Paramedic Capt. Ron Stancyk testified that when the ambulance arrived, he was shown an officer with a scrape on his skin, but police didn’t direct him to Thomas, who was lying on the ground. He noticed Thomas himself and went to his aid.
He said that Thomas needed help to keep breathing and that his heart stopped beating while the ambulance was en route to the St. Jude Medical Center emergency room about five minutes away.
Doctors at St. Jude inserted a breathing tube and sent Thomas by ambulance to the UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange. He was pronounced brain dead and taken off life support July 10.
Barnett, during cross-examination of Dr. Michael Lekawa, chief of trauma and critical care services at UC Irvine Medical Center, tried to indicate Kelly Thomas’ breathing problems could have been caused by a “mishap” at St. Jude while doctors were inserting the breathing tube or made worse by broken ribs that may have resulted from CPR.
Lekawa said records showed St. Jude doctors didn’t have trouble inserting the breathing tube. He said he couldn’t tell whether ribs were broken during CPR or by police.