A third former Fullerton Police officer pleaded not guilty on Thursday to one felony count each of involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force in the July 2011 beating death of Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic homeless man, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s office.
If convicted, Joseph Wolfe – a 13-year veteran of the force – faces a maximum sentence of four years in prison. His pre-trial hearing is set for Nov. 2.
Wolfe is the third ex-police officer to face charges in Thomas’ death.
Prosecutors initially said there was not enough evidence to prosecute Wolfe, one of six officers seen on surveillance video while the 37-year-old homeless man was beaten at a Fullerton bus depot for allegedly refusing to comply.
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But after hearing testimony from 10 witnesses and examining 113 exhibits of evidence during a three-day period beginning Sept. 19, an Orange County Grand Jury decided on Monday to indict the 37-year-old.
On July 5, 2011, Wolfe and former officer Manuel Ramos responded in separate squad cars to the Fullerton Transportation Center shortly after 8:30 p.m. on a report that a man was trying to break into vehicles.
The DA says Wolfe was reviewing the contents of Thomas’ backpack – which contained papers belonging to an attorney, who later said the bag was trash and not stolen – when Thomas stood up from the curb where he’d been told to sit and faced Ramos.
At that time, Wolfe, who was standing near a patrol car about 10 to 15 feel away ran toward the pair with his baton drawn, the DA said. Wolfe is accused of continuing to approach Thomas while he backed away and of striking Thomas in the left leg with his baton.
Thomas then turned and ran in front of one of the parked patrol vehicles, the DA said.
"As Ramos chased directly after him, Wolfe is accused of running the opposite direction around the back of the patrol vehicle and meeting Thomas and Ramos on the other side," the DA said in a release. "A physical altercation began on the other side of the vehicle."
Wolfe is accused of tackling Thomas to ground with Ramos, kneeing and punching Thomas, and using his body weight to minimize Thomas’ movement as the other officers arrived, the DA said.
In a 30-minute surveillance video captured by bus depot cameras, officers can be seen striking Thomas with batons, tasers and fists.
The confrontation was also recorded by two witnesses’ cell phones and six videos of the area and persons around the area, the OC DA said. Some 151 witnesses, including responding paramedics and hospital staff, were privy to the altercation and Thomas’ subsequent hospitalization.
The 37-year-old man died five days after the beating.
Former officer Manuel Ramos is facing second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Former corporal Jay Cicinelli is facing involuntary manslaughter.
If convicted on the murder charge, Ramos faces 15 years to life. Both officers face up to four years in prison if convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Wolfe was no longer employed by the city of Fullerton as of July 16. Three other officers involved in the incident have returned to duty.