Police under siege: Ron Thomas vows to fight for justice

Posted on October 25, 2012

July 6, 2011

Ron Thomas woke up at 3:30 a.m. to his blaring ringtone.

Bad news. Half awake, Ron knew it could only be bad news.

Looking at his phone, he saw it was his daughter Christina calling.

“What, Tina?”

“Kelly’s been beaten up,” his daughter said crying. “It looks like he’s going to die.”

At the University of California, Irvine (UCI) Medical Center, he was shocked to see his son. Instead of pale white skin, Ron saw a face that was brown and blue from dried blood and bruises. His once red hair and beard were now brown, untamed and coarse with his dry blood. His swollen face wasn’t the heart-shaped face it once was. There was blood everywhere.

No matter how hard he tried Ron could not get the image of his unrecognizable son’ s face out of his head. It was a horrible sight, but something inside Ron told him to capture it. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone to take pictures of his son’s now disfigured face.

His family was in disbelief and clueless. The doctors didn’t know what happened, and the authorities weren’t talking. But Ron wanted answers. At 7 a.m., a physician walked in to check on Kelly. Ron stopped her to ask what happened one more time.

“There was an altercation with Fullerton police,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Kelly was in a fight with police officers last night.”

There must be a mistake, Ron thought. Police officers couldn’t have beaten his schizophrenic son to a pulp. The idea was difficult to digest — especially since Kelly was not intimidating in size and was never armed with anything besides a guitar. How in the hell could this happen because of cops?

While Kelly sat in the hospital bed fighting for his life, Ron walked out of the hospital looking for answers.

He called local newspapers and television stations, but ABC Channel 7 was the only one that came.

“Oh, I’m so sorry about your loss,” the editors would say. “We’ll get back to you.”

Ron also called the Fullerton Police Department. He learned that the incident happened at a bus depot in Fullerton after officers responded to a call claiming that a suspicious person was breaking into cars. Kelly, the suspect, ran off when police came and resisted arrest once they got a hold of him. Six officers were at the scene.

July 9, 2011

There were still no signs of recovery for Kelly, just a slow and inevitable deterioration. Test after test proved to doctors that Kelly was not going to make it.

After a final test, the main doctor came in. Everyone became quiet.

“He’s brain dead,” said the doctor overseeing Kelly’s treatment. “He’s not going to make it.”

He went on to explain that Kelly was only breathing because a tube was lodged in his throat, ventilating his lungs, helping him breathe; his kidneys were on a dialysis treatment, mechanically cleansing the blood because his kidneys could not. As his organs kept failing one after the other, his body would soon die even with life support.

The doctors made it clear — Kelly was only alive because of the machines. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but the next day the Thomas family decided to take Kelly off life support. He died soon after.

Dead — Kelly could no longer fight for himself, so Ron vowed to fight for Kelly.

Officials from the Fullerton Police Department said they were investigating the incident, but Ron wasn’t going to wait.

At home, Ron made fliers asking readers for any and all information about the beating — from eyewitness accounts to recordings of the incident. The fliers had a picture of young Kelly on them and provided Ron’s phone numbers and an email address created specifically for Kelly’s cause. Ron and his daughter spent hours posting the fliers around the bus depot where the incident happened.

In a matter of hours, Ron received countless emails — from condolences, eyewitness accounts and commitments to help. Some even spoke about how they knew Kelly before the slaying.

The phone would not stop ringing for the next couple of weeks.

With the information he had collected, Ron opened his own investigation on what happened that night. That was only the beginning.

July 16, 2011

Kelly was now cremated, and hundreds of people gathered in a small church to remember and honor his life. At the memorial, Ron was met with sympathy and support. One brawny man with a mustache approached Ron after the eulogy.

“Ron, I’m so sorry,” said Bruce Whitaker, while shaking Ron’s hand. “I can’t believe this happened in my own city. I’m a city council member in Fullerton. You should come speak during our public comments in our next meeting.”

Not only would Ron speak at the next meeting, he would speak at every one to follow until something was done about his son’s death.

He continued to call on the Fullerton community for help, and news organizations to cover what happened.
The local community responded first.

July 18, 2011

On this afternoon, Ron received an email inviting him to join a protest outside the Fullerton Police Department.

“It was thrown together pretty quickly,” the email read, “so we’re a small little group, but we’re trying to have a big voice. We’re all very heartbroken and emerged over this.”

There was no hesitation. He left his home in Cypress to join them.

It was a modest protest with about 20 people carrying messages intended to be louder than a thousand voices. The protesters stood outside the police station with signs that read, “Who will police the police” and “Justice for Kelly.”

That night Ron talked to his daughter Tina about the progress of the situation.

“You know we’re going to have to release that photo, Dad.”

“Not yet. I don’t think we’re ready for that just yet, Tina.”

“Think about it, Dad. Why isn’t anyone covering this? Releasing the photo will capture the media’s attention.”

It wasn’t the right time, he thought. Ron would first have to persuade the city council into supporting the cause.

July 19, 2011

Ron Thomas walked into the city council meeting with his head held high and speech in hand.
“If you don’t already know, my son was killed by six Fullerton police officers. I’m here to ask that you look into what happened. Let’s release that 911 tape. Also, why don’t you release the video recorded on the bus. You know it’s there. It’s city property paid by taxpayer money; let’s release that video,” he urged during the time for public comments.

Council members rolled their eyes at Ron as he spoke. It was clear that they were seemingly not interested in what Ron had to say.

July 21, 2011

Ron checked his email often in those days. On the afternoon of July 21, hre received an email from a woman who said that her son saw the cops beat Kelly and had some fragmented video footage from his iPhone. She sent the video soon afterward. What Ron saw was even more disturbing than seeing his son’s face after the police beat him.

The footage starts with the sound of a stun gun and a man screaming out loud for mercy. Men and women are seen watching the confrontation.

“Look, there’s more police officers already!” one woman exclaims. Sirens drown out the bystanders’ exchanges as another police car arrives.

“Oh my God — one, two, three, four,” another woman counts.

At this point, it isn’t clear what the cops are doing to Kelly, but Ron could hear his son screaming, “Dad. Dad. Dad!”

It had been 15 days since Ron found out that his son was beaten to death, and he realized that the Fullerton Police Department and City Council were doing nothing to look into what happened.

Ron got on the phone.

“I’ve thought about it, and it looks like I’m going to send out the photo of Kelly. Are we all ready for this?” he asked his family. They were still emotional whenever they thought about what Kelly looked like that day, but they all knew this was the only way to move things forward.

July 22, 2011

Ron uploaded the gruesome photo onto his personal computer and sent it to hundreds of media outlets. He received dozens of emails from publications saying they couldn’t air such a graphic photo. Friends for Fullerton’s Future, a local community blog, was the first to publish the photo. Others said they needed to get the OK from their supervisor before they could run it — either way, the media was understanding the gravity of the issue.

He called his daughter and son Kevin to move things further.

“I want you to get on the Internet and spread the word,” he told them.

Facebook, Twitter and local blogs were soon flooded with stories about Kelly Thomas and his brutal slaying.

It was only after that when other media publications ran the photo. Then things started to kick into full gear.

For the next couple of weeks, Ron met with reporters from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. five to seven days a week. He lost 18 pounds on this schedule because he was only eating once a day.

Now city officials were feeling the pressure. The Orange County district attorney issued a statement July 28 asking witnesses to come forth. Ron forwarded his investigation over to the district attorney.

July 30, 2011

The protests grew tenfold following the media frenzy.

Hundreds of people stood outside the Fullerton Police Department, chanting and yelling. They dubbed themselves Kelly’s Army; they were fighting for his justice. The crowd attracted reporters who aired the protest on television and published stories about it online and in print. The movement was growing quickly.

Aug. 2, 2011

Just before the city council meeting, it was announced that the six police officers involved in beating Kelly were put on leave.

“I appreciate that these officers are on administrative leave now, and I’m really going to appreciate when they’re suspended without pay, pending further investigation,” Ron told city council members.

Like the protests, attendance at the Fullerton City Council meetings grew. Ron Thomas spoke to city council members while hundreds of others stood behind him in support.

Advocacy for the cause grew in the days to follow. There was still no word from the Orange County district attorney, but Ron could not rest until he got what Kelly deserved — justice.

Aug. 12, 16 & 17

Days passed, and Ron worked vigilantly to meet with the Orange County district attorney, city council members and the mayor of Fullerton. After hundreds of demands, the city council voted to open an independent investigation. Another win for Kelly, but that wouldn’t be all.

Sept. 21

Although Ron hoped the day would come sooner, he learned that the district attorney would announce his findings that afternoon. But he wasn’t invited inside; however, Ron was resourceful and joined ABC Channel 7 reporters at their news van when the district attorney released his findings. He watched District Attorney Tony Rackauckas describe the altercation.

At one point, Rackauckas held up his fist like one of the officers did the night of July 5 and said, “Ramos 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.’”

“This declaration was a turning point, a moment that changed everything,” Rackauckas said, as he announced the charges against the two police officers. “[Fullerton police officer] Ramos was telling Kelly Thomas that this encounter had changed from a fairly routine police detention into an impending beating at the hands of an angry police officer.”

Two officers were charged that day. There was some relief, but it wasn’t enough.

It took three months to get two officers charged, but they haven’t been convicted. There are still four other officers who have not been charged. Ron’s work is far from over. He now looks forward to watching the pretrial in May and working to keep the media focused on Kelly’s story.

Originally published in Tusk Magazine, Cal State Fullerton’s student-run magazine.

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