SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A third former Fullerton police officer has been charged in the beating death of a mentally ill homeless man after a violent confrontation with police last year, prosecutors said Thursday.
Former officer Joseph Wolfe was arraigned in Orange County on one felony count of involuntary manslaughter and one felony count of use of excessive force. He pleaded not guilty and surrendered on $25,000 bail, said Farrah Emami, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office.
A grand jury indicted Wolfe, 37, on Monday, prosecutors said. He was released on bail, his attorney said, and is due back in court Nov. 2.
Wolfe was one of six officers involved in a violent clash with 37-year-old Kelly Thomas in July 2011 during an investigation into a report that Thomas was trying car doors at a Fullerton transit hub. Thomas died five days later.
The clash was captured on surveillance video and digital audio recorders worn by some of the officers. It stoked protests by residents, the recall of three councilmembers and an FBI investigation, in addition to criminal charges filed against two other officers last year.
Former Fullerton police officer Manuel Ramos was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and former Fullerton Cpl. Jay Cicinelli was charged with involuntary manslaughter and assault or battery by a public officer in Thomas' death. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Since then, several of Thomas' supporters have urged Orange County prosecutors to charge Wolfe, who is seen on the video swinging his baton at Thomas' leg.
Wolfe's employment at the Fullerton police department — along with that of Ramos and Cicinelli — was terminated earlier this year.
Wolfe's defense attorneys Michael Nasatir and Vicki Podberesky said in a statement Thursday that their client should not have been charged.
"Whether this change in course is the result of well-meaning but misguided external pressure upon the district attorney's office, or a political effort to quell perceived public unrest, we are confident that when the evidence is presented in a court of law, Mr. Wolfe will be exonerated of all criminal wrongdoing," the statement said.
Last July, police began questioning Thomas at the transit hub in a conversation that escalated into a physical confrontation with officers pinning Thomas to the ground as he moaned that he could not breathe.
Prosecutors said Wolfe, a 12-year veteran of the Fullerton police department, hit Thomas in the leg with his baton and tackled him to the ground with Ramos. Authorities said Wolfe kneed and punched Thomas and used his body weight to minimize Thomas' movement until other officers arrived.
Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas' father, said he had hoped prosecutors would file stronger counts against Wolfe but was pleased he was charged in the case.
"I'm very grateful for what the district attorney has done," he said.
The grand jury heard testimony from 10 witnesses and examined 113 exhibits of evidence before returning an indictment, prosecutors said. The district attorney's office declined to discuss further details of the proceedings because transcripts are sealed.
If convicted, Wolfe could face up to four years in prison, prosecutors said.