FULLERTON, Calif. – Until last month, the most pressing issues in this quiet Southern California suburb were whether to build homes on rolling hills north of the city, how best to preserve a historic movie theater and a downtown bar scene that got a little too popular for its own good.
Now, the historic city that's home to five colleges and a vibrant nightlife is the target of international outrage after a mentally ill homeless man died following a violent fight with six police officers that was captured on camera. In the video, 37-year-old Kelly Thomas, who suffered from schizophrenia, can be heard crying out for his father over the zapping sound of a stun gun.
The incident last month has ensnared Fullerton in an ever-widening array of state and federal investigations, resignations and rowdy protests — and things promise to get worse for the city before they get better. The acting police chief last week ordered an internal investigation into an unrelated, but volatile confrontation last year after reviewing cell phone footage that appears to contradict sworn testimony given by police officers in court.
Public outcry over the new video prompted the department to acknowledge that officers may have arrested the wrong man. That man, Veth Mam, on Friday filed a federal complaint alleging officers used excessive force and falsified their police reports after arresting him. Mam, 35, was acquitted by a jury earlier this month on charges of assault, battery and resisting arrest, in part because of cell phone video depicting his own arrest.
The two incidents have put Fullerton, an unassuming Orange County city best known as the home of a prominent California State University campus, on the map from Germany to Korea — and unhappy residents and business owners are hunkering down. The city, founded in 1887 in the midst of citrus groves, prides itself on its roster of refurbished turn-of-the-century brick buildings, a bustling summer farmer's market and a hopping nightlife in the redeveloped downtown with a jazz scene that has been known to attract the likes of actor Joe Pesci.
Most families who move to the city put down permanent roots and enjoy the small-town feel in a county better known for its sprawling suburban developments and web of freeways.
"It's a very friendly place, it's kind of low-key and because this has happened now that's all that anybody knows about us," said Michael Ritto, president of the Fullerton Downtown Business Association. "People are all upset, people are marching. I go to work and every day, all day, there's TV cameras and crews everywhere."
The city's biggest quality-of-life issue, an overly active bar scene, has been somewhat tamed in the past several years but is still an issue for police. Mam's arrest last year happened as bars were letting out around 2 a.m.
"They're telling people, 'Don't go to Fullerton.' Nobody here did anything wrong. Why should the retailers suffer?" said Ritto, speaking of the protesters who have packed public forums and marched outside the police station every Saturday for a month.
For Fullerton, things began spiraling out of control on July 5, when Thomas got into a violent fight with police officers who were responding to reports that someone had been burglarizing cars at a downtown transit station. Thomas, who suffered severe head and neck injuries, was taken off life support on July 10.
The incident was captured from a distance by a bystander with a cell phone camera and surveillance video from a bus captured upset witnesses telling the bus driver that officers had beaten and repeatedly used a stun gun on Thomas as he cried out for help.
The district attorney's office is investigating the death and the FBI has launched a criminal probe to determine whether Thomas' civil rights were violated. The City Council also last week voted to hire an independent consultant to untangle the events leading to Thomas' death.
The district attorney has additional video of the incident from city surveillance cameras but authorities have not released it — or the officers' names — citing the ongoing investigation.
Police Chief Michael Sellers went on medical leave last week after repeated calls for his resignation and a recall effort is underway against a councilman, the mayor pro tem and Mayor Richard Jones, a retired surgeon who angered many when he said he had seen injuries worse than those suffered by Thomas during the Vietnam War.
On Friday, attorney Garo Mardirossian, who is representing Thomas' family, announced he had also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on Mam's behalf. He alleges that one of the officers involved in Mam's case was also involved in the fight with Thomas.
Sgt. Andrew Goodrich, a police spokesman, declined to comment on specific allegations in the lawsuit or to confirm the officer was involved in either case.
Mam, 35, was accused of jumping on an officer's back and choking him outside of a bar he and his friends had just left. His criminal attorney, David Borsari, said Mam was actually recording the arrest of his friend on his cell phone when the officer in question knocked the device out of his hand, and wrestled him to the ground where he was arrested.
Another bystander picked up Mam's phone and captured Mam's arrest — footage that proves he never attacked an officer, said Borsari.
The cell phone video was used as evidence by both the prosecution and defense during trial and Mam was acquitted on all counts.
"Once they know that they've been caught, they fall back on, 'It's a mistake,'" Borsari said. "I believe it was a calculated attempt to file a false report to mislead a jury."
Goodrich, the police spokesman, said allegations that the officers in the Mam case perjured themselves were false because they believed when they testified that they had arrested the right person.
"I've said it many times, this is a good department that focuses on community service," Goodrich said. "There's a lot of attention focused on us because of the Kelly Thomas incident and we understand that and we respect that."
Prosecutor Rebecca Reed, who handled Mam's case, said her office received the tape more than a month before trial but no one reviewed it until she watched it on the first day of the misdemeanor trial in June. She relied on officers' accounts in building her case, she said.
"I thought it was reasonable that Veth Mam had been involved in this altercation before filming," she said. "The video did not show the whole story."
Associated Press Writer Greg Risling reported from Los Angeles.