James Bradford Nelson unbuttoned his cotton shirt, unveiling a body he no longer recognizes.
His nipples are seared. His chest and stomach are covered by leathery skin grafts and scar tissue. He’s 40 pounds lighter than he was on the scorching June day when Citrus Heights police pressed his face, legs and chest into the hot ground in the parking lot of a KFC restaurant.
“I’ve got to live with these scars for the rest of my life,” said Nelson, 28, who spent seven weeks in the hospital, and two more in a rehabilitation center for therapy, following the altercation with police. “I wake up and ask myself how and why this happened to me.”
It happened after police responded to calls that Nelson was acting erratically at the restaurant, had jumped a counter and tried to steal a manager’s wallet. Eight officers ultimately responded, and at least two held Nelson on the ground for five minutes or more on a day when temperatures soared to 100 degrees in the Sacramento area. Nelson, who was shirtless and in handcuffs, suffered second and third degree burns to his chest, legs, face and buttocks.
Nelson declined to discuss the circumstances that led to his actions on June 23 at KFC on Auburn Boulevard, on the advice of a lawyer. But he said he has paranoid schizophrenia, which causes him to act bizarrely at times, particularly when he is off of his medications as he was that day. He said he remembers police “taking me down, and hitting the ground real hard” in the parking lot. He felt the asphalt burning his chest before he passed out.
“It was like being in a frying pan,” he said.
He was unconscious for three days, his parents said, before waking in the UC Davis burn unit, confused and in a deep fog of medication.
But the injuries, which limit Nelson’s movements and mobility, are only part of the reason he has trouble sleeping at night. Now that he has been released from the hospital, he could end up at the Sacramento County Jail.
He faces charges of attempted robbery of the wallet, being under the influence of a controlled substance and resisting arrest. The charges are the latest in a cycle of mental episodes, arrests and incarcerations that have defined Nelson’s life since he was a juvenile. During the past 10 years, he has been charged with felony attempted robbery, burglary and larceny, and misdemeanor drug possession, among other offenses.
Nelson and his mother and stepfather, Tarsha and Barry Benigno, said they are worried that his medical condition will worsen in jail. They called for an investigation into the conduct of the officers involved in his injuries, and said their son is guilty of little more than “acting out” during a psychotic episode.
“I would like to see these charges dropped, and the officers who did this to James reprimanded,” said Tarsha, her face etched with concern as she sat next to her son on the sofa of their home in Stockton this past week.
Citrus Heights Police Chief Ron Lawrence has defended the actions of his officers, arguing that Nelson was dangerously violent and tried to flee from officers on the day they encountered him. He has said they had no choice but to take him down. Once they realized he was badly burned, he said, officers doused him with water and called an ambulance.
Lawrence said Tuesday that his agency is “aware of his continued medical rehabilitation,” but that Nelson should “turn himself into authorities when he is physically able to do so” in response to a $500,000 felony warrant for his arrest.
When he does so, Lawrence said, Nelson will be booked at jail on the charges. Jail and court authorities then will decide whether he should be taken into custody or released as the case moves forward, he said.
Nelson said he plans to turn himself in, probably this week. “I just want to know what’s ahead, what is going to happen to me,” he said.
But he fears, he said, that his medical condition will make him particularly vulnerable behind bars, where predatory inmates are inclined to attack the weak. He is concerned about getting proper medications for pain and for his mental illness while in jail, and wants to continue getting physical therapy for his burn injuries.
Money is a constant worry as well. Nelson, whose parents said has been unable to hold a job because of his mental condition, is covered by Medi-Cal. But the agency no longer is paying for physical therapy, and some of his medications are exempt. He needs a shower chair and a special seat for the toilet. His parents, who both have jobs in Stockton, have resorted to establishing a GoFundMe account to help pay for those things.
The Benignos have been visiting with elected officials to tell their son’s story, and to call for better training for officers to defuse volatile situations involving mentally-ill suspects. They have participated in two Black Lives Matter protests centered on his case.
“We’re in a really tough situation,” said Barry Benigno, who works for a Stockton school district. “Really, I just want James to have a chance at succeeding in life. He absolutely feels like he’s the victim in this case.”
Before he was hurt, Nelson said, he was muscular and fit, weighing close to 200 pounds. He lifted weights, played basketball and enjoyed running around after his son Quadir, 6.
Now, following weeks in intensive care and three major skin graft surgeries, he said his skin is so taut and uncomfortable that he cannot bend over to tie his shoes. He has trouble lifting his son. He has nerve damage in his legs, causing him to walk with an awkward gait. Pain medications get him through the day.
“This skin, it feels like plastic on me,” Nelson said, running his hand over his chest. “I’m real insecure about having to live with all these burns. To me, I don’t even look human anymore.”