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Kelly Thomas' father fights for justice

Ron Thomas, a former cop, can't understand why his mentally ill son became the victim of a violent confrontation with Fullerton police. He won't rest until he finds answers.

August 06, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Ron Thomas, father of Kelly Thomas, gets support from members of the public in the audience in asking the Fullerton City Council for answers about the death of his son at the hands of Fullerton police.
Ron Thomas, father of Kelly Thomas, gets support from members of the public… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

When the phone rang at 3:30 a.m., Ron Thomas knew it had to be bad news.

"Kelly's been beaten up," his daughter, Christina, tearfully told him. "It looks like he's going to die."

Ron Thomas, a former Orange County sheriff's deputy, had been expecting such a call for years. He had learned some painful lessons as the parent of someone with a serious mental illness. He knew his son's schizophrenia could be controlled at times but that it wasn't going to go away, ever. And he knew that no amount of love for Kelly could save him.

When Ron Thomas got to St. Jude Hospital in Fullerton that morning in early July, he was stunned by his son's appearance. His face and head were horribly disfigured from a beating.

"I was speechless."

Thomas wanted desperately for the Fullerton police to round up whoever had done this to Kelly.

Who would harm a 37-year-old red-haired, guitar-playing man who was clearly troubled? He'd been arrested for assault with a deadly weapon when the illness first raged at 22, but his other police contacts were for minor infractions, Thomas said. He was a mild-mannered drifter, not a hardened criminal. From the looks of the grotesque injuries, Thomas figured it must have been street toughs who went after his son, getting their kicks by smashing his head in with a baseball bat.

But the truth was even harder for him to accept. This had happened at the hands of the police, with as many as six officers taking down his apparently unarmed son, who couldn't have weighed more than 135 pounds, according to the father.

"I don't understand that," he says now, a month after his son died following five days in a coma.

Ron Thomas was a cop himself for six years before going into the construction business. His father was a cop for 22 years. His grandfather was a career cop with the LAPD.

"Police have been a positive aspect of Kelly's life," said Thomas, who has spent the last several weeks investigating the case as if he were back in uniform.

He's seen the videos that show a portion of the altercation. The electric zap of the cops' stun guns can be heard, as can what sounds like Kelly calling out to his father for help.

"Dad, Dad, Dad!"

"It tears me up," said Ron Thomas, who raised Kelly on his own for several years after a divorce.

He's seen and heard the eyewitness accounts, he's gone to the police chief to demand an explanation, and all he's gotten is the claim that after a report of vehicle break-ins, the police came upon his son, who resisted arrest, fought back and was subdued. Six officers, meanwhile, have been placed on administrative leave.

Ron Thomas' conclusion:

"It's murder, absolutely."

He believes police knew his son, a somewhat familiar street person, and had to know of his illness. If the cops had no training for dealing with a mentally ill person, that's unforgivable, Thomas said. If they had training, they must have ignored it. And he sees no reason why it would take so many officers, or so many blows to the head, to control his son.

It's likely to be a while before there's a full accounting. In the meantime, it's understandable that Kelly's father, who still hears his son calling his name, can't sit still.

When we met for lunch in Orange on Thursday, Thomas told me there were nights over the years when he would get a call from friends or relatives who had spotted Kelly in a park or under an overpass. Thomas would get into his Chevy Tahoe, with its Vietnam vet license plate, and go retrieve his son.

"How you doin', Kelly," he recalls saying on more than one occasion. "You wanna come home?"

Kelly was better when he was on medication, Ron Thomas said. "But it's not like taking aspirin for a headache," he said.

No, I agreed, speaking from my own experience in a seven-year friendship with a man who has schizophrenia. Lots of people are helped — saved, even — by meds. But others resist, fearing the side effects or the attempts to control them. Even for those who agree to take meds, it takes a while to find the right one at the right dose, and when you get all that figured out, the patient might conclude everything's fine and stop taking the medicine.

"That was Kelly," said Ron Thomas. "It's a vicious circle."

The cycle began when Kelly was 22 and landed in jail on some minor offense. A deputy called Thomas and said he thought his son needed medical attention, not criminal detention. Kelly was in and out of board and care homes over the years, better for a while, then drifting again.

In a more perfect world, there'd be more mental health outreach workers who go into the streets and steer clients back to supportive housing programs, where they can get the counseling and other help they need. Families can do only so much, and desperately need backup.

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