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Cop Out 

Grover Beach police officer Brian Thomas was no hero

    When Lt. Brian Edward Thomas locked himself in a Santa Maria motel, put a .380 caliber pistol to his temple, and pulled the trigger, his life wasn’t the only thing that abruptly ended. With his final act, taken January 12, the long-time Grover Beach police officer also terminated, wrenchingly, an investigation by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department into charges of physical and sexual abuse.
click to enlarge CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Christopher Gardner
#     To those he professed to love most, he left a legacy of tainted memories and complex emotional turmoil. In addition Thomas left behind troubling questions about his suitability to hold a position of authority in a law enforcement agency, and still more questions about successive police chiefs who continually elevated him in rank despite a series of overt warnings indicating that he could be unstable.
    Was Thomas “abrupt,� “overly aggressive,� and “out of his league,� as some of his former police department colleagues say? Or was the ex-Marine and 16-year police veteran a decorated “go-to guy, a man of action, a great asset to the department,� as described by his two most recent chiefs of police? Was Thomas “a devoted family man,� as Grover Beach’s current police chief repeatedly declared in the days following his suicide, or was he a seriously disturbed individual whose family could only have suffered as a result? Should alarms have been sounded after Thomas engaged in a bruising fistfight with his oldest son? The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney filed charges in that case but eventually dropped them; Thomas’s superiors at the Grover Beach Police Department did even less: nothing. Should Thomas’s immense collection of triple-X pornography, no secret within the department, have raised questions? And why did it take 22 days for authorities to begin interviewing witnesses following credible reports that Thomas had sexually molested a minor?
* * *
    Thomas was buried this past Friday following a 90-minute funeral at the evangelical Grace Bible Church, a sprawling structure perched on an Arroyo Grande hillside with a sweeping, sun-washed view of the Pacific Ocean. Conspicuously absent was the overwhelming police presence typically found at services for a fallen comrade. Only a few dozen uniformed police and public-safety officers were scattered among the 200 or so assembled mourners, though most of Grover Beach’s 19 sworn officers were there.
    The service began and ended with a slide show, many of the photos depicting a smiling family — Thomas, his wife, and their four children. Court documents, however, suggest that Thomas’s smile masked a darker visage. A search warrant obtained January 9 by the sheriff’s department describes a litany of egregious misdeeds inflicted upon three victims, at least one of whom was a minor. (The sworn affidavit requesting the warrant, redacted to protect the victims’ identities, is a public document; it was released to New Times late last week.)
    During a search of Thomas’s Nipomo residence, sheriff’s investigators collected a variety of items, including computers and boxes of pornographic material. According to sources close to the case, sufficient evidence was gathered at the home, and from victim interviews, to justify at least two felony charges. Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Hasty, supervisor of detectives, declines comment on the Thomas investigation other than to say, “We’re still closing up a few loose ends.� But others familiar with the probe say the charges would have included child molestation and bestiality.
    Interviews with one former and two current law enforcement officers who spent years working with Thomas, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, strongly suggest he was far from the ideal cop. Nevertheless in the aftermath of Thomas’s suicide, Grover Beach Police Chief Jim Copsey staunchly lauded him as a valued police officer and a man for whom family was sacrosanct. (Copsey, who has been chief for just one year, promoted Thomas to lieutenant in June of last year.) “He’s been my right-hand person to get things done,� Copsey told the Santa Maria Times. “He’s the type of guy any chief would want to get things done, and he does it right.� Speaking to the Tribune, the chief said, “There were family issues that had nothing to do with the police department or the community.... The community is going to miss Brian.... It’s going to be extremely difficult for somebody to come in and fill Brian’s shoes.�
    Shortly before Thomas’s funeral began, Copsey spoke to New Times and added this tribute: “It was difficult for Brian to divide his time between his responsibilities to his family and to his job. He was very devoted to both. He was invaluable around the office, spent a lot of time here. He would come into the station to cover for other officers on holidays.�
    At the time of his death, Thomas was under criminal investigation by the sheriff’s department, a fact that led Chief Copsey to place him on administrative leave Monday, January 9. The sheriff’s search warrant detailed several aspects of that investigation. (A sworn affidavit requesting a search warrant must detail the reasons law enforcement officials believe a crime has been committed and specify the type of evidence sought. It must be approved by a judge.) According to that document, plus information provided by law enforcement sources and others familiar with the investigation, this is the sequence of events that led to Thomas’s self-inflicted violent death:
    Six days before Christmas, allegations of “physical and sexual abuse� were reported to the SLO County Child Protective Services (CPS), a division of the county’s Social Services Department. According to the sworn affidavit, ten days passed before that agency notified the sheriff’s department of the allegations. Social Services director Lee Collins says abuse cases involving a minor are handled either on an “immediate response� or a “ten-day response� basis. CPS waited ten days, though the reasons for that remain unclear. Laws protecting young victims of sexual molestation prohibit Collins and CPS officials from discussing the Thomas case. Some sources familiar with the subsequent investigation say the victims traveled out of state as soon as the allegations were made, but that cannot be confirmed. It is clear, however, that the sheriff’s department waited 12 more days before launching an active investigation.
    On Monday, January 9, a multiagency “Child Abuse Interview Team� questioned the three alleged victims. As recorded in the search warrant affidavit, child forensic interview specialist Tracy Nix was told by “Victim 1,� a female, that Brian Thomas had once confronted her “regarding viewing Brian Thomas’s pornography� and then he “placed her hand on Brian Thomas’s genitals with skin to skin contact.� Victim 1 told investigators that Thomas had “an extensive pornography collection that she described as being enough to open his own store. Victim 1 described some of the titles of the pornography as ‘Gang Bangs,’ ‘Girls Gone Wild’ and ‘bisexual ones.’�
    A second alleged victim interviewed that Monday was not identified by gender. “Victim 2,� though, described an image on a computer “of a dog having sex with a woman in addition to other pornography. [Victim 2] also described a photograph of Victim 1 wearing a bikini while at Avila Beach on the computer. Victim 2 believes that the photograph had been sent electronically to person or persons.�
    “Victim 3,� also a female, told investigators that “Brian Thomas had sex with her while she was unconscious due to alcohol intoxication.� She added that “around the same time frame� she “had awoken from being passed out on the couch and that Brian Thomas was attempting to have [redacted material] dog engage in sexual intercourse with Victim 3.� The victim also reported that “approximately two years ago she saw what she thought was child pornography on the [redacted material] computer. Victim 3 described one of the pornographic pictures as depicting an approximately 12-year-old female. Victim 3 described Brian Thomas as an ‘Internet porn addict’ who spends an exorbitant amount of time engaging in online chats and the trading of pornographic pictures.�
    After concluding their interviews, sheriff’s detectives set up a “pretext phone call� in which one of the female victims would discuss the alleged incidents with the expectation that Thomas would make incriminating statements. The search warrant affidavit continues: “It appears that Brian Thomas became aware that the phone call was being recorded and that law enforcement was involved. Brian Thomas asked [Victim 1] directly if the phone call was being recorded.� Shortly afterward two of the victims “received on their cellular phones voice messages from Brian Thomas that showed he was calling from his residence.�
When detectives questioned Thomas later that day, January 9, he told them he had gone home from the police station immediately after receiving the pretext call, retrieved a portion of his pornography collection, and discarded it in a trash receptacle near the Kmart store in Arroyo Grande. (Thomas did not dispose of his entire collection; he explained to investigators that he left some of it locked in his gun case and in a closet.) Detectives, in their sworn affidavit, concluded that Thomas “made numerous inconsistent statements, such as…his account of the bestiality incident.� They wrote that Thomas made “critical factual omissions� during questioning. Also, according to the affidavit, Thomas “admitted to having sex with Victim 3 while she was intoxicated…. Many of Victim 3’s statements were confirmed during the interview with Brian Thomas.� The detectives then asked Thomas for consent to search his house for “possible child and bestiality pornography.� He refused. In spite of the allegations made by the victims, and Thomas’s own admissions, investigators did not believe they had probable cause to make an immediate arrest, according to Undersheriff Steve Bolts. So at 11:00 p.m. that night, Superior Court Judge John Trice approved the search warrant. Meanwhile, Thomas reportedly went to stay with friends while the investigation continued.
* * *
    Thomas may have been popular with his superiors, but some rank-and-file cops saw in him no endearing qualities. Current and former officers who worked with Thomas on the Grover Beach department describe him as “a loose cannon� and “a train wreck waiting to happen.�
    “Brian was allowed to run out of control,� recalls one uniformed officer who spent years with the Grover Beach department. “The warning signs were everywhere but nobody wanted to be involved.� Among those signs was an incident recounted by all three former colleagues. In 2001 Thomas arrived at police headquarters carrying a cardboard box filled with pornographic videos, magazines, and books. He reportedly told fellow officers that his wife had ordered him to dispose of his collection. Now he was offering the X-rated material free to anyone at the station who wanted it.
    John Bradbury, who retired in September 2004, was chief of the Grover department when that incident occurred. He says he didn’t learn of the porn giveaway until some time later. “Well, I heard about that, but only a year or two after it happened,� he recalls. “And I’m not sure why I didn’t hear about it.... I usually was able to keep pretty close tabs on what was going on around the station.� Bradbury claims he “didn’t even allow health magazines, because some of those are inappropriate. And I made them take down all their pictures and things.� Had he known about the box of porn, he adds, “of course it would not have been allowed. I would have disciplined him.�
    William Kirchhoff, an internationally recognized authority on police training and procedures, believes the pornography in the station is inexcusable. “What a stupid and immature thing for a police officer to do,� says Kirchhoff, who lectures at the University of Southern California and advises on police policies and procedures to agencies worldwide. “Is this the kind of guy you want handling rapes, child sexual abuse cases? At the least it is a very unprofessional act. Any police supervisor who is passing out pornographic material in a public building ought to be disciplined for behavior unbecoming a police officer. And if the police chief’s legal counsel says the department’s policies aren’t sufficient to do this, then the appropriate policy must be adopted.�
    Another warning sign surfaced in April of last year. According to officers who worked with Thomas at the time, he and his oldest son had a heated argument at home. The son then went to a girlfriend’s house. Thomas followed, and after entering the girlfriend’s house without permission, became involved in a violent fistfight with the boy. Someone placed a 911 emergency call, and the sheriff’s department responded.
    Chief Copsey says he takes issue with the characterization of the altercation between Thomas and his teenage son as “violent,� even though witnesses say Thomas showed up for work the next day with a black eye, swollen cheek, and facial abrasions. “Well, Brian had a black eye,� Copsey concedes. “I’m not sure about a swollen face.�
    District Attorney Gerald Shea filed charges against Thomas for “corporal assault on a child,� a misdemeanor. Those charges were later dismissed after prosecutors claimed they had insufficient evidence. Copsey, citing the dismissal, decided the fight was “a private family matter� and took no disciplinary action. To the contrary, later that same month he promoted Thomas to lieutenant, second in departmental command.
    “It’s absolutely ludicrous to describe such a situation as a private family matter,� says Sheila Anderson, president and CEO of the Sacramento-based California chapter of Prevent Child Abuse / America. “Child abuse is not a private matter, not by any description, not any more than murder is a private family matter,� Anderson argues, adding that one in four children in America is abused in some criminal manner. “It’s very unfortunate that [Copsey] describes this issue in this way.�
    Other incidents suggested to some of Thomas’s fellow police officers that he sometimes was not as interested in their safety as he was in self-indulgent pranks. One example: Responding to a phone call from a drunken Grover Beach resident who claimed to be armed, police officers — on Thomas’s order — battered down the house’s door and charged in. Standing behind the advancing officers, Thomas lobbed a “flash-bang� grenade into the room ahead of his men, stunning several of them. The alcohol-sodden man was found upstairs.
    Asked at a follow-up police briefing why he took such an action, Thomas, according to one former colleague who was present and who subsequently complained (without results) to superiors, responded, “Because I’ve never had a chance to throw one of those [stun grenades]. It was cool!� Thomas’s supervisors then terminated further discussion of the matter, according to the complaining officer.
    On another occasion, says the same former colleague, Thomas responded to a backup call from a solitary Arroyo Grande police officer who was trying to arrest two suspects. After surveying the situation and criticizing procedures, Thomas departed, leaving the remaining cop to scramble for help in making the arrests.
    The former colleague who spoke to New Times recalls that Thomas “liked to ‘jump’ sheriff’s radio calls and show up unexpectedly� at crime scenes in Nipomo and Arroyo Grande. “He went under the code name David 9 at the time,� says the former colleague. “He would drive up in his unmarked detective car wearing sweat pants, tennis shoes, a jacket, and his badge pinned to a fanny pack that held his service revolver. Then he’d act like he was taking charge. A lot of guys got real tired of it.� (Former Grover Beach Police Chief John Bradbury, in his eulogy at Thomas’s funeral, appeared to validate that claim, noting proudly that “Brian was so passionate about his job that he would respond to law enforcement calls even when he was off-duty.�)
    In 2003 a Grover Beach motorcycle cop, Todd Miller, arrested a local firefighter for drunk driving. In a recent interview, Miller says he was sharply reprimanded by Thomas, then a sergeant. According to Miller, Thomas told him: “We’re not going to ruin this guy’s career by giving him his first DUI. You need to make a choice: Keep making these types of arrests or feed your family and make your mortgage payment.� (Miller later was fired amid continuing controversy over his numerous DUI citations.)
    But little or no criticism of Thomas’s work, or his personal behavior, ever seemed to register with his bosses. “It was my task to keep him under control,� chuckled Copsey during his eulogy for Thomas. Despite the complaints from other officers about Thomas’s conduct, his well-known craving for pornography, the questionable judgment displayed in openly offering porn at police headquarters, the fight with his son, the sheriff’s department investigation and subsequent allegations of sexual molestation and bestiality, Copsey stands firm in his support of Thomas. “Let me assure you that Brian was completely devoted to his family,� Copsey maintains. “His number-one concern was that family. He is still loved by that family, and by the police department family. Here we’ve got a person with 16 years’ experience with this organization. I think that kind of balances it all out.�
    Copsey says he won’t comment on the allegations contained in the sheriff’s search warrant. “I have no information on that,� he asserts. “That’s just it — they are only allegations. What I do know is that there is no way to prove the allegations. People are innocent until proven guilty. I’m not sure trying this matter in the newspaper will make any difference. I’m not sure it will benefit the situation we have here. But to the point: There were no charges filed. There was no trial. There was no proof. He provided honorable service to this organization.�
    The chief is probably wrong about proof. One source close to the investigation says sheriff’s investigators “had plenty of information.... And let me tell you one thing: When a law enforcement agency is involved in investigating other law enforcement people — well, you can be damned sure they had a dead-bang case against him.�
    With sheriff’s detectives continuing their investigation, Thomas was confronted with the growing realization that his future might include arrest, trial, and prison. So on the evening of January 12, three days after being questioned about the allegations of sexual misconduct, the 42-year-old father of four drove south to the Best Value Inn on Santa Maria’s East Main Street. He checked in. Sometime before dawn he raised his pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. A three-page suicide note mentioned “job stress,� elaborated on his love of his children, and professed his innocence. ∆

Daniel Blackburn can be reached at [email protected].

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