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Fullerton police review video, acknowledge arresting wrong man

Fullerton Police Department launches investigation into how it arrested the wrong man during a chaotic scene caught on a cellphone camera a year ago.

August 18, 2011|By Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
  • Kevin Hamilton, acting chief of the Fullerton Police Department, has ordered an internal investigation into how officers arrested the wrong man in an incident last year.
Kevin Hamilton, acting chief of the Fullerton Police Department, has ordered… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

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

Fullerton's acting chief, Kevin Hamilton, ordered the internal affairs investigation after reviewing a video of the incident shot by 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 Capt. Hamilton's preliminary determination that we arrested the wrong guy that night," Police Sgt. Andrew Goodrich said. "It was a very chaotic scene that night."

An Orange County jury on July 7 found Mam not guilty of assault, battery and resisting arrest.

The review comes as the Fullerton Police Department faces multiple investigations into a deadly encounter July 5 between six officers and Kelly Thomas, a 37-year old homeless man with schizophrenia.

This marks the second case in which a video has played a central role in a Fullerton police case. The department has come under criticism in the Thomas case for allowing officers involved in the altercation to review a surveillance tape showing parts of the incident before making their official reports.

David Borsari, who represented Mam in the trial, said the cellphone video Mam shot that Oct. 23 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.

On the video, a police officer identified as Kenton Hampton is seen knocking the phone out of Mam's hand. Another man picked up the cellphone and kept recording. Mam can be 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 pulled Mam off the officer's back and pushed him away. The officer claimed Mam continued to approach the officers, who arrested him.

During the trial, Nguyen and other officers repeated their version of events to the jury. The prosecution and the defense showed the video to the jury. The prosecutor showed the video to help obtain the conviction of Mam's friend Leng, who was tried at the same time and found guilty of battery, assault and resisting arrest.

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

The actual attacker "got lost in the crowd." The attacker was wearing a Pendleton-style shirt, "while Mam was wearing a dark shirt," he added.

Goodrich said the officer pushed the camera out of Mam's hands because the crowd was growing large 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 is also representing Thomas' parents, said he plans to sue the officers and the Police Department in federal court over his wrongful arrest.

The Fullerton City Council on Monday voted to hire an outside watchdog from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to review the Thomas case and the department's general policies. It came at the end of a heated meeting at which several speakers — including Thomas' father — called on some members of the council to resign.

"Mr. Mayor, I came here tonight to offer you an olive branch, but when you open your mouth, I want to grab a baseball bat instead," said Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas' father. "I am not going to resort to violence; you already know that.... I would like to … meet one-on-one this week."

Ron Thomas and Mayor F. Richard Jones met Wednesday in private.

richard.winton@latimes.com

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