by Dave Waddell
commentary posted Dec. 17
I know Butte County has an elderly district attorney, but who knew Mike Ramsey’s thinking on mental illness was so prehistoric?
I am referring to a quote from Ramsey, Butte’s 35-year (!) DA, in Leslie Layton’s ChicoSol story about the difficult societal problems presented by Thomas David Bona.
Bona is a serial criminal living with schizophrenia and a multitude of delusions. He thinks he’s a member of the Sureños gang, which he isn’t. He also seems to have violently acted out his perceived ties to “The Sopranos” television crime family.
Most recently, Bona is facing felony charges with hate crime enhancements in connection with two terrorizing graffiti incidents in Chico. He is accused of etching swastikas into the Murdered & Missing Indigenous Women mural at Cedar and Second streets and on a Congregation Beth Israel sign at the local synagogue, among other frightening acts. Bona is also charged with throwing a rock through a restaurant window, apparently because it displayed a San Francisco Giants sign. He is due back in Butte County Superior Court on Dec. 21 after a judge last month suspended criminal proceedings and ordered his psychological examination.
Ramsey, who knows Bona has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, offered this take on the situation: “The state prisons have a robust mental health program. He (Bona) did get substantial help, but did it cure him? That’s the question.”
So much is wrong with these words, it’s hard to know where to begin, so let’s parse the passage from back to front.
–“That’s the question.” The real question is: What is it about any of Bona’s criminal behaviors that suggest to the DA that he could be “cured” of mental illness? In 2019, six months after one prison release, Bona was in a Best Buy talking to himself, having apparently stopped taking his meds after losing his housing. There, Bona slugged an 86-year-old man who called him crazy.
–“But did it cure him?” Since Ramsey always sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, even when he’s making stuff up, I did a quick Google search. The following words come from the BrightQuest Treatment Centers’ website: “Schizophrenia is a chronic mental illness that has no cure. It causes symptoms of psychosis, including hallucinations, delusions, disordered thinking and speech, abnormal behaviors … While this condition cannot be cured, it can be successfully treated. Antipsychotic medications are crucial for managing symptoms.”
–“He did get substantial help.” I’m fairly certain Ramsey knows (or cares) as much about Bona’s treatment program in prison as he does about schizophrenia cures.
–“The state prisons have a robust mental health program.” “A robust program,” like “substantial help,” is a vague, subjective phrase, but it suggests something positive. In truth, California prisons have a long history of crappy treatment of mentally ill inmates. Just this year, CalMatters, a non-profit news organization, in a six-part series of stories, described a system in which mentally ill prisoners were bounced from facility to facility. Perhaps that’s what Ramsey means by “robust.” CalMatters concluded that “three decades after California’s prisons first came under court monitoring for rampant abuse and neglect of prisoners with mental illness, the system is still failing to protect its sickest inmates. For many of these men … prison is not a place to heal. It is a place to disappear.”
While taken aback by the backwardness of Ramsey’s words about Bona’s schizophrenia, I’m certainly no stranger to the DA’s dismissiveness of people in mental crisis -– especially those killed by the Chico Police Department. Another Ramsey statement in that ChicoSol story — that Bona “has had many treatment opportunities both in custody and out” -– was precisely Ramsey’s attitude after Chico police gunned down Desmond Phillips, a young Black man in mental crisis, in his father’s living room on St. Patrick’s Day, 2017.
Ramsey rushed out a 13-page, single-spaced report on the Phillips killing, but only a couple of those pages actually reviewed the police incompetence, fear and brutality that took place in that tiny living room that night. The reality is that police shot Phillips, who was in acute psychosis, with a stun gun and then unloaded their Glocks full of hollow-point rounds while he was still reeling from the effects of that Taser. Two inexperienced officers totaled 16 shots, 11 of which hit Phillips, while several other bullets sailed through an adjacent apartment or out the front door of the residence, nearly hitting at least one officer. Phillips was most likely holding only a small stick when assaulted and killed at the age of 25.
One veteran police expert said the slaying had all the signs of a “panic shooting” by officer Alex Fliehr and a “sympathy shooting” by officer Jeremy Gagnebin. Having been quickly exonerated by Ramsey, Fliehr, just five months later, would go on to cruelly shoot Tyler Rushing with a Taser while Rushing was clearly incapacitated and probably dead -– a bizarre action the City of Chico, at considerable taxpayer expense, must now defend in a federal court wrongful death case.
After zero accountability for their killing, Fliehr and Gagnebin continue to carry guns and patrol the streets of a city with a Police Department whose training and conduct standards have been deteriorating since the ineffectual Mike O’Brien, now an appointed City Council member, took over as chief in 2015.
During the past seven years, in a trend unheard of previously, Chico police desperate for greater professionalism quit to take lateral positions at smaller area law enforcement agencies. These defections included multiple minority officers.
Having sifted through Desmond Phillips’ medical records searching for morsels (a missed appointment here, a wrong box checked on a form there) with which to try to demonize Desmond and blame him for the horrifying homicide that took his life, how did Ramsey treat the officers who riddled his body with bullets? Delicately. With kid gloves.
When the original sagas that Fliehr, Gagnebin and a third officer individually told investigators about Desmond’s actions turned out to be so different as to be mutually impossible, Ramsey brought them all together so they could try to get their stories straight. According to Seth Stoughton, a national expert on police use of force, no competent law enforcement official would allow, let alone encourage, people who were supposedly being investigated in a homicide to collaborate on their testimony.
It is vital to understand that district attorneys are by far the most powerful players in our criminal justice system. Multiply that basic power by 3½ decades in office, toss into the mix what is, by and large, a benign, worshipful local news media, and Ramsey has acquired nearly absolute power to spin the criminal justice tale of Butte County. And when it comes to police killings, my research has shown that power has corrupted the county’s so-called investigations absolutely. These investigations are not a search for truth, but rather Ramsey’s pursuit of morsels of information -– no matter how sketchy or irrelevant -– to make deviant police killings seem somehow normal.
All those years with such immense power must do something to a man’s head. In Ramsey’s case, he feels free to simply ignore -– over and over and over again — my California Public Records Act requests for information about Butte County’s epidemic of unnecessary police killings. Since no one is going to prosecute him, I’ve repeatedly been forced to pay for an attorney to compel Ramsey to respond to my requests for the release of public documents. I would prefer a DA who does not consider himself (or herself) above the law; a DA with the courage to investigate police officers who kill as murder suspects; a DA who refuses to regard those wrongly killed by police as beneath the law’s protection.
Ramsey was appointed DA when the nation’s president was Ronald Reagan (the father of our country’s mental health crisis). He will be nearly 80 years old when the four-year term he was elected to in June expires in 2027. Butte County’s forever DA seems bent on doing a J. Edgar Hoover and never leaving office. That‘s alarming because Ramsey has corrupted Butte County law enforcement with his phony officer-involved killing cover-ups. And he is outrageously, dangerously ignorant about the mentally ill.
As for Bona, given his history and current trajectory, the next time he’s released from some “robust” prison treatment program, his despicable crimes could get worse and even become deadly.
As for Butte’s district attorney, the concerns, obviously, are legal, ethical and actuarial. It’s unfortunate and pathetic (to quote Charlton Heston on guns) that the DA’s office may have to be pried from Ramsey’s “cold, dead hands.”
Dave Waddell is a contributor to ChicoSol and a journalist who is researching Butte County law enforcement killings for a book.