Crime & Justice

Kelly Thomas trial: Grandfather says Thomas beat him with fireplace poker (updated)

Defense attorney John Barnett, who is representing former Fullerton police officer Manuel Ramos, delivers his closing argument during day three of the preliminary hearing into the death of Kelly Thomas in 2012.
Defense attorney John Barnett, who is representing former Fullerton police officer Manuel Ramos, delivers his closing argument during day three of the preliminary hearing into the death of Kelly Thomas in 2012.
Joshua Sudock, Orange County Register, Pool photo

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Attorneys Thursday opened their defense of two former Fullerton police officers charged in the death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill, homeless man, by calling witnesses who had been accosted or threatened by Thomas -- including his mother and grandfather. 

Manuel Ramos, 39, and Jay Cicinelli, 41, have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in July 2011 death of Thomas, who died five days after a violent struggle with police officers outside the Fullerton Transportation Center. 

Ramos faces an additional count of second-degree murder, and Cicinelli is also charged with use of excessive force. 

Defense attorneys want to show that Thomas had a history of violence well before the altercation that led to his death. 

'He hit me over the head with a fireplace poker'

The first witness called was Thomas' 91-year-old grandfather, Walter Dieball, who recounted a June 8, 1995, visit by Thomas to Dieball's Placentia home. 

Dieball made his way to the witness stand in a wheelchair and wore on his left jacket lapel a yellow ribbon that read "Kelly Thomas."

Under questioning from Ramos' attorney John Barnett, Dieball testified,  " He hit me over the head with a fireplace poker."

Barnett: "You talked to the police about this didn't you?"

Dieball: "We were watching TV, and he was in an area behind me. He just suddenly got up. I heard the fireplace tools rattling. I turned to look and saw the poker in his hand and then he hit me (on the head) with it."

Barnett: "What happened next?"

Dieball: I was too dizzy, and I fell on the floor. I got up to get away from him and went to a bedroom where I had a locked door."

Barnett asked how many times Dieball was struck by the poker.

Dieball: " I guess he hit me a second time when I was on my knees."

Barnett: "And Kelly Thomas followed you and hit you several more times as you ran to the bedroom?"

Dieball: "I believe he hit me in the back once."

Barnett: "Were you bleeding a lot?"

Dieball: "Seemed like a lot."

Barnett: "And you had several wounds on your head, right?"

Dieball: "Right."

Prosecutors did not ask Dieball any questions.

Arrested at gunpoint

Barnett next called two Placentia police officers who were involved in the arrest of Thomas after that incident. Placentia police officer Andrew Dean testified he pursued Thomas on foot June 8 and saw him throw a poker. Officer Michael Busse used his patrol car in pursuit of Thomas that day. 

Barnett: "You pursued him in your police vehicle, and Officer Dean was pursuing him on foot?"

Busse: "Yes."

Barnett: "After the chase did you detain him at gunpoint?"

Busse: "Yes."

Prosecutors had no questions for either officer. 

Christmas party assault

There was also testimony from two other people who had violent run-ins with Thomas. 

Dale Roberts testified that Kelly Thomas punched him in the jaw at a Christmas party on December 19, 2004.

Barnett: "What happened?"

Roberts: "He took a swing at me."

Barnett: "Did he hit you?"

Roberts: "On the chin."

Barnett: "Did something happen before he hit you?"

Roberts: "I was asked to ask him to leave."

Barnett: "You asked him to leave, and he punched you?"

Roberts: "Yes."

Roberts testified he filed an assault and battery complaint against Thomas.

Confrontation at fruit stand

Samatha Pepin testified about a June 30, 2010, incident with Thomas at the Anaheim fruit stand where she worked.

She said Thomas was sleeping on the stand's property when she opened up that morning. Pepin said Thomas asked to use a portable toilet on the property and asked for some food. When she refused, "he Thomas started throwing rocks at the stand,  telling me he was going to kill me," Pepin said.

Pepin: "He kept saying he was going to kill me. I chased him away with pepper spray, and  he ran across the street into a Jack in the Box. Police didn't do anything, so I placed a citizen's arrest on him."

Barnett: "This was not the first time you encountered Kelly Thomas?"

Pepin: "It was so many times over three years. He was always harassing me." 

A mother testifies

The last witness of the day was Thomas' mother Cathy. 

Barnett: " In September 2010, did Kelly Thomas put his hand on your throat?"

Thomas: " Yes."

Barnett: " Did he hold his hand on it?"

Thomas: "Yes."

Barnett: "You previously testified that he held your throat for several minutes?"

Thomas: "Yes."

Barnett: "You called police?"

Thomas: "Yes."

Barnett: "Did you seek a restraining order asking Kelly Thomas be kept away from your home?"

Thomas: "Yes."

Cicinelli's defense attorney Michael Schwartz then briefly questioned Thomas. He asked if her son let go of her throat when she screamed at him.

Schwartz: "You screamed more than once, and he didn't let go?"

Thomas: "Yes."

Judge William Froeberg then adjourned the court for the day. 

"We're out of witnesses for today due to scheduling issues," Froeberg told the eight-woman, four-man jury. "We're moving along quite well, and I do anticipate we'll have the case to you the first week of January." 

The trial resumes at 8:45 a.m. Monday.