Attorney Michael Gennaco, the special investigator hired by the Fullerton City Council to determine what went wrong in the police beating death of schizophrenic transient Kelly Thomas, delivered an initial report Tuesday stating there was no evidence Thomas possessed stolen property.
The preliminary report also asserted that Fullerton police should have acted decisively to correct erroneous reports that two officers suffered broken bones while trying to subdue Thomas at the Fullerton bus station July 5. No bones were broken, and the officers might have been hurt by fellow officers, Gennaco said.
According to the coroner’s report, the officers suffocated and beat Thomas, who died of his injuries five days later.
The report prompted Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas’ father, to tell the City Council Tuesday, “I want Kelly’s name cleared once and for all.”
He urged the council and police department to publicly apologize. “It came out and went worldwide that Kelly was a thief, broke bones …”
There was no immediate response from council members.
Gennaco’s report was delivered to an overflow crowd of more than 100 Kelly Thomas supporters in the Fullerton City Council chambers. At least eight television crews, a half-dozen news photographers and numerous reporters also were on hand.
Gennaco recommended the department adopt policies governing the future release of booking photos to avoid portraying victims in an unfavorable light.
His initial report specifically avoided dealing with the criminal case filed by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas against two police officers involved in Thomas’ death. In addition, Gennaco is writing a separate internal affairs investigation report that should be finished next week.
That report won’t be made public because it will be used to discipline any officers found to have done something wrong in connection with the Kelly Thomas case. Gennaco said he will try in April to release a summary of some of the internal affairs report’s findings.
He also will release his complete report in April after the preliminary hearing for Officer Manuel Ramos and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, which is scheduled for March 28. Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and Cicinelli with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.
Gennaco recounted the events of that night in his presentation, providing some details that had not been reported previously.
He said a woman, interviewed but not identified in the report, called a Fullerton police dispatcher, not 911, to report a man with no shirt was “roaming the parking lot” at the Fullerton bus station, “looking in cars” and “pulling on handles.”
Police were sent to the bus station in response to that call. Gennaco said Thomas allowed officers to inspect his backpack. Inside were letters addressed to an attorney. There also was a passport and other papers that did not belong to Thomas.
Gennaco said officers on the scene asked the dispatcher to contact the attorney to see whether the mail was stolen. But, his report stated, “before dispatch can respond to that request, the force incident was under way.”
Ultimately, according to the report, the attorney was contacted and said he had thrown the mail in the trash, where Thomas may have found it. In addition, the backpack he was carrying, along with the papers inside, belonged to a man who “inadvertently left his backpack with those items at the nearby train station” a few days earlier.
“The mail was not stolen,” Gennaco said. “At most, Mr. Thomas retained what appeared to be a lost or discarded backpack.”
His report asserts: “In sum, the evidence indicates that the initial search of the backpack provided sufficient reason for the responding officers to continue their investigation into the contents found therein even if eventually it was learned that the attorney correspondence was nothing more than discarded mail.”
After the hearing, Ron Thomas said: “I agree completely with Gennaco and his report this far.” He said Gennaco briefed him on the issues before the report was released.
“We’re on the same page on many of the issues. I think he did a thorough job,” Thomas said.
Gennaco was hired last summer during the public uproar after the death of Kelly Thomas, 37. City leaders and former police Chief Michael Sellers came under intense criticism for failing to release information about the beating.
Sellers went on extended medical leave in August and retired last week. Capt. Dan Hughes will remain acting chief until a permanent replacement is found, according to city officials.
In his report, Gennaco stressed the importance of making sure information that is released is accurate. When wrong information is made public, he said, it’s important to quickly and thoroughly correct the errors.
He was referring to the erroneous reports that two officers had bones broken while trying to subdue Kelly Thomas. Gennaco said some but not all news outlets were told about broken bones.
Once the information was made public, however, no attempt was made to clearly correct the mistake. He said there was an “intimation” that injuries were caused by Thomas when, in fact, they might have been caused by other officers while all were involved in the struggle.
Mayor Sharon Quirk-Silva said, “That was one of my disconnects with the police chief at the time,” that Sellers didn’t strongly correct mistaken information.
Asked afterward whether officials intentionally misled the public, Gennaco said “no.” But, he said, they need to adopt policies to prevent similar problems.
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