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'No more talking.' Manuel Ellis dies by homicide, report says, and family demands accountability

Marcia Carter says she cried for two months and 10 days, waiting for answers about the death of her son, Manuel Ellis. This week, she got some. But now the family is left with even more questions. 

“We want answers,” Carter said Thursday, outside the Pierce County Superior Court, flanked by representatives from the regional chapter of the NAACP and the activist group Tacoma Action Collective. “No more talking.” 

Four Tacoma police officers were placed on administrative leave Wednesday, after a report from the Pierce County medical examiner became public. It ruled Ellis’ death a homicide, caused by a lack of oxygen due to physical restraint. Ellis died in police custody during an arrest in South Tacoma on March 3.

The medical examiner’s findings were finalized weeks ago, and first reported by The News Tribune on Wednesday.

Pierce County confirmed the official cause of death, respiratory arrest due to hypoxia due to physical restraint, to KNKX Public Radio. The report says drugs contributed to his death. 

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department is conducting an independent investigation, to determine whether the killing was justified. Prosecutors have not pursued charges against the officers involved. 

“What I have seen in the newspaper today is deeply troubling to our city and personally, for me, as an African-American woman who represents this city,” Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said in a press conference Wednesday. “We are seeking assurances from the sheriff's office that the investigation will be conducted swiftly, so appropriate action can be taken.”

Gerald Hankerson, president of the NAACP Alaska Oregon Washington state, condemned elected officials for only acting once the news of Ellis’ homicide became public. 

“A man was killed here at the hands of law enforcement, by the people you pay with your tax dollars,” Hankerson said during Thursday’s emotional news conference. “But yet we come down here and all we hear is lies. … How did you not know? A man died in your custody.” 

Monet Carter-Mixon, Ellis’ sister, said she was disappointed in the officials she says are protecting the cops who killed her brother. 

“There’s been people within our community that knew about this. They’d heard my voice. They’ve seen my posts on Facebook. They’ve gotten my calls. They’ve received my emails,” Carter-Mixon said. “If it wasn’t for me and Manny’s friend screaming at the top of our lungs, and George Floyd dying, this would have got brushed under the rug.”

If it wasn't for me and Manny's friend screaming at the top of our lungs, and George Floyd dying, this would have got brushed under the rug.

Activists have called for justice during protests throughout the city this week, demonstrations that have collided with the international outrage over the killing of Floyd in Minneapolis last week. Protesters have noted the similarities between the two cases. They say police scanner audio captured Ellis’ final words, “can’t breathe” — the same final words captured on video in Floyd’s final moments. The difference in this case: a lack of initial video evidence.

But late Thursday, videos filmed by a witness of the incident started circulating on social media. The new evidence prompted a last-minute video statement from Woodards, who called for the city manager to fire the officers involved in Ellis' death. 

"As an African-American woman, I didn't need a video to believe," Woodards said, adding that her life could be taken just the same because of the color of her skin. "The officers who committed this crime should be fired and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Woodards also is calling on the city manager to allocate funding to the police department for body cams. 

Ellis’ family members, their attorney and local and regional activists showed up to Thursday’s press conference on the sidewalk of Pierce County’s courthouse with a list of demands. They urged officials to fire and charge the officers involved. And they called for the state attorney general to conduct an independent investigation.

James Bible, the family’s attorney, said the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office is “too close” to county prosecutors, who are tasked with deciding whether or not to bring charges against the Tacoma officers.

In a statement Thursday, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray echoed calls for an independent investigation, urging the governor to take action.

“Like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless other Black people, Manuel Ellis should be with his family now,” Murray wrote, “and I share the deep despair and righteous anger of the Tacoma community and people across the nation who are fed up with bearing the crushing costs of the country’s deep-seated racism.”

In response to the sweeping calls for action, the Tacoma City Council announced Thursday afternoon that it will convene a special meeting at 1 p.m. Friday to call for an independent review of the case. 

A Pierce County spokesperson said the sheriff’s office can’t comment on the ongoing investigation. The Tacoma Police Department released a statement following Mayor Woodards' remarks Wednesday, largely outlining their account of the March 3 incident. Officers reported that they observed Ellis in the roadway that night trying to open doors of occupied vehicles. Upon contacting Ellis, officers say a physical altercation ensued. Officers determined that Ellis needed medical aid and contacted Tacoma Fire, which rendered aid before Ellis died.

The department said in its statement that it is cooperating with the independent investigation and county prosecutors. 

The officers placed on leave are Christopher Burbank, 34; Matthew Collins, 37; Masyih Ford, 28; and Timothy Rankine, 31. Two of them are white, one is Black and another is Asian. Their tenure with the department ranges from a year to five years. 

I love you, mom. I love you, mom. I can't hear that ever again. I won't be able to hear that.

Mayor Woodards offered condolences to Ellis’ family in her news conference Wednesday.

“I want to say, to the Ellis family, I’m sorry. Our city is sorry. Our council is sorry for your loss,” Woodards said, crying. “But I commit to you … we will dive in as deep as we need to dive in order to get all of the facts. So just know that while words may seem empty at this time, we are sincerely apologetic for your loss.” 

Hundreds gathered at a vigil Wednesday night to remember Manuel Ellis, who died March 3 in the custody of Tacoma police officers. His death has been ruled a homicide by the Pierce County medical examiner, and the officers have been placed on leave.
Credit Longhouse Media
Hundreds gathered at a vigil Wednesday night to remember Manuel Ellis, who died March 3 in the custody of Tacoma police officers. His death has been ruled a homicide by the Pierce County medical examiner, and the officers have been placed on leave.

Hundreds of people gathered Wednesday night for a vigil at 96th Street South and Ainsworth Avenue, where Ellis was killed. The event marked three months since his death.

They remembered Ellis as a musician who loved his children, nieces and nephews. He was at a church service the night he died.

Marcia Carter says she talked to her son the night he was killed. He talked about giving his life to Jesus Christ and doing the right thing. 

“He loved the Lord,” she told reporters. “He played the drums four nights a week at church.

“My heart is so painful. As a mother, you can never imagine what it’s like to bury your son. To look down in his eyes,” she said, through tears. 

She says her last words from her son that night were “Madre, I love you.” 

“I love you, mom. I love you, mom,” she said. “I can’t hear that ever again. I won’t be able to hear that.”

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.