Videos will be key evidence in deadly Fullerton police encounter
Two videotapes have surfaced of the fatal confrontation between Fullerton police officers and a homeless man last month.
Both the FBI and the Orange County district attorney's office are investigating the incident, and the case has generated an emotional response from residents of the college town who are demanding answers from the police department.
Passengers boarded an Orange County transit bus on the night of July 5 with disturbing stories of a violent altercation they had witnessed between police and a homeless man at the train depot.
“The cops are kicking this poor guy over there. All these cops,” one woman told the bus driver in a conversation captured on a grainy bus surveillance tape.
“He's almost halfway dead,” another passenger told the driver. “They killed him.”
Exactly what happened that night has become the subject of anger and much speculation in the Orange County community.
Officers responding to reports of an attempted car break-in near the station confronted a 37-year-old Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic homeless man who had become a fixture in downtown Fullerton.
Six officers fought with Thomas and used a stun gun on him several times. He emerged severely beaten and in a coma. A photo taken of him at the hospital shows his face grotesquely swollen and covered with bruises and cuts. He died five days later after being removed from life support.
“They’ve Tased him five times already,” a woman says. “That’s enough!”
“They’re freaking ruthless,” another man says, adding moments later: “I don’t know why they don’t just put cuffs on him and call it a night, instead of hitting him.”
Officials said there are more videos that have not been released, including some that might more directly capture what the officers did. Some Fullerton council members are demanding those videos be released to the public, but the district attorney’s office has declined, citing fears of tainting potential witness testimony.
“It’s very important that if there is a trial, that the witnesses can testify what they saw as a witness, not what they saw on television or in the media,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, the district attorney’s chief of staff.
Council members said they’ve fielded hundreds of calls and emails about the incident, some from people who live far away. On Saturday, 250 protesters stood outside the Fullerton Police Department wearing T-shirts bearing Thomas’ name and holding signs condemning the police.
“There seems to be a general sense of outrage and fear,” said Councilman Bruce Whitaker, who called for all videos to be released and all officers involved placed on leave.
Police spokesman Sgt. Andrew Goodrich said two officers approached Thomas at the bus depot after receiving a report of someone trying to break into cars parked at the station. Thomas tried to run from two officers who found items in his backpack that didn’t belong to him, he said, and officers called for backup when Kelly resisted. The scene escalated as witnesses watched.
One witness, Mark Turgeon, 42, who is also homeless, said he arrived at the scene to see Thomas face-down on the sidewalk with one officer holding him down and another hitting him in the back of the head with a flashlight. More officers arrived and Tasered him multiple times, then hogtied him, he said. Turgeon also described seeing officers slamming Thomas’s face into the concrete after he was tied.
“They just beat and Tasered him until he stopped moving,” Turgeon said.
-- Abby Sewell in Fullerton and Kate Mather in Los Angeles
Video: KTLA report. Photo: Kelly Thomas. Credit: Kelly Family