California DA calls police threat 'turning point' in beating

By Amy Taxin

Associated Press

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) -- Police officer Manuel Ramos didn't talk to prosecutors who were considering charges against him in the death of a homeless, mentally ill man who died after a violent fight with police -- but in the end, according to a district attorney, his own voice may have done him in.

As Ramos snapped on a pair of latex gloves and leaned over a confused Kelly Thomas, prosecutors say, his body microphone and surveillance tape captured an angry threat: "Now, see my fists? They are getting ready to 'F' you up."

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas called the statement the "turning point" from which a routine July 5 police stop spiraled into an explosion of violence that eventually involved six police officers and left Thomas unconscious and in a pool of his own blood. He was removed from life support and died five days later.

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 around the face with the butt of a stun gun as he cried out for his father and begged for help.

Ramos, a 10-year veteran of the Fullerton Police Department, was charged Wednesday with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. His lawyer disputed Rackauckas's account, saying Thomas violently resisted arrest.

Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, a 12-year veteran, faces involuntary manslaughter and excessive force charges. He pleaded not guilty. The four other officers were not charged but remain on paid administrative leave because the FBI has launched a criminal civil rights probe and an internal investigation is pending.

"This declaration was a turning point -- a defining moment," Rackauckas said, as he announced the charges. "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."

"We simply cannot accept that in our community that it is within the police's right to place gloves on a police officer's hand and put his fists in front of a detainee and say these fists are ready to 'F' you up. That is not protecting and serving."

In response to claims about Ramos, the gloves and the threat, his attorney, John Barnett said, his client was using "the lowest type of force." He said Thomas resisted arrest by kicking and swinging at officers.

"It was an attempt by the officer to use words not force to get the suspect to do what he's supposed to do," he 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.

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.

Rackauckas said the beating began after two officers, including Ramos, responded to reports 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, Rackauckas said. Ramos then put on a pair of latex gloves, leaned down and threatened him with his fists in front of Thomas' face, the prosecutor said.

Thomas replied, "Start punching, dude."

Ramos, 37, then grabbed Thomas by the arm and pulled out his baton when Thomas pulled away. Ramos swung his baton and chased Thomas, who ran behind a police car, eventually punching the homeless man in his ribs and tackling him before holding down his neck and lying on top of Thomas to pin him down, Rackauckas 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. After entering his plea, he was freed Wednesday on $25,000 bail.

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

Published: Fri, Sep 23, 2011