2 police officers charged in death of homeless man

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) - September 21, 2011

Kelly Thomas was sitting on a curb in Southern California as police checked his backpack when Officer Manuel Ramos donned the gloves and made two fists in front of him. Prosecutors say Ramos then said: "Now see my fists? They are getting ready to F you up."

"This declaration was a turning point - a defining moment," prosecutor Tony Rackauckas said, as he announced Wednesday that Ramos and another officer have been charged in Thomas' death.

Officer Manuel Ramos, a 10-year veteran, was charged with one count each of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, a 12-year veteran, faces one count each of involuntary manslaughter and excessive force.

In the 10-minute long beating, Fullerton police officers pinned Thomas to the ground so hard that he had trouble breathing. Prosecutors say he was shocked four times with a Taser, kneed in the head, punched in the ribs and bashed eight times with the butt of a stun gun.

Thomas screamed for his father, begged for help and cried out that he couldn't breathe. Then he lost consciousness. That, prosecutors say, should have alerted officers that Thomas was seriously injured.

"We simply cannot accept that in our community it is within a police officer's right to place gloves on his hands, show his fists to a detainee and threaten that he will `eff' him up," Rackauckas said. "That is not protecting and serving."

The announcement, by a four-term prosecutor known for his strong support of the police, was met with cheers in a city that erupted in protests after seeing video of the beating. Angry residents had called for the recall of the mayor, two council members and a review of police practices.

Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas' father, watched the prosecutor's news conference on TV with a group of supporters and said he was pleased that Ramos and Cicinelli were charged. "That's exactly what I hoped for," he said in a phone interview. "It makes me feel fantastic that this is happening. It's the justice we need."

At the news conference, Rackauckas laid out a graphic, blow-by-blow narrative of the violent encounter using props that included latex gloves, a Taser and the officers' verbatim quotes as recorded on their body microphones and surveillance video. Investigators had also interviewed 151 witnesses.

Ramos' attorney, John Barnett, disputed Rackauckas' account. Thomas violently resisted arrest by kicking and swinging at officers, he said, adding that he had seen the same video cited by the prosecutor. In response to claims about Ramos, the gloves and the threat, Barnett said, his client was using "the lowest type of force."

"It was an attempt by the officer to use words not force to get the suspect to do what he's supposed to do," Barnett said. "He sought to avoid physical confrontation with words. There was no compliance by Mr. Thomas."

Bill Hadden, Cicinelli's attorney, didn't return a call for comment.

Rackauckas said the beating began after two officers, including Ramos, responded to reports July 5 that a "homeless" person was peering into cars and rattling door handles at a transit hub in downtown Fullerton.

They found Thomas shirtless and wearing a backpack; Ramos knew Thomas because he often hung out in the city and the officers didn't feel the need to frisk him. As one officer searched his backpack, Ramos sat Thomas on a curb and ordered him to put his legs out straight and put his hands on his knees.

Thomas, who suffered from schizophrenia, had trouble complying. Ramos then put on a pair of latex gloves, leaned down and threatened him with his fists in front of Thomas' face, Rackauckas said.

"He made two fists with his gloves on, two fists. He lifted his fists in front of Kelly Thomas so he could see them," the lead prosecutor said. "... That's when it went from a fairly routine investigation, a fairly routine police detention, to an impending beating by an angry police officer."

Thomas replied, "Start punching, dude."

Ramos then grabbed Thomas by the arm and pulled out his baton when Thomas pulled away. He swung his baton and chased Thomas, who ran behind a police car, eventually punching him in his ribs and tackling him before holding down his neck and lying on top of Thomas to pin him down, Rackauckus said.

The coroner concluded that the cause of death was mechanical compression of the thorax, which made it impossible for Thomas to breathe normally and deprived his brain of oxygen, Rackauckas said. Other injuries to the face and head contributed to the death, he said.

Cicinelli, who arrived later, kneed Thomas twice in the head and used a Taser four times on him as he screamed and yelled in pain, Rackauckas said. Cicinelli hit Thomas in the face eight times with the Taser, he said.

"His numerous pleas of `I'm sorry,' `I can't breathe,' `Help Dad' (were) all to no avail. Screams, loud screams, didn't help," the prosecutor said. As the beating continued, Thomas didn't respond. "When Kelly didn't scream in response to these blows it should have indicated to Cicinelli that Kelly was down and seriously hurt," he said.

Rackauckas said it was the first time he had filed charges against officers for excessive force leading to death.

Ramos was held on $1 million bail and faces a maximum of 15 years to life in prison if convicted on the charges. He will be arraigned Monday. Cicinelli faces a maximum penalty of four years. He entered a not guilty plea at a brief hearing Wednesday and was freed on $25,000 bail.

All six officers who responded to scene, including Ramos and Cicinelli, were placed on paid administrative leave after the altercation. The remaining officers are not expected to be charged but will remain on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation and an FBI criminal probe into whether Thomas' civil rights were violated, Chief Kevin Hamilton said.

Ron Thomas has filed a claim seeking damages from the city.


Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus in Santa Ana and Thomas Watkins and Jeff Wilson in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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