James Bradford Nelson III remembers little about the afternoon last month when he struggled on the hot pavement, its surface searing his bare skin. But records tell the story of how he wound up in the UC Davis Medical Center burn unit, near death with severe wounds on the upper half of his body.
The injuries occurred June 23 in a KFC parking lot when Citrus Heights police officers held him on the ground after receiving calls that he was acting erratically at the restaurant. It was about 100 degrees that afternoon in the Sacramento area. The temperature of the asphalt parking lot would have been close to 170 degrees, according to estimates by the National Weather Service. An egg begins frying at about 144 degrees, and human skin “is instantly destroyed” at 162, according to the service.
On Monday, Nelson, heavily sedated by pain medication and still in intensive care with burns on his torso, face and buttocks, told The Bee he was unable to recall his interactions with police that day. His mother, Tarsha Benigno, described it as torture.
“He had a schizophrenic episode, and now he’s fighting for his life,” she said, sitting in a hospital waiting room with her husband. “Even a dog doesn’t deserve to be treated like this.”
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Police acknowledge that they held a shirtless Nelson down in the KFC parking lot on Auburn Boulevard after he became “combative” and tried to flee from them. They said they poured water on him once they realized he had been burned and called paramedics for help. An ambulance rushed him to the UC Davis emergency room, where he later was transferred to the burn intensive care unit. Benigno said doctors told her he was unconscious for three days.
Nelson, 28, whose mother said was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a teenager, has since undergone three skin graft operations and could need further surgery. He may be in the hospital for another two weeks.
Upon release, he faces charges of attempted robbery of a man’s wallet at the KFC, being under the influence of a controlled substance and resisting a peace officer. The charges are the latest in a series of mental episodes, arrests and incarcerations that have defined Nelson’s life since he was a juvenile, court records show. During the past 10 years, he has been charged with felony attempted robbery, burglary and larceny, and misdemeanor drug possession, among other offenses.
“He’s been caught up in a vicious cycle, in and out of the system,” Benigno said. “It’s terrible to worry every day about your child causing trouble because he is mentally ill.”
Benigno and her husband, Barry, with whom Nelson lives in Stockton, are trying to piece together the events that led to her son’s current medical saga. Nelson, in a brief interview from his hospital bed, said he only remembers getting into a minor car accident earlier that afternoon and then “trying to find my way home” to Stockton.
Security video and records reviewed by The Bee help paint a picture of what happened after Nelson rear-ended a driver at around noon a few blocks from the restaurant in the 7000 block of Auburn Boulevard in Citrus Heights.
Nelson, who grew up in Sacramento, was visiting cousins in the area that day, the Benignos said. Following the accident, they said, he used a borrowed phone to alert them that his white Nissan Altima was disabled and that he was waiting for police to arrive. He told them he would ask his cousin for a ride home.
“That’s when everything goes black,” said Barry Benigno, who works a substitute teacher in Stockton.
A day passed, and then two, without word from Nelson, the Benignos said. His mother, a teacher’s aide, said she tried to locate her son through relatives in the Sacramento area, and she and her husband grew increasingly worried when she was unable to locate him. On day three, a Stockton police officer showed up at the couple’s door, urging them to call UC Davis hospital. They found Nelson in the burn unit.
“He looked like someone had thrown acid on him,” his stepfather said. Most of his chest, once decorated with tattoos including a depiction of his mother and an image of a $100 bill, resembled raw meat, they said, as did the right side of his face. He had a tube in his throat to help him breathe.
Nelson was unconscious and suffering from kidney failure that the Benignos said may have occurred when he went into shock on the day he was burned. He was unable to tell them how the injuries happened, but a nurse told the couple that Nelson had “been in some kind of altercation with police,” Barry Benigno said.
“No one was forthcoming with us,” he said. “No one would tell us anything.”
The Benignos want to know why officers held Nelson on the ground until his skin burned, rather than moving him to a shady spot or using a Taser to disable him before transporting him for psychiatric care. They said Nelson suffered both second-degree burns, which penetrate the lower layer of skin and cause redness and blisters, and third-degree burns, which affect deeper tissues including muscles.
The Citrus Heights Police Department declined to immediately turn over information related to the case beyond its initial press release. In response to a Public Records Act request by The Bee, the agency said the release of the records “may endanger the safety” of people involved in the case, or compromise its criminal investigation.
Police Chief Ron Lawrence, in a statement to The Bee, said the department’s internal review of the case is ongoing.
“Using force to make an arrest or overcome resistance is something police officers try and avoid,” he said, “but it is necessary at times, particularly when suspects are violent or resist a lawful arrest. In this circumstance, I am glad James Nelson was taken into custody without anyone being injured as a result of his violent and erratic behavior.”
As part of its press release, the department provided security video from the KFC showing Nelson in the restaurant, bare chested with his pants sagging from his waist. He appears agitated as he jumps the counter at the KFC, then flails his arms at a manager. Before he runs out the door, Nelson takes a swing at the manager, and appears to reach toward the rear pockets of the man’s trousers. That interaction occurred at 3:41 p.m., according to the time stamp on the security video.
The manager, Anthony Easter, later would tell police that Nelson was “pointing his finger and pretending to shoot” employees and customers, and tried to “grab my wallet” out of his pocket, according to a statement filed in Sacramento Superior Court.
In its press release, police said they received 911 calls about the incident inside the restaurant, as well as reports that Nelson was “attempting to open vehicle doors” and talking to himself in the KFC parking lot.
Eight officers ultimately would report to the scene, according to police narratives written in support of Nelson’s arrest. Lawrence, the police chief, previously told The Bee that his officers take special training in defusing volatile situations, particularly those involving mentally ill people.
Officer Jordan Rinek was the first to arrive, at about 4:09, according to the reports. He found Nelson walking in the parking lot, “paranoid, very fidgety” and “displaying the objective signs of being under the influence of a controlled substance,” Rinek wrote. Officers found a methamphetamine pipe in the parking lot but were “unable to prove Nelson was under the influence or had drugs on his person,” the officer said.
Rinek handcuffed Nelson, who tried to run away. Rinek and another officer then took him to the ground and held him down.
“During the entire contact and struggle on the ground, Nelson was not making sense with what he was saying,” Rinek’s statement reads. He added that he “didn’t hear any screaming” while Nelson was on the pavement, although another officer described him as “yelling” and flailing.
Within minutes, six other officers arrived to “help control” Nelson, who stands 5 feet, 11 inches and weighs about 190 pounds. They placed him in a restraint blanket to prevent him from moving his legs. Once he was upright, Rinek said, he noticed Nelson’s burns.
“It should be noted that it was approximately 100 degrees outside,” Rinek said. Officers doused Nelson with water and called emergency personnel. Paramedics arrived at 4:34 p.m., according to an incident report from the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire department. Police told paramedics that Nelson “was in contact with asphalt for approximately 5 minutes,” according to the report.
Black Lives Matter Sacramento has taken up Nelson’s cause, with plans to stage a protest Friday at the Citrus Heights Police Department. But at least one policing expert endorsed the actions of the officers.
Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County sheriff’s deputy and attorney who is a nationally recognized expert in police use of force, said it is highly unusual for criminal suspects to sustain life-threatening burns while being taken into custody. But the Citrus Heights deputies may have had “no other choice” than to pin Nelson to the hot pavement, he said.
“They’re dealing with a potentially violent individual,” Obayashi said. “He’s probably sweaty, squirming, struggling, and they’re trying to control him. They don’t want to shoot the guy. They used sheer body weight to subdue him, and it happened to be a very hot day.”
“No use-of-force incident is pretty,” he said. “But there is no policy that I am aware of that says officers cannot or should not execute take-down on hot pavement.”
Almost every day since they learned of his injuries, Nelson’s mother and stepfather have made the 50-mile drive from Stockton to Sacramento to visit. They must wear latex gloves and a gown to enter his room. Tarsha Benigno often holds her son’s hand and lays her head next to his. Sedated, he is unable to fully communicate. They have not pressed him for answers about how he was hurt, wary of causing him further anxiety.
Tarsha Benigno is alternately tearful and angry when she talks about her son’s circumstances. He never graduated from high school, she said, nor has he been able to hold a job or care for his young son. He paces and hears voices that frighten him and tell him to do “dumb” things.
On the day he scuffled with Citrus Heights police, she said, he had been off of his medications for possibly two weeks. Nelson complains that the pills make him feel loopy and tired, she said.
When he keeps up with his medicines, the Benignos said, Nelson is polite and soft-spoken. He likes to talk about current events and listen to rap and R&B. He plays football and basketball with friends. But his mental illness prevents him from having a “normal” life, they said.
“I’ve taken care of him all of his life because of his mental issues,” Tarsha Benigno said, crying as she waited with her husband for nurses to finish dressing her son’s wounds. “Now, he might be physically disabled, too. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”