Police held him down on the hot pavement. He ended up in a burn unit, fighting for his life

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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.”
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.

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