SANTA ANA, CALIFORNIA - A police officer has been charged with second-degree murder and another faces an involuntary manslaughter charge in the death of a mentally ill homeless man who died after a confrontation with police, California prosecutors announced Wednesday.
The actions of Fullerton Police Officer Manuel Ramos, who has been charged with second-degree murder, “were reckless and created a high risk of death and great bodily injury,” Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told reporters.
Ramos, who’s 37 years old and a 10-year veteran of Fullerton police, is also charged with one felony count of involuntary manslaughter, the prosecutor said.
The second officer, Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, is being charged with involuntary manslaughter and felony excessive force, the prosecutor said.
Ramos and Cicinelli were scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday afternoon.
Ramos faces a maximum sentence of 15 years to life if convicted, authorities said.
Cicinelli, who’s 39 years old and a 12-year veteran of Fullerton police, faces a maximum of four years in prison if convicted, authorities said.
The charges come in the death of 37-year-old Kelly Thomas, who was beaten by police during an altercation in July and died five days later. The FBI is also investigating civil rights violations in the death of Thomas, a homeless man with schizophrenia.
Six Fullerton officers were put on paid leave after Thomas’ death. The case put widespread attention on the police department of Fullerton, located about 25 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles.
Since then, two other brutality allegations have been made by men who were allegedly injured by Fullerton police last year, and officer Kenton Hampton has been placed on paid leave in the wake of one of those two complaints, a department spokesman said. Hampton, 41, is a five-year veteran of the Fullerton police, prosecutors said.
The other four officers in the Thomas death — Hampton, Officer Joseph Wolfe, Sgt. Kevin Craig and Cpl. James Blatney — were not charged because “the evidence does not show knowing participation in an unlawful act on the part of these officers,” the prosecutor said in statement.
Ramos, who is accused of setting into motion the events that led to Thomas’ death, made initial contact with Thomas on July 5 after police received a call about a homeless man looking in car windows and pulling on handles of parked cars, Rackauckas said.
Cicinelli, who arrived later to the scene, is accused of using excessive force when he allegedly assaulted and beat Thomas, “acting recklessly, under the color of authority without lawful necessity,” the prosecutor’s office said.
Cicinelli is accused of using the front end of his Taser to hit Thomas in the head and face eight times while Thomas was pinned to the ground by other officers and was making no audible sounds, indicating that Thomas was “down and seriously injured,” the prosecutor’s office said.
Ramos made “a deliberate showing of putting on Latex gloves” in his detention of Thomas, Rackauckas said.
Ramos is accused of making two fists with his gloves still on in front of Thomas, Rackauckas said.
“He lifted his fists to Kelly Thomas and he said, ‘You see my fist? Now they’re getting to ready to ‘f’ you up,’” Rackauckas told reporters, using “f” instead of the full profanity.
Rackauckas said Ramos’ conduct was unacceptable and “not protecting and serving” the public.
“Ramos had to know that he was creating a situation where Kelly Thomas feared for his life and was struggling to get away from an armed officer who going to ‘f’ him up,” Rackauckas said.
Rackauckas said he viewed a bus dept surveillance video of the beating. The video shows 16 minutes passed from the initial time of contact by police to the start of the beating and unlawful police conduct, the prosecutor said.
“It’s heart rending. It’s hard to watch and listen to. It’s a person saying he’s sorry, calling for his dad and asking for help. He seems to know that it’s over just before it is. It’s just sad. It’s heartbreaking. It’s hard to listen,” Rackauckas said of the video.
“Officer Ramos had prior contact with Kelly Thomas and he knew Kelly Thomas and who he was. He was a homeless drifter who frequented that area,” Rackauckas said.
In all, prosecutors also reviewed video from two cell phones, bus camera videos, statements by 151 witnesses, police reports written by all six officers, the coroner’s report, medical reports, and the batons and Tasers of the officers, Rackauckas said.
When asked about the charged officers’ motive, the prosecutor responded: “That’s a pretty good question. It just appears from watching the video that the officer became increasingly angered with Kelly Thomas as this goes on.”
“Ramos is accused of instructing Thomas to put his legs out straight and place his hands on his knees, but Thomas had difficulty following Ramos’ instructions,” Rackauckas said in a statement. “Thomas appeared to have cognitive issues.”
The physical altercation began at 8:52 p.m. and last nine minutes and 40 seconds until Thomas was handcuffed and no longer moving, the prosecutor said.
“Throughout the physical altercation, Thomas struggled, yelled and pleaded, ‘I can’t breathe,’ ‘I’m sorry, dude,’ ‘Please,’ ‘OK, OK,’ ‘Dad, dad,’ and ‘Dad, help me.’ Thomas was severely bleeding but the officers did not reduce their level of force. Throughout the struggle, Thomas’ actions were defensive in nature and motivated by pain and fear,” the prosecutor added in a written summary of the incident.
Responding to the altercation, Cicinelli is accused of kneeing Thomas twice in the head and using his Taser four times on him, including three times as a “drive stun,” or direct application on the skin, for about five seconds each, the prosecutor said. The fourth time was a dart deployment, in which two darts connected to wires are ejected and stick to the skin or clothing, for about 12 seconds.
“Thomas screamed and yelled in pain while being Tased,” the prosecutor’s summary said.
Cicinelli is accused of using the Taser “unreasonably and unnecessarily” because Thomas was pinned to the ground by several officers and was vulnerable with his head and face exposed, the prosecutors said.”The biggest shame about this case is the fact that it could have been avoided,” Rackauckas said in a statement. “This never had to happen, and it never should have happened.”
After announcing the charges during a press conference, Rackauckas held a private meeting with Thomas’ father, Ron, and his attorney.
After that meeting, Ron Thomas told reporters that he was “very, very happy” with the outcome of the prosecutors’ investigation.
“Tony Rackauckas made it very clear that this murder charge will not be reduced,” Thomas told reporters. “We came in here expecting the worse and got the best. He’s extremely serious about prosecuting to the fullest extent.”
Prior to the press conference, Thomas told CNN that he would like to see at least two of the six officers charged with manslaughter because, he said, “the other four weren’t as involved.”
Regarding all six officers involved in the arrest of his son, Thomas added: “They should all lose their jobs and not be allowed to work in law enforcement.”
But the prosecutor said any firing would be a decision by the Fullerton police department.
A family attorney for Thomas has already publicly released Thomas’ hospital and medical records showing that he was brain dead by the time he reached the hospital after the police altercation. Thomas had no narcotics or prescription medicine in his body, the attorney said.
According to the medical records released by the family attorney, Thomas died from brain injuries as a result of head trauma. Thomas also suffered multiple broken bones in his face and rib fractures, and he was shocked multiple times near his chest cavity and on his back with a police Taser, the family attorney said.
Thomas suffered nose and brain trauma and smashed cheekbones, according to the medical records. The family attorney accused police of using their Tasers to deliver some of the head and face blows.
The medical reports provided by the family attorney said Thomas suffered internal bleeding, and Thomas also choked on his blood, the family attorney said.
Several bystanders witnessed the encounter and others recorded portions of the beating on cell phones, according to the family attorney.
The incident began after six officers responded to reports of a man attempting to break into cars near a bus depot just blocks from Fullerton City Hall, according to police.
Following the beating, there was no evidence that vehicles were burglarized, nor was Thomas in possession of any stolen property, according to the Thomas family attorney.
Thomas was taken off life support five days after the July 5 incident.