Those who loved Kelly Thomas could only watch his unstoppable slide into mental illness. Now, after the public tragedy of his death following a beating by Fullerton police, they’re ready to talk about the private tragedy that preceded it.
Ron Thomas likes things under control.At 55, the former Army Ranger and Orange County sheriff’s deputy credits his martial arts background for keeping him trim and fit. With a neatly clipped mustache and every hair in place, he maintains his military bearing despite a penchant for Hawaiian shirts.
His house in a pleasant Cypress subdivision is just as neat. Only the three dachshunds, rushing toward a visitor, are out of control. Thomas has been married twice, divorced twice, and now lives alone. “The pets last longer than my girlfriends,” he says, pointing to the dogs, and the cockatiels and finches of his bird collection. “I’m a nice guy, really.”
A nice guy with an iron will, says daughter Christina “Tina” Kinser. “He gets what he goes after.” That’s why her brother Kelly screamed “Dad!” over and over while being beaten last summer by Fullerton police, Tina says, because their father “always saved us.”
But there are a few things beyond Ron Thomas’ control. He could do nothing about the mental illness that gradually overtook his firstborn. He also can’t control how the public views his crusade to get help for the homeless and justice for Kelly, who died last July 10 after that tragic encounter with police officers at the Fullerton Transportation Center. Ron would, however, like you to know one thing: “Kelly was never homeless. He always could come to my house, or [the homes of] our other family. He preferred to live outside.”
At the time of the beating, Kelly didn’t have a car, a credit card, driver’s license, ID, phone, or computer. Facebook? Tina says her brother had no idea what it was.
Suffering from multiple blunt-force injuries to his face, head, and chest, including a punctured lung, Kelly died five days later. Two Fullerton police officers indicted by the Orange County district attorney’s office face a preliminary hearing this month and three City Council members could face a recall vote as early as June. Public attention so far has focused on Ron’s campaign for accountability by the Police Department, as well as the launch of a charity, The Kelly Thomas Memorial Fund, dedicated to assisting the county’s homeless. But those who loved Kelly Thomas know the story of his life is no less a tragedy.
Kelly’s parents,Ron and Cathy, have lived in Orange County for most of their lives. They met on a blind date in high school. Ron went to Rancho Alamitos in Garden Grove; Cathy, Valencia High in Placentia. “We hit it off,” Cathy says. “I was 16 and he was 15. Got serious pretty fast.”
Cathy was pregnant with Kelly at 18. “It was shocking, but I was happy,” she says. “I felt really strong about having a baby.” In 1973, they were married in an outdoor wedding in Garden Grove.
Focused on supporting his new family, and inspired by his father’s two decades of military service, Ron dropped out of school that year to join the Army, with Cathy serving as his guardian, granting him permission to enlist because he was only 17. The Army provided welcome discipline and motivation to the young husband and prospective father. “It’s where I got my drive,” he says.
Stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., Ron was two hours late getting back to Orange County for Kelly’s birth on April 5, 1974. Cathy remembers her firstborn as a good baby who slept half the night. “Kelly—a little red-headed boy,” says Ron. “I had thought of the name before he was born, then he came out with red hair, blue eyes, freckles.”
The Thomases had two more children in quick succession, Kevin, now 36, and Tina, now 35. The children were close, and all played AYSO soccer in Yorba Linda. Kelly liked to fish. While in Washington, Ron took the 3-year-old fishing in Puget Sound. “It’s a proud moment for a dad,” says Ron, “when you teach your son how to pee outside.”
But the Thomases’ marriage was in trouble, and they split in 1982. “Ron and I didn’t get along. We couldn’t make it work,” Cathy says. The kids, ages 6, 7, and 8, lived with her; Ron had them every other weekend. “We’re not the Brady Bunch,” Tina says. “I don’t really remember them being married. Mom kissed the ow-ies and Dad fixed the problems.”
After his military discharge, Ron joined the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. There was a certain fated quality to his decision; his father also had worked for the department, and his grandfather was an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department during the 1965 Watts riots. Ron worked mostly in the jails. “I never did patrol. You want to be a cop, but you spend the whole time behind bars.” A guy who likes to be hands-on, he quit in 1988 and took up electrical contracting.
Ron says he became a “Disneyland Dad” after the divorce. “It was really bad. And I’d have to be ‘Disciplinary Dad’ on the weekends.” Although unhappy with the arrangement, he says, “I was around for all three of the kids.”
Kelly spent time livingwith each of his parents from the fourth through the sixth grades, and then moved in with his dad full time. He was a friendly kid who rode his bike to school and always wanted to be a firefighter. Ron taught him guitar, which Kelly continued to play the rest of his life.
In high school, though, Kelly began ditching classes and hanging out, drinking and partying. In the 11th grade he decided to live with his mother. Cathy says he began “going off and living with friends, and we’d see him every once in a while.”
Ron sees that period of his son’s life in harsh terms: “He was out of control, smoking dope and growing his hair long. Life was a party.” Tina remembers it a bit more romantically: “He had a red Baja VW bug we drove into the hills of Placentia. Twenty years ago, it was just a big dirt pile. At night we’d go up there and see all the lights.”
Those hills may have been a party place, but Kelly didn’t let his red-headed, freckled younger sister get too involved with his hard-partying friends. “Kelly protected me from people smoking or drinking,” she says. “ ‘You’re still a baby. Don’t hang out with losers. Be mellow and stick with me, kid.’ My big brother.”
Kelly dropped out of high school his junior year. He went day-to-day by borrowing money from friends, and working part-time at a print shop where his mom was employed. Still, Cathy remembers, “He was friendly, respectful, please and thank you. He had some confrontations with his dad; I was easygoing.”
Kelly couch-surfed with friends and periodically would move back in with his mother. Ron was frustrated by what he saw as Kelly’s laziness and drug use. “He’d drive up, smoking cigarettes. There was no rudder, no direction. I’d set my own line in the sand. We had several come-to-Jesus meetings: ‘How are you going to make it? How are you going to survive?’ But he wasn’t living with me.”
Kelly did take a shot at realizing his childhood dream of becoming a firefighter, joining the California Department of Forestry.But he was kicked out after being caught with an against-the-rules beer.
As Kelly grew into his late teens, his father began to notice a certain strangeness he attributed to something other than Kelly’s drug use. “There was a change in his hygiene; he’d always showered.” His son also started sleeping on the floor.
Tina didn’t notice the shift, at least right away. “He was always the hippie, playing guitar, going to Grateful Dead concerts with his friends. I told him it was the ’90s, not the ’60s.”
But Kelly began to dislike being around a lot of people. He would seldom speak to strangers. Friends started to fall away. “I always blamed it on drugs—like he had a bad trip. He told me, ‘Tina, I want to live under the stars and God. I don’t have any bills to pay. I’m free.’ ”
Eventually, she noticed a darker edge to his behavior. “Everything was a conspiracy. He’d try to sit down and talk, but it was a paranoid person talking.”
When Kelly was 22, his unsettling words turned to disturbing actions. While visiting his maternal grandfather’s home, Kelly suddenly picked up a fireplace poker and hit the older man in the head. Although not seriously injured, his grandfather called the police. Kelly was walking away when he was arrested.
“Oh my God, why would he do that?” Tina asks. “My grandfather got stitches. It was so out of character. I never saw Kelly mean or aggressive. It became official: There was something in his head.”
After the attack, Kelly was incarcerated for several months at the Orange County Jail. A concerned deputy called Ron and told him he thought Kelly belonged in the psych ward, not in the general population. Ron accompanied his son to court, where Kelly was sentenced to time served. As a condition of his release, he was sent for evaluation by what now is known as Orange County Adult Correctional Health Services, which administers the Conditional Release Program for judicially committed mentally disordered offenders. Ron would take him to his appointments and wait. “I’d be there the whole time, sitting in the hall during the evaluation. Things fell behind at work.”
In 1996, Ron was given the diagnosis: schizophrenia. “It was devastating. This is the same kid we played with on the living room floor. Does my son really have this?”
Kelly was labeled gravely disabled, and the county mental health workers tried to prepare Ron for what was to come. “It’s typical bureaucracy, just everyday routine to them,” Ron says. “ ‘This is what it is. Make sure he takes his meds.’ They hand you the pamphlets. ‘It’s a rough deal—everything you need to know is right here.’ ”
It fell to Ron to break the news to Cathy, who also knew nothing of Kelly’s condition. When she asked for details, Ron told her, “Read the pamphlet.”
Divorced more than 12 years, they both felt helpless and ill-equipped to deal with their new reality. In the mid-1990s, schizophrenia was less understood than it is today. Until Kelly’s death, Ron says he had never heard of the National Association for the Mentally Ill, nor its support services for families. Adds Cathy: “I don’t remember a social worker or a nurse telling me anything. We had no idea what to expect. They just said to keep him on his meds”—the ones Kelly said gave him nightmares.
For years, Kelly bounced between his parents’ houses, board-and-care facilities, occasional incarceration, and the streets. When he was taking his medication, he was able to spend time with family and friends. But as the people who are close to the 8 million Americans with severe mental illness know, keeping loved ones on their meds is easier said than done. Up to half of schizophrenia patients don’t even understand they’re sick.
Ron would ask Kelly if he heard voices. “He’d tell me he didn’t, but he did. He’d have conversations out of nowhere. He’d start laughing and cracking up, like something was hysterical.”
“If they don’t think they’re ill, why would they take medication?” says Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, an expert on schizophrenia and executive director of Stanley Medical Research Institute in Maryland, a nonprofit organization supporting research on the causes of, and treatments for, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. To a schizophrenic, he says, the answer is “just call the CIA or the KGB and tell them to stop sending messages.” Considering such issues, Torrey says, “It’s very important to educate the families. The more they understand, the easier the thing is to manage.”
Ron was trying to maintain a business and his own relationships, including a second marriage to a woman who had a young daughter. That marriage ended just before Kelly’s diagnosis. Cathy was struggling with her own challenges, and after Kelly’s arrest, diagnosis, and release, county conservatorship seemed to make sense. “They’d monitor his Social Security, issue him money, make decisions on his behalf,” says Ron. “We set up a bank account and SSI checks would automatically go in.” The money would be paid out of the accounts to the board-and-care homes where Kelly stayed.
When he was on his medication, he could live in one of these places. Ron generally liked those 10- to 20-room facilities where Kelly tried to make friends. He felt they were well-supervised by the county, with dieticians, staffers to give medications, and onsite managers. “It’s almost like a senior center, except there are lots of young people. They had good meals. I was always checking—it wasn’t slop. The rules were: Take your meds, no drugs, no alcohol, and no cohabitating.”
But the Thomas family had to deal with the medication roller coaster: Kelly would get bored watching TV and playing pingpong at the board-and-care and hit the streets, where he’d “forget” to take the meds. When he was at one board-and-care, he bought a used Camaro to get around. Later, off his meds and on the streets, he slept in it. Deputies eventually impounded it because of unpaid tickets, and sold it. Ron had to plead with them for Kelly’s belongings.
There were frightening incidents. Kelly was staying with Ron in Cypress when he decided to visit his brother in Parker, Ariz. Via Victorville and Baker. Barefoot. He began hitchhiking and walking the 250-plus-mile trek through the desert. Near Baker, he stopped at a volunteer fire station with his feet all bloody and blistered. “He always loved firemen, and they represented safety for him,” says Ron, who drove out to get him. He took Kelly to a hospital, where his feet were cleaned up.
“It didn’t make sense to us.,” Tina says. “I was sick for days [and] denied it for a long time.”
Kelly’s mother struggled to deal with the family’s new reality as well. “We lost an apartment in Anaheim because Kelly was looking into windows,” she says. “He’d wander off at night and leave the door open.”
But there were good times, too, usually centered around family. Often, when Kelly was living in a board-and-care, Ron would get permission to take him out. “On his medication, he’d clean up nice.” Ron shows a picture of himself, Kelly’s paternal grandfather, and Kelly at 30, on a boat off San Clemente Island in 2004. Kelly is clean-shaven, short-haired, and looks as if he doesn’t have a care in the world.
Cathy occasionally could break through, too. She would pick him up from the board-and-care home and bring him to family gatherings. “I would tell him stupid things that happened working at Wal-Mart, and he would laugh. He was a hugger. He played music at my granddaughter’s first birthday party. He would ask about his sister and brother and show concern. We never stopped loving him or cut him loose.”
During the 15 years between his diagnosis and his death, Kelly was arrested for minor offenses such as trespassing, vagrancy, and illegal camping. “You don’t respond—now you have warrants,” Ron says. “We’re all people; we have to sleep somewhere.”
Torrey says sleeping outdoors feels safer to many who suffer from paranoid delusions, and that may have been the case with Kelly, who stayed on his mother’s front porch for a while. “He wouldn’t use the bathroom. Sometimes he’d pee on the side of the house.” If she tried to get him to take his meds or come inside, she says, “He would go off and live somewhere else, find a tree or something. He didn’t even know he needed to eat. He wouldn’t ask for money or food. He had no way of bathing and didn’t care about what he looked like. He’d walk around with no shirt in the pouring rain. His beard was a total wreck. I would give him clothes and feed him, but he didn’t really seem to care.”
The broiling Southland sun was no friend to Kelly’s fair complexion. “He wouldn’t know to put on a shirt or sunscreen,” Cathy says.
At times, Cathy would call the police and ask them to take her son to the hospital under Section 5150 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, which allows a police officer or clinician to involuntarily confine a mentally ill adult for as long as 72 hours. “Unless he was a danger to himself or others, they couldn’t pick him up,” she says. “So I would file restraining orders. They still never took him. Once, they picked him up and evaluated him and said he was fine.”
Kelly could only stay in board-and-care facilities if he continued taking his meds, including Haldol, an antipsychotic. But he often resisted. Occasionally Ron lets his bitterness toward Cathy show. “She wouldn’t force him to take his meds. ‘They make him not feel good,’ she’d say. She didn’t want the confrontation.”
But Ron fought the battle: “As a parent, it’s just so horrible.”
Seeing Kelly on the streets, the former Army sergeant says he decided to take command. Ron became Kelly’s legal conservator for seven years—hardly an easy job. “He’d tell you what he thought you needed to know. He never believed anything was wrong with him. He’d say, ‘I’m OK. I’m fine. I don’t need the medication.’ Kelly, you need to take a shower. ‘No, I’m OK. I don’t need clean clothes. I’m fine.’ ”
When he had psychotic attacks or was otherwise severely ill, Kelly also spent time in Royale Convalescent Hospital in Santa Ana, which had a locked psychiatric unit. When Ron visited, he says, “They kept them in hospital gowns, and people were walking the hallways like zombies.” On several ocasions, Kelly climbed high fences to escape, and Ron had to track him down. Ron once used his jujitsu skills to apprehend his son, wrestling Kelly into his car from a Yorba Linda park using wristlocks. “A lot of things I did with Kelly were very painful. But what are the alternatives?”
Ron also confronted a more daunting reality: He was going to be his son’s long-term caretaker. At 18 in our society, a child is considered an adult, free to do what he likes. Most children manage the separation, aided by institutions such as college, the military, marriage, and employment. But Kelly was never going to become a self-sufficient adult. There was no possibility of him going to school, holding a job, having a girlfriend or a family of his own. Ron says his son often sat on the couch all day, hair matted, head down.
“For years.” he says, “it was just me and Kelly.”
On a July day in 2011, a reader of The Orange County Register takes a seat at his computer and reacts to the day’s story that Ron Thomas was considering an offer of $900,000 to settle any civil claims against the City of Fullerton in the death of his son. On the newspaper’s website, using the signature “anonymous,” the reader posts that Kelly was “homeless and not getting help, yet now that there is money on the table, they come out. … Now they want to sue and get millions and they never cared about him.’ ”
Ron’s eyes flash when shown the posting, but he keeps his anger in check: “Walk into my world. When he was on his meds it was great, good times. When he wasn’t, it was hell—‘What’s he doing now? Is he OK?’ He’d be praying to the sun in a park off Ball Road, and I’d have to race to get there before the police. I had done so much for so many years. A lot of people would just have given up. But I never gave up.”
Kelly’s illness was an all-consuming nightmare for the Thomas family. They never expected him to have a long life. “Yes,” says Tina, “I’d been waiting for this phone call, but not one saying he got beat to death. I thought he’d be dehydrated, on a trail or sidewalk someplace. I still don’t understand it.”
“If a miracle would happen, I’d like to have my son back rather than money,” says Cathy. “The money doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m very angry, but I just miss him a lot. Not a day goes by without wanting to see him and hug him.”
The police officerswho confronted Kelly Thomas were responding to a report of someone breaking into cars near the city’s train station. The call reportedly came from Slidebar, a rock ’n’ roll bar and restaurant a few steps from the site of the beating.
Ultimately six officers would struggle with Kelly after searching his backpack, perhaps interpreting his resistance as guilt. The incident escalated to the point where Kelly’s face was fractured, and one of his broken ribs punctured a lung. He died five days later at UC Irvine Medical Center without regaining consciousness.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas indicted Officer Manuel Ramos on charges of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli on charges of involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force. A preliminary hearing to determine if there’s enough evidence to go to trial is scheduled for March 28.
Councilmen F. Richard Jones, Don Bankhead, and Pat McKinley may face a recall vote after public outrage because of a series of Police Department scandals, including the Thomas case.
In the meantime, Ron and the rest of the Thomas family are working with volunteers who have joined “Kelly’s Army” to help the public and police better understand the intersection of mental illness and homelessness. “The police need to be able to cool down such situations,” Ron says, “not see them as a test of their masculinity.”
He supports the assisted outpatient care described in California’s Laura’s Law, which makes homeless mentally ill people come to clinics for their medications. (See Page 96.) He’d also like to see a database of homeless schizophrenics, as well as a law that establishes guidelines for how police handle the mentally ill. “It’s necessary for the police to know who they’re dealing with. That overrides the mentally ill person’s right to privacy.”
The family’s Kelly Thomas Memorial Foundation assists charities that feed the homeless and mentally ill, including Mary’s Kitchen in Fullerton where Kelly occasionally had meals. If they win a financial settlement from Fullerton, the family intends to provide additional funding.
Two months after Kelly’s death, the Downtown Fullerton Plaza is alive with the sights and sounds of the Kelly Thomas Memorial Concert and Canned Food Drive. Hundreds of people listen to reggae and punk bands, donate food and clothing, and eat tacos and fancy fries from a food truck.
Three generations of Thomases attend, including Ron’s ex-wives, Cathy and Dana. Even some of the county’s homeless come to show support, including 51-year-old Curtis Campbell, who lives out of his neat backpack. He says the attention from Kelly’s death has helped local homeless people with housing, food, and clothing.
Ron Thomas, the commanding general of Kelly’s Army, presides, first in his customary Hawaiian shirt, then in a specially printed memorial concert T-shirt. He takes a break long enough to wolf down a hot sausage, and then goes back to shaking hands with the homeless.
“My dad’s a very strong person,” says Tina. “But when it’s all said and done, he’ll have a nervous breakdown.”
Unless and until that happens, though, he vows to keep fighting for his lost boy.
By Michael Goldstein
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Orange Coast magazine.