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Fullerton homeless man's father angry over son's death

A memorial for Kelly Thomas, the 37-year-old homeless man who died in July after he was beaten by Fullerton police.
A memorial for Kelly Thomas, the 37-year-old homeless man who died in July after he was beaten by Fullerton police.
via Justice for Kelly Thomas/Facebook

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Kelly Thomas was a fixture of downtown Fullerton who was often recognized by pedestrians and local business owners. The 37-year-old homeless man died in early July, five days after he was beaten by Fullerton Police in the course of an arrest on suspicion of burglary.

In the weeks since his death, grainy video has been released in which bus passengers who witnessed Thomas' arrest tell a bus driver what they've seen: "He's half dead," said an onlooker, indicating that there was "a pool of blood." Recordings also captured Kelly screaming out for his father as police attempted to subdue him. The video resulted in a raucous Fullerton City Council meeting Tuesday evening where hundreds of Fullerton residents gathered to call for answers regarding this case of alleged police brutality.

The victim's father, Ron Thomas, who is a former Orange County police officer, has many questions about the Fullerton Police Department's treatment of his son. Thomas spoke to Madeleine Brand on Thursday morning about the beating.

Thomas said he understands that his schizophrenic, homeless son may have rightfully been approached by police.

"If Kelly was doing something wrong [the police] should have approached him and I'm OK with that, but it's the way they handled it from the beginning," Thomas said. "By several witness accounts [Kelly] was just sitting on a curb by the bus depot. [The officers] asked him to stand up and he did."

Thomas believes accounts from witnesses of the incident who said that after police approached his son they beat Kelly with a baton, used a taser on him, tackled him, and called for backup.

Thomas described his son as mild mannered, so feels that the officers' use of force was excessive.

"How pathetic was this group of officers, when they take this schizophrenic, homeless man about 135 pounds, who everybody loved and was just very mild and didn't cause problems? They claim it took six of these guys — some are professional football player sized — to finally arrest him," Thomas said.

Thomas recalled that by the time Kelly was taken to the hospital he was "just basically dead," and only survived a few days because he was connected to life support.

According to Thomas, police state that they were not able to subdue Kelly to make the arrest until he was unconscious. Thomas explained that Kelly had almost no history of violence, however.

Kelly's father said the son's only violent outburst came 16 years ago at a time when he was "in desperate need of his medication," Thomas said, adding that though the family had restraining orders against Kelly it was not as a response to his violent behavior, but as a method of getting Kelly into police custody so that he could be treated for his schizophrenia.

"It's tough love," Thomas explained.

On his son's homelessness, Thomas said, "He was never homeless, he had more homes than any of us — you know relatives, friends. We wanted him home all the time, but he was a drifter and he wanted to be on the streets."

Thomas described raising a son with schizophrenia as "horrible," saying, "it broke our hearts constantly."

Thomas feels that the police involved in the incident did not have adequate training to deal with a schizophrenic, homeless man and as a response to the incident he hopes to see policy and procedural changes in the local police system.

"I need a 'Kelly's Law' that will protect the homeless, that will protect the mentally ill," he said.

Thomas has been speaking with lawyers and intends to file a lawsuit against the Fullerton police.

"Once I [take legal action] my voice becomes silent," he said. "It will be the attorney speaking for the family and I still have a lot to do and say for my son as his voice. This information must get out."

Until Thomas moves forward with legal action, he has established a fund in his son's name for the mentally ill.

Compiled by Katherine Davis