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Fullerton police admit cellphone video proves wrong man arrested

August 17, 2011 |  3:39 pm


The embattled Fullerton Police Department acknowledged Wednesday that police arrested the wrong man for allegedly attacking an officer last year. The department has launched an internal investigation into how the mistake occurred.

Fullerton's acting chief, Kevin Hamilton, ordered an internal affairs investigation after reviewing video of the incident shot with the cellphone of the arrested man, Veth Mam. The video shows a different version of events than police described in their reports and testimony.

"Based upon reviews of the video, it is Hamilton’s preliminary determination that we arrested the wrong guy that night, said Sgt. Andrew Goodrich. "It was very chaotic scene that night."

The review comes after an Orange County jury July 7 found Mam not guilty of assault, battery and resisting arrest.

The new investigation comes as Fullerton police are facing multiple investigations into a deadly encounter July 5 between six officers and Kelly Thomas, a 37-year old homeless man suffering from schizophrenia.

David Borsari, who represented Mam at the trial, said the video taken with Mam's cellphone that night ultimately saved him at trial.

"It contradicted the police reports and testimony of the officers in every way," he said. "The video proved what they said wasn’t true."

Mam, 35, of El Monte said he was walking to his car after 2 a.m. when he saw a friend, Sokha Leng, being arrested by Fullerton police. Mam said he believed the police were mistreating Leng, so he pulled out his cellphone and began to record with its video camera.

On the video, a police officer identified as Kenton Hampton is seen knocking the cellphone camera out of Mam's hand. Another man then picked up the cellphone and continued recording. Mam can been seen being wrestled to the ground by officers and arrested.

In police reports about the incident, Officer Frank Nguyen alleged that Mam jumped on another officer’s back and choked him. Nguyen wrote that he then pulled Mam off the officer’s back and pushed him away. The officer claimed that Mam continued to approach the officers, who arrested him.

During the trial, Nguyen and other officers repeated their claims about how the incident occurred. Prosecutors and Mam’s defense both showed the video.

Goodrich said the officers did not lie about the events, adding that there was another man who did jump on the officer’s back. But the officers erroneously believed Mam was that attacker, Goodrich said.

The actually attacker "got lost in the crowd. He was wearing something like a Pendleton while Mam was wearing a dark shirt," he added.

Goodrich said the officer who pushed the cellphone camera out of Mam’s hands did so because a large crowd was growing and police were trying to push everyone back.

Ultimately, he said, the internal affairs probe will determine what happened and those involved will be held accountable.

But Garo Mardirossian, Mam’s civil attorney, who also is representing Kelly Thomas’ parents, said he plans to sue the officers and Police Department in federal court over Mam's wrongful arrest.


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--Richard Winton

Photo: Image from the cellphone video.

Here is a the raw video. Note: Contains foul language.