by Leslie Layton
posted Nov. 15
Update: At a Nov. 16 hearing, a judge suspended criminal proceedings in this case and ordered a psychological examination of Thomas Bona that will be delivered Dec. 21. Bona had refused to come to court for the hearing.
Thomas David Bona, who has been in and out of the Butte County courtrooms and jail during the past 16 years, now faces felony charges with hate crime enhancements in connection with two recent graffiti incidents.
Bona is scheduled to be back in court Nov. 16 on charges related to the discovery of swastikas etched into the Murdered & Missing Indigenous Women mural at Cedar and Second streets and on the Congregation Beth Israel sign at the local synagogue. Both the mural and the temple sign had been partially burned. He’s also charged with throwing a rock through the window of a local restaurant.
Someone had scrawled, “Fuck Indians” and “Indian killer” on the mural when the artists discovered the defacement last month. Broken glass had been thrown into the face of an indigenous woman depicted in the artwork.
“He targets minorities,” said Ali Meders-Knight, a member of the local Mechoopda Tribe and one of three artists who has been working on the mural. The defacement “really made us feel like there was a group of Nazis targeting us.”
Nazi swastikas and other hate graffiti aimed at ethnic minority groups are festering throughout California. White supremacist groups are often responsible for these hate incidents. In some cases, however, the explanation can be very complex.
Bona, a diagnosed schizophrenic who has been living unhoused in Chico, was convicted early last year on charges related to 2019 graffiti incidents involving what the district attorney’s office called “white power statements,” as well as a confrontation with a motorist. His recent re-emergence on similar charges has raised questions about mental health care in and outside of jails and prisons and how best to protect the community.
During the confrontation with the motorist, prosecutors said Bona yelled racial slurs at the driver, kicked the side of the car and tried to carve a swastika into the hood. He was sentenced to the highest possible term of six years.
But in July, Bona was released early from state prison after receiving 526 days credit for time served in jail and at a state mental hospital during court proceedings. A Butte County District Attorney’s press statement says Bona was released “with conditions that he seek continued mental health treatment and be subject to GPS ankle-monitor tracking as he had no home and declined sober living residences.”
Now Bona faces charges of arson, vandalism, and a parole violation — with hate crime enhancements — and a possible nine-year sentence. DA Mike Ramsey confirmed that Bona has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but his press release states that the 36-year-old suspect “has had many treatment opportunities both in custody and out.”
His “continual terrorizing of the community cannot be tolerated …,” the press statement says.
The recent defacements to the mural and the synagogue were, in fact, frightening to the people who were targeted.
Lisa Rappaport, spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Israel on Hemlock Street, said the discovery of the vandalized temple sign had been “very rattling and disturbing” -– especially coming as it did about the same time as similar incidents in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Davis.
Siana Sonoquie, an advocate for the unhoused community who is familiar with Bona’s history, seems as frustrated as those in local law enforcement -– but for different reasons.
“I don’t want to minimize the harm [Bona] has caused and the potential for more harm,” said Sonoquie, who helped in trying to locate Bona during Project Roomkey, a state-driven effort to shelter unhoused people during the pandemic. “Two things are true at once … we also know that the response from the justice system is not effective.”
Sonoquie says Bona represents a more complex social problem: How to effectively treat mentally ill, unhoused community members, who are often in and out of jails and prisons — and how to support them when they’re released.
“For severely mentally ill people living with delusions and all of the things that go with schizophrenia, there are no good solutions for them when they come out of prison — just the hope they will find their way out,” she said.
Bona’s court docket tells the story of troubles that began in 2006 and then become a litany of arrests, jail sentences, probation violations and restitution fines that end up turned over to the county collections division.
It goes like this: In 2006, Bona was arrested for possession of a deadly weapon — a concealed knife of some kind. He was sentenced to three days in jail and two years probation. In 2007, he was charged with vandalism and failures to appear in court. During the next three years there were other issues forcing him back to court, including restitution fines referred to collections.
There were also new, worrisome charges. In 2010, he fired a rifle in a north Chico apartment complex and was convicted of reckless discharge. He failed probation and ended up on his first stay in state prison.
Six months after he was paroled -– August 2012 – he was charged with elder abuse, accused of punching an 86-year-old man in the aisle at Best Buy. According to a Butte County probation report, the victim said he noticed Bona talking to himself and made a comment referring to him as “crazy.” Bona punched him once and the man fell to the floor.
In a subsequent interview with police, Bona was described as “confused.” By October, the court had found Bona incompetent to stand trial, and by the end of 2012 he was committed to a state hospital. On Feb. 28, 2014, Metropolitan State Hospital in Los Angeles County declared Bona “restored to mental competency,” the probation report says.
In April 2014, the report says Bona was interviewed at Butte County Jail and described his behavior at Best Buy this way: “I saw the Sopranos DVD and I was quoting lines from the show. I’m Sicilian and love anything Sicilian. I acted like a ‘wise guy.’
“He walked up to me and threatened me …” Bona said of the elderly victim. “I feel bad since he was an older guy but I’ve been ‘in’ for 2 years.”
Bona also told police he hadn’t taken medications for at least a month because he had been “on the streets.” He described his symptoms this way: “Sometimes I see bugs crawling then look again and they’re not there. I also hear voices.”
Bona was returned to state prison to serve time for the elder abuse conviction.
By 2019, he was back in the community facing charges of violating parole and hate-fueled vandalism. He was convicted and returned to prison for the third time.
Sonoquie, who serves as a board member of the Safe Space sheltering program, says that apart from the racist and sometimes violent nature of Bona’s behavior, he’s not atypical in his inability to manage his illness while living on the streets.
Unhoused people struggle with how to charge a mobile phone and where to sleep, and if they’re ill, are often reluctant to take meds that make them sleepy because they’re afraid of getting robbed, she said.
Ramsey is less sympathetic. “The state prisons have a robust mental health program,” the DA said. “He did get substantial help, but did it cure him? That’s the question.”
Sonoquie and others interviewed for this story challenged the assertion that mental health care is good in jails and prisons. “Jails are not set up to be mental hospitals,” Sonoquie said.
Supportive housing in short supply
“The simple idea that he was released to the streets with an ankle monitor is insane,” Sonoquie said of Bona. “It sets him up for failure. There’s no support system.”
Added Sonoquie: “This is all connected to the way we care for the severely mentally ill in our community. Just handing a [homeless] person a piece of paper” and telling them to show up at behavioral health or for a probation appointment on a certain date won’t work. An unmedicated, mentally ill, unhoused person “will find it hard to keep up with things.”
Many former prisoners find re-entry to their communities challenging, she added. “Imagine layering on top of that schizophrenia. It’s a very, very difficult journey.”
People released from custody have few places they can go for housing, particularly if they need a structured support program for ongoing care, she said. Someone managing mental illness may need, for example, transitional housing that has a case manager who shows up daily and ensures the client takes meds.
“Supportive housing is the most important piece of this,” Sonoquie said, noting that Chico has a limited supply.
Bona’s public defender, Matthew Bently, declined to comment on the case or the plea his client may enter at arraignment.
But he agrees that a much greater supply of transitional housing is needed in the community. Upon release, some people will need curfews, mental health services, vocational counseling — something that’s “a step down from incarceration and gives them a chance to re-enter society.”
“You can’t just throw people back into the society they came from and say ‘good luck,’” Bently said. “We have some excellent cops and probation officers who truly care, but I don’t think we have a strong rehabilitative aftercare program” that goes beyond parole.
A nonprofit criminal justice reform organization, Civil Rights Corps, says supportive housing with “wraparound services” has been shown to dramatically reduce re-arrest and re-incarceration rates.
“Jail is just not a conducive place to receive mental health treatment”–Washington
Sam Washington, a policy associate with the Washington, D.C.-based group, told ChicoSol that getting a resistant former prisoner into housing with a structured program requires “relationship-building” with social and behavioral health workers.
In-custody mental health treatment can be helpful, but Washington said most of the programs are “woefully inadequate.” In addition, because of the “traumatizing conditions” in jails and prisons, it’s difficult to have “productive mental health programs.”
“Jail is just not a conducive place to receive mental health treatment,” Washington said.
Nevertheless, the care may provide some benefit to some inmates with the goal of learning to manage their illness successfully. “Many schizophrenic people are living healthy, productive lives,” Washington pointed out.
“Perpetuating a cycle”
Chico Police Lt. Brian Miller indicated his frustration with the rate at which California prisons release prisoners convicted of crimes that are deemed “non-violent” and “non-serious.”
“When we started seeing swastikas again, we asked ourselves ‘Where’s Thomas Bona?’” Miller told ChicoSol. “The way things are, we can do the best we can, but we have no say over people staying in custody.”
Meders-Knight has worked on several murals that have been defaced and was wondering whether Bona has been held accountable for his role when she was contacted by Chico police on Nov. 4 after his most recent arrest. The nature of his graffiti indicates “he knows exactly who he’s targeting,” she said.
In September, the state Legislature passed legislation to stiffen penalties for swastika graffiti. AB 2282 makes punishment for using nooses and Nazi swastikas comparable to that of cross-burning.
Sonoquie said early releases aren’t the problem –- the problem is the lack of community resources to support former prisoners when they return.
“When [mentally ill] people cause harm in a community, the response is to banish them to prison,” Sonoquie said. “Then they are let out and they cause more harm, perpetuating a cycle. Our response is not to have a place for this person to go. We keep doing this to ourselves.”
Sonoquie agrees that racist graffiti and property damage Bona is suspected of producing and has produced in the past is not just frustrating, but “super scary.”
“But what the county is doing is not making people safe,” she added.
Sonoquie said the community members who have been threatened by recent graffiti incidents should be involved in responding to whomever was responsible. “People have a right to feel safe in our community,” she said. “The people that were harmed should have a say in how to make it right.”
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol and a freelance journalist.