Family, friends and activists remember the local rapper and family man, question authorities about his death
If you live in Columbus and have an active Facebook page, you may have seen a photo of a man in a hospital bed with a bruised face, a neck brace and a breathing tube. Accompanying the photo, which has been circulating since at least late January, is a message from the man's daughter, alleging her mentally ill father was beaten by the police and prompting the community to ask: What happened to Jaron Thomas?
On Jan. 14, Thomas, 36, called for an ambulance from a North Linden residence after 11 p.m. According to the 911 call obtained by Alive, Thomas told the dispatcher he had used cocaine and was hearing voices. He also complained his heart was pounding and that he needed an ambulance.
“It feels like I'm going to die or something,” he told the dispatcher.
Three Columbus Police officers arrived at the scene and restrained Thomas, who was “rolling around and sporadically contorting his body” and refusing to comply with officer commands, according to the police report. One officer struck Thomas twice on the right side of his face and another officer used a knee to strike Thomas on the right side of his body before they successfully handcuffed him.
Medics arrived and administered Narcan — a drug-overdose treatment — to Thomas, who had lost consciousness. Medics and an officer performed chest compressions on Thomas en route to Riverside Methodist Hospital. He died there more than a week later on Jan. 23. According to the police report, a doctor informed police that Thomas had “no internal injuries, no head injuries, and that his injuries were all metabolic.”
Thomas' family is disputing parts of the police report — including the extent of Thomas' injuries — and expressing concern regarding the officers' response to Thomas, whom they said had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early 20s and had a history of mental crises.
“He's called for help before,” said Thomas' sister, Chana Wiley, who had visited him in the hospital on those occasions. “I don't understand what went wrong this time.”
The family, which filed a complaint with police Internal Affairs, is being represented by the Walton + Brown law firm.
“Yes, he had drugs in his system … but force shouldn't have been used against him,” said lawyer Sean Walton, who alleges the officers did not follow the Columbus Police's public document “Guidelines for Dealing with Mentally Ill Individuals.” “We are … trying to help [the family] get answers about what happened and [trying] to figure out who needs to be held accountable.”
The Columbus Division of Police is investigating the incident and refused to comment due to “possible pending litigation” when contacted via phone by Alive. Autopsy and toxicology reports are also pending.
In the meantime, community activist groups have organized an action plan to call the police, Mayor Andrew Ginther and City Council with police protocol questions. Anti-police brutality organization 614 Unity also hosted a rally on the CPD steps on Feb. 18. Among the attendees was Thomas' 15-year-old daughter Katherine.
“He was a good man,” Katherine said of Thomas, who also has another 15-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. “He never did anything to harm anybody. He was a family person.”
In addition to describing Thomas as a “great father,” Wiley said her brother was caring, helpful and “the smartest one out of all of us.” In the sixth grade, he was offered a future, full-ride scholarship to Ohio State as part of a youth program.
Thomas was also a rapper, who performed as Prince Rasu on Bizzy Bone's 7th Sign Records.
“We all lived together,” said singer Louise “Weezee” Mackey, recalling the start of their collaboration in the late '90s. It was music “all day, every day,” she added.
“He was so talented,” said rapper Phil Pernell, aka Baby Phil. “He would rap so long the beat would stop and he would still be going.”
Both Mackey and Pernell noticed Thomas was quieter and less energetic after his schizophrenia diagnosis. “He became really withdrawn … and just self-conscious,” Wiley explained. “He didn't know if others were looking at him a certain way because of his illness.”
Pernell believes Thomas' mental health was also affected by the 2003 death of Bizzy's younger brother, Adrian Parlette, who was a close friend. “Me and Jaron found him dead,” Pernell said. “That messed with all of us but tore [Thomas] up.”
Still, up until his death, Thomas used music as his outlet. “When he opened his mouth to do his music, you could never tell that he had anything going on as far as his [mental] problem,” Pernell said.
Pernell also expressed gratitude for the community response to Thomas' death. “We're getting a lot of support from people that we never even met and the love is just overwhelming,” he said.
One supporter is 614 Unity's Ayiesha Posey, who lives in the Linden neighborhood. “We would like to be unified with our public servants,” she said. “We don't want to keep fighting them.”
“We just need to make sure we get our voices heard,” she continued. “This is our community. They don't live here, we do.”