Episode 3: Not Saying Anything
Investigators finish their probe into Manny’s death. Then, a revelation.
Find more information at thewalkhomepodcast.org.
The 2020 police killing of Manuel "Manny" Ellis, a Black man in Tacoma, brought a reckoning to Washington State and has set up what promises to be one of the highest-profile trials in Pacific Northwest history.
The story unfolds in The Walk Home, a podcast by KNKX Public Radio and The Seattle Times, with support from NPR. It's sponsored by MovetoTacoma.com, the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation and Group Health Foundation.
Links to source materials
Dive deeper into this story and our reporting:
- Seattle Times investigation into Pierce County's flawed probe into Manuel Ellis' death, by Patrick Malone
- investigative story by Patrick Malone: "Investigation into Manuel Ellis' killing by Tacoma police flawed from the start"
- Seattle Times coverage of the passage of Initiative 940, and what led to the proposal, by Steve Miletich
- KNKX's coverage of the leadership transition at the Pierce County medical examiner's office, by Kari Plog
- KNKX investigation into flaws in Washington State's death investigation system, by Kari Plog
- The News-Tribune's coverage of Carol Mitchell's lawsuit against Pierce County, by Josephine Peterson
- The doorbell camera video of the scene of Manny Ellis' death (Note: This includes violent content)
Note: The Walk Home was produced as an audio series. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the series. This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.
Episode 3: “Little Big Sister”
Mayowa Aina: This podcast includes descriptions of violence and death. Please take care while listening.
Kari Plog: Monèt Carter-Mixon is standing on the sidewalk outside the county city building in downtown Tacoma…where she called a press conference.
Archival (Monèt Carter-Mixon at press conference): “My face is probably messed up right now because of that mask but um…”
Plog: This is the first time she’s been in the spotlight like this. The first time she’s spoken to reporters since George Floyd was killed. Since her brother Manny’s death was ruled a homicide. Since she found a video showing Manny struggling with the police.
Archival (Carter-Mixon at press conference): “You guys probably already know. You’ve heard me talk about it. You’ve probably seen it. But, I loved my brother. He was my best friend.”
Plog: Monèt isn’t alone anymore. She’s with family and supporters… and her lawyer, James Bible.
Archival (James Bible at press conference): “The Pierce County Sheriff’s office hid this from you. They hid this from everybody in Tacoma. The Tacoma Police Department hid this from you. The mayor’s office didn’t do the work that they needed to do. The county council members and the city council members have not forced accountability on Pierce County, so now it’s up to the people.”
Plog: Monèt’s gut has been telling her something was wrong from the moment she found out Manny was dead. Now, she has some evidence backing up that feeling. Maybe people will finally listen to what she has to say.
Archival (Carter-Mixon at press conference): “I’m really, really disappointed and angry with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, with the Tacoma Police Department, with the Tacoma city mayor. There’s been people within our community that knew about this. They’d heard my voice, they’ve seen my posts on Facebook if you date back. They’ve gotten my calls, they’ve received my emails and not one time did they offer a condolence, not one time did they offer any assistance, any help. 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. Tacoma needs to pay attention to these politicians. They’re all complicit in this. They all know what happened with my brother.”
Plog: All the officials working in the county building right behind her, maybe they can’t hear her. But the reporters standing in front of her can. And she’s pissed that they didn’t look into Manny’s death sooner. Or question the police harder.
Carter-Mixon: “I was just like, you know, ‘I told you so.’ You know, ‘I sent you messages, I sent you clips.” But because it wasn't relevant with what the spin was in this news cycle, you didn't pay attention and you should have. You shouldn't treat the police like you work with them or like you guys are friends or buddy buddy and you're doing them a favor, they're doing you a favor because you should always be looking at them like, you know, they have something to hide.’”
Archival (Monèt Carter-Mixon at press conference): “I’m done. I don’t want to talk to anybody. I want answers for my brother like yesterday. You get the answers, then we can talk.”
Plog: Monèt had done all this work searching for answers about what happened to her brother. So, what about the people who were actually in charge of investigating Manny’s death? What were they doing?
Emails, records, and interviews with people involved, they tell a story about what was happening behind the scenes while Monèt was in the dark. They reveal how a sister pushed back against a pro forma system. How the story of Manny’s death, buried in the newspaper, almost went unheard.
From KNKX Public Radio and The Seattle Times, this is The Walk Home. Episode 3: Not saying anything
Plog: As soon as the press conference ended, Monèt’s family and her lawyer headed straight to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office. They still hadn’t seen a copy of the autopsy report.
Bible: “They would only let one person in. That was Marcia, Manny’s mother. And they would only accept exact change for the medical examiner report. You can't write a check. You can't give a card. You have to give the exact change. So at one point, Marcia had come out and we were figuring out our pennies, our nickels, our quarters, our dimes. We were probably out in the parking lot for maybe an hour and a half for something that should have taken a few minutes.”
Plog: So, getting that autopsy report wasn’t easy. And before they were even rummaging around for change to pay for it, this critical document had been sitting in a pile of paperwork inside that office for weeks.
To understand how that happened, you have to rewind three months to March 4, 2020, the day Manny’s body got to the medical examiner’s office.
Carol Mitchell: “I could always tell when there was something exciting or different happening because the parking lot only holds like eight or ten cars. And on an average day, I could always find a parking spot without any effort. But this day there were lots of cars in the parking lot. That means we have visitors.”
Plog: Carol Mitchell was heading into work. She had an office in the same building as the medical examiner, who reported to her. At the time, Carol was high up in the county, the only Black woman on the executive team. She was recruited to be the county’s senior counsel for justice overseeing all the departments that touch the criminal justice system. She was surprised to learn that included the medical examiner.
Mitchell: “‘(Laughs) that’s just like, what the hell is that going to be? I got to go, I got to go to a place where there are dead bodies in the basement?’ I wasn’t even in the, I didn't even know what that would require of me. But I wasn't scared.”
Plog: Medical examiners are a critical part of the justice system. When someone dies unexpectedly, they figure out how it happened. Their decisions can make or break a case when legal questions come up. Pierce County’s medical examiner handles a lot of cases…and Carol often sat in on the meetings about them.
Mitchell: “They were so graphic. It was sometimes hard for me personally to look at the photographs and hear the circumstances and see the conditions that people were living in. It would just be heartbreaking to me. And I had seen a lot of Black and brown males come in through. I'd also seen a lot of people affected by addiction, substance use, fentanyl and alcohol related deaths. So I had a rule with the medical examiner at the time. ‘Hey, what's the case of the week? Which cases do you think I need to alert the executive team to so that if something shows up in the paper about a death investigation that the police are involved in that's not the first time that the executive hears about it.’”
Plog: The case of the week in early March 2020 was Manny Ellis. County investigators were there for his autopsy. Carol struggled to find parking that day because their vehicles crowded the small lot. That’s when the medical examiner told her that he thought Manny’s case could implicate law enforcement.
Mitchell: “What he said was the case of the week might very well be, have some media attention to it, because a young African-American man had died. And there was some question as to whether or not a spit mask, which is what he called it, might have been a contributing factor.”
Plog: Okay, a spit mask, or a spit hood, is like a net that police put over someone’s head to stop them from spitting or biting. It sort of looks like something you’d see a bad guy in a movie use on a person they’re kidnapping. There’s a warning label saying not to use it on someone in distress. In some cases involving people who died in police custody around the country – a spit mask was used. When Manny’s body got to the medical examiner’s office, a spit mask with blood stains was part of the evidence that came with him.
Mitchell: “It looked to him, and he is a very experienced forensic pathologist and has done many, many, many death investigations and autopsies. And so, you know, he believed that he was seeing signs that there might be a homicide and that the spit mask might have been a contributing factor.”
Plog: The medical examiner still had to wait weeks for toxicology results. But Carol was hearing this might be an explosive story involving police. She wanted to give her boss, County Executive Bruce Dammeier, a heads up, as soon as possible.
Mitchell: “So we had one of those in the hallway quick huddles where I said, ‘Hey, this is probably going to be an issue that's going to arise. You're probably going to see some media coverage about this.’ And it was just one of those things that, you know, they sort of checked off as, ‘Okay, that's Carol's report for the day’ and moved on to the next thing. Not a lot of questions about it. Just ‘Stay on top of it.’ I remember those words, “Stay on top of it.’ At that point we thought it was just Tacoma, so we didn't really have, the county didn't really have to be terribly concerned about it internally.”
Plog: So, a spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department had already told a newspaper reporter that Manny probably died from “excited delirium.” At the same time, the top official in Pierce County knew within days of Manny’s death that it might have been a homicide at the hands of Tacoma police.
A few miles away from the medical examiner’s office, at a different county building, investigators with the sheriff’s department were just starting their investigation into the Tacoma police.
Byron Brockway: “This is reference case number 20063-02251. It’s March 6, 2020. 11-20 hours…”
Plog: Three days after Manny died, a couple days after the medical examiner did his autopsy, the sheriff’s department started interviewing the officers involved.
Brockway: “We’re currently at the Parkland-Spanaway precinct. This is in reference to the incident that occurred on March 3rd of 2020 in the area of 96th and Ainsworth Avenue South.”
Plog: Over the course of a few days, four Tacoma police officers walked into an interview room. One by one, and told their version of what happened. Up first was Christopher Burbank, who goes by Shane.
Christopher Burbank: “We were in Officer Collins’ car that night. It’s a marked unit number 2773. We had, uh, Officer Collins and I had just cleared a traffic stop around 96th and A Street.
Plog: Matthew Collins is Burbank’s partner. They were the first ones to encounter Manny that night.
Both officers are white.
Matthew Collins: “And we came to a stoplight, a red light, at 96th and Ainsworth. I was stopped, I’m facing westbound. And I looked over and there was some sort of disturbance happening where there was a Black male in the center of the intersection. His back was faced to me, and there was a vehicle turning west onto 96th street from Ainsworth.”
Burbank: “The vehicle started to proceed through the intersection, like that westbound turn, and the suspect kind of ran, I guess out of nowhere, I just recall kind of seeing him in the intersection, in the roadway, run up in front and kind of block that vehicle by waving his hands and stopped that vehicle.”
Collins: “And he was at the passenger door, working the handle, and the vehicle was kind of trying to turn left, slowly move around him, without hitting him and then took off. So at this point I didn’t know what we were viewing. I didn’t know if this was a domestic violence thing. Maybe this guy had been kicked out of a car. Maybe he was trying to carjack it. I don’t know.”
Brockway: “And we’re not sure of any description of the car that you remember?”
Burbank: “I don’t remember at all. I just remember he went directly to the front passenger door and started pulling at the door handle. I know he was carrying a jug of water in one hand and some other items in another hand.
Collins: At this point now, this man is just standing in the middle of the intersection, just right out in the middle. So I rolled my window down and I said, ‘Hey, come over here, what’s going on?’”
Burbank: “I noticed the suspect, he was extremely sweaty. He seemed to be hypervigilant. Talking quick. And he stated something to the effect of, ‘I’m having a bad day. I need some help. And I have warrants.’ And it was very quick he said that.”
Collins: “And I said, ‘Okay, well go sit on the curb. I’ll call this out okay and I’ll come talk to you.’ I pick up the mic and I’m about to call out, ‘I’m at 96th and Ainsworth [unintelligible]’ and I immediately realize something’s wrong. The guy is walking around the car and he’s just fixated in on my partner in the passenger seat. He’s just kind of staring at him. And he’s really close to the car.”
Burbank: “I started to put the window down to tell the suspect, ‘Hey can you just go over to the sidewalk, we’ll pull over, get out of traffic, and talk to you.’ And he just, like still speaking very quickly, he said something to the effect of ‘I’m just, I’m really hot. I just need some help. And I just need to sit down for a couple days. I need to cool down.’ And the window was half way down and at about that time, I don’t know exactly why, he just looked at me, I was still seated in the passenger seat, he said something to the effect that ‘Instead I might just punch you in the fucking face.’”
Collins: “And he starts to roll the window up and the guy just starts punching the window. And then there’s like a struggle over the door. So at that point I drop the mic and I immediately run around to try and get control of this guy and my intended purpose is to take him to the ground and put him in cuffs. I mean he’s out of control, he’s trying to assault my partner. But he turns to me, as soon as I get to the front of the car, runs at me, and he grabs me by my vest, I try to grab him, and he lifts me off my feet and throws me on my back in the middle of the street, I left my feet. And it was about at this moment, something was up. This guy who had superhuman strength.”
Burbank: “I recall Officer Collins getting out of the vehicle and going around the front of the vehicle and approaching the suspect. As soon as I realized that he had focused on Officer Collins, and was probably about to attack him or start fighting him, I used my door to actually door check and hit him with the door to draw his attention away from Officer Collins and kind of divert him away from that.”
Collins: “And from this point on it’s just a melee. It’s wild. There’s fists flying. I run in - I’m a grappler by background - so I immediately grab him and I’m trying to take him to the ground. At some point I end up on top of him. He’s just swinging wildly at me. Grabbing at me and he’s like growling and just making like kind of animal noises, not saying anything.”
Burbank: “This guy’s just kinda screaming and growling. There’s no verbal anything from the suspect at all at this point.”
Brockway: “No words just scream…”
Burbank: “No just screaming and growling.”
Plog: On this night, two other officers were on patrol nearby. One of them is Timothy Rankine. He’s Asian-American.
Timothy Rankine: “We heard on the radio what sounded like mic clicks. When I first heard the mic clicks I thought it was an accidental mic click, like someone accidentally hit their mic.”
Plog: Rankine’s partner, Masyih Ford, is in the car with him. Ford is Black.
Masyih Ford: “So we start going southbound on Pacific from 84th and we’re getting additional mic clicks, mic clicks.”
Plog: They have a bad feeling. Then, they hear Burbank yell his location.
Archival (Burbank on police radio): “96th and Ainsworth”
Rankine: “His voice, I had never heard it in that tone of voice before. It sounded super stressed almost kind of like a panicked kind of voice. So that immediately did not sit right with me and my partner. I Immediately [unintelligible] emergency lights and sirens. Flipped a U-Turn.”
Ford: “And like right about when we get to maybe like 30 feet, 40 feet away I see like dark figures. Because like here’s the patrol car, and they’re kind of over here in front of the patrol car. And I was like, ‘There they are! They’re in front of the patrol car. They’re fighting with someone.’ So, my partner brings the car to a screeching halt. And before the car even stops, my door flies open, I jump out of the car and start running over towards them.
Rankine: “There was a Black male subject, that was proned out on the ground on his stomach. Officer Burbank was on top of his upper torso, straddling his upper torso, almost like he was riding a horse, with both hands pressed down on his upper body. And then I saw Officer Collins trying to secure both of his legs.”
Ford: “What I see as I’m approaching them is I see this guy like lifting up. Like Shane is on his back, or Officer Burbank is on his back, and Officer Collins has his legs, and he’s like pushing them off. I didn’t even think he was like in handcuffs yet.”
Plog: Rankine and Ford said they helped restrain Manny while they waited for medics. They told investigators a similar story about how Manny was acting: that he was thrashing around, that he wouldn’t let up, that nobody could get him under control. And there was one other detail, something that didn’t come up in the interviews with the two officers who first encountered Manny.
Rankine: “So, once I was seated on the subject’s back placing, distributing my weight evenly across his torso, one the things that I thought was really weird was the first time I actually heard this subject even speak. The first thing he said to me was ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.’ But he said it in a very, not in a distressed voice, in almost a very calm, normal voice. Which I thought was super weird. I remember telling the individual ‘If you’re talking to me you can breathe just fine.’”
Plog: Sheriff’s investigators listened to the officers’ stories. At the same time, records show they were looking into Manny.
Patrick Malone: “Their focus was on investigating Manuel Ellis and not about things that could have shed light on what happened at 96th and Ainsworth on the night he died.
Plog: Patrick Malone is an investigative reporter with The Seattle Times.
Malone: “They got a search warrant for his house. You know, and they got that search warrant on the basis of naming Ellis as a suspect of third degree assault of a police officers. Well, you know, there are legal questions around whether that search warrant ever should have been authorized because you can't charge this man. He's dead. He's not really even the subject of this investigation.”
Plog: All of this was pretty typical for how these sorts of cases go, when one department investigates another neighboring one for a killing. But it wasn’t supposed to be typical. Right before Manny died, a new state law called Initiative 940 went into effect. It set new rules for how police investigate deadly force with the goal of making these investigations more independent.
Malone: “There was a lot of consternation from police departments. What are these going to look like? They you know, frankly, it had a large measure of control over how these investigations were going to go up until that point. And it was a great reassurance to law enforcement that, you know, the status quo would kind of continue. But that was disrupted by I-940. So there were a lot of concerns, a lot of worries and there was a way of doing business. They were comfortable with doing business that way and they kept doing business that way even after voters and the legislators told them not to.”
Plog: Basically, I-940 was designed to prevent police from investigating themselves.But something the new law didn’t account for was how intertwined these law enforcement agencies can be, like Tacoma police and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.
Malone: “There's a reason why neighboring departments, you know, are often littered with inherent conflicts of interest. They're often witnesses in each other's cases. They often have jurisdictional overlap on certain crimes. They're very reliant on each other's trustworthiness. They need to preserve each other's images in order to be successful themselves. There's often a lot of revolving door between these departments leaving one going to another.”
Plog: And they often respond to the same calls together.
Back at the medical examiner’s office, there was a lot of drama going on. Dr. Thomas Clark was the medical examiner back then. He was still waiting for Manny’s toxicology results. At the same time, he was dealing with a lot of his own problems.
Archival (news clip): We have been following a growing list of complaints involving the Pierce County medical examiner. He’s under fire from employees and the families of people he examined after they died.
Archival (news clip): State regulators decided to step in by opening their own investigation…
Plog: Clark was retiring, after his staff filed complaints that he created a toxic workplace. Some even questioned his judgment on cases.
Archival (news clip): For months there been turmoil inside that office…
Archival (news clip): … embattle medical examiner is stepping down…
Archival (news clip): Settlements have been reached in a long running …
Plog: Carol Mitchell, the county official overseeing the office, she liked Clark. She thought he was good at his job. But the people above her wanted to create some distance between the medical examiner and the staff. Clark was ordered to work off-site. So, couriers were bringing important paperwork back and forth, slowing everything down. And Clark wasn’t available to families, including Manny’s, something that’s usually part of the medical examiner’s job.
Mitchell: “We would have reached out to them and I would have reached out to them and we would have set up an opportunity to have a conversation early on. We didn't do that. We would have told them what to expect in terms of timing, how long things take, the tox screens and how long that all takes so that it would have managed their expectations for how quickly they would get a final death certificate and a final explanation of what happened. And so they couldn't get the kind of information and support that a family under any other circumstances would have got.”
Plog: When the toxicology results arrived in early May 2020, they showed Manny had a lot of meth in his system when he died. That was kind of a shock to people close to him. Manny had a history of using drugs, but he was living at a sober home where he had to stay clean. He had been passing regular drug tests. In the end, though, the medical examiner stuck with what his gut told him on day one: that Manny died by homicide. Clark concluded that Manny suffocated as a result of physical restraint by police. His report says the spit mask was “possibly the most important factor” in Manny’s death.
This was one of Clark’s final tasks before he retired. Before a new medical examiner took over. So the report got lost in the shuffle and sat for three weeks before most people, including sheriff’s investigators, even knew what was in it. By the time the news got out, the world was reeling over the killing of George Floyd. This report, about a Black man killed by Tacoma police, it fanned the flames.
Malone: “The timing of this autopsy announcement could not have been worse. But that’s what you get when you sit on it for two or three weeks, you don’t get to pick your timing. That delay, while painful for Ellis’ mom and sister to have to learn this way about it, also had some practical effects such as showing that the Pierce County Sheriff’s investigators were sort of asleep at the wheel. You know, for weeks the autopsy results are in. They hadn’t bothered to check with the medical examiner?”
Plog: And some of the people in charge were not happy to be reading about this case for the first time in the newspaper. Right after the news broke, County Councilmember Marty Campbell sent a pointed email to the executive and the sheriff.
Malone: “‘Gentlemen, I am stunned by what I have read in the paper and seen on TV around the Ellis investigation. I would like some follow-up information. 1. When did Pierce County take over the investigation of the case? 2. What have been the reasons for delay? 3. With more specifics, why is there a delay from the medical examiner to deliver findings? 4. Are there additional cases Pierce County is investigating and are any of them delayed? Respectfully, Marty Campbell.’ So, you know, we’re starting to see the first outrage within the governmental entities about this and this is three months after the fact. And these are corners of the county, you know…how are we gonna find things out as the media or as citizens if even the council members are in the dark about this?”
Plog: People across county departments were scrambling to gather information. Many of them were coming into this cold with a lot more questions than answers. Monèt, on the other hand, had already found a witness and the video that witness had recorded, a video no one at the county had gone looking for until Monèt released it to the public.
And Monèt was about to uncover something else.
Malone: “City leaders are tense and county leaders are tense that Tacoma’s gonna burn. It was a guard the windows situation for leaders in Pierce County and Tacoma. They did not want to be on CNN, they didn’t want to be on there for the reasons that Seattle was getting on Fox News and all these national sort of outlets. I think the foremost worry was for downtown storefronts and not for finding out what had happened to Manuel Ellis.”
Plog: The county had an emergency communications center, staffed mostly by law enforcement. It was originally designed for monitoring terroism. At that time, COVID was at the top of their radar. But that changed once Manny’s case got more attention.
Malone: “The same day that, that it was announced that Ellis’ death was a homicide, Its priorities changed to focus on protests and mining information about what could happen, who’s organizing rallies, where are they gonna be, what kind of numbers are we talking about, what’s their motive, are they here to talk about Ellis are they here to talk about Floyd. There were planes flying over conducting surveillance. And there comes a moment where Tacoma Action Collective sort of was organizing a campaign of phone calls to put pressure on Pierce County to take this investigation seriously, time was running out. And within seven minutes of them posting that on social media, it had gone through the chain of command in this fusion center built to identify terrorists. And they had forwarded an intel briefing to the desk of Bruce Dammeier, the county executive, within seven minutes, less than seven minutes after this post hit. So, once they were on scene, they were gathering intel and sharing that up to the fusion center level as well. License plates of cars that were there, which members of the media were present, when the Ellis family was showing up at rallies, who among their supporters is present. In these emails, I see photographs of license plates. I see photographs of groups of people. I see things that are, you know, very up close and personal police surveillance of the people that are out there calling for the police to do a better job.”
Mitchell: “This was part of their approach to keeping track of the protests. They were any and everybody attached to any and everybody that was involved in any kind of a protest about Manny, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, all social media was subject to being looked at by county officials and being reported back which probably means they were severely surveilling my emails or my Facebook page, too, or my Twitter page right? Because I definitely was expressing myself.”
Malone: “Here you are, three months into an investigation where the Pierce County sheriff’s department couldn’t be bothered to get out and find the eyewitnesses to this because they were so busy looking into Manuel Ellis’ life and the activities of his family and their supporters, that they’re on top of it when Tacoma Action Collective posts on twitter and you know ring the alarms all the way up to the highest office in the county. But that time wasn’t being spent kind of getting to the bottom of the task at hand, which was what happened on the night that Manuel Ellis died.”
Plog: But Monèt still had her attorney James Bible chasing another lead for her…about a neighbor near 96th and Ainsworth who might have information.
Bible: “One thing that she had was a Ring communication from, I think it was Ring Number 24. She had been combing through the Ring communities.”
Plog: Remember that? Monèt saw someone posting anonymously on a mobile app about police activity the night Manny died.
Bible: “And I remember it was Ring 24 that she said had written something to the effect of ‘They just killed that man’ around the same date, the same time and near the same area where Manny was murdered. I canvassed the scene, too. And there was this house that had all these signs on it. Said things like uh ‘The whole world is watching,’ ‘We see you.’ And I was thinking instantly that person definitely saw something because you don’t start putting that stuff up around your whole house unless you saw something that shocks your soul and conscience.”
Plog: It turns out that neighbor did have a doorbell camera on the porch, across the street. You can’t see much in the footage from that night. Some lights flashing in the distance, the people who live at the house gawking at the scene. But the audio is pretty clear. And a warning, it’s hard to listen to.
Archival (Sara McDowell in doorbell video): Stop hitting him! Stop hitting him! Just arrest him!
Plog: That person yelling, it’s Sara McDowell, the witness who stopped her car and recorded a cellphone video of the police and Manny. And that other voice, it’s Manny.
Archival (doorbell video): [A man is heard screaming and struggling]
Plog: A minute and 40 seconds into this video, Manny cries out
Archival (Manny Ellis in doorbell video): “[Screaming] I can’t breathe sir! I can’t breathe!”
Bible: “The most surprising and devastating information that came from this are Manny’s words, ‘I can’t breathe, sir.’ And to have shown that level of respect to the people that are killing him in an attempt to, uh…in an attempt to show that he’s not the dangerous one, is just devastating.”
Malone: “Everything changed. In an instant, the story that had basically been the only story out there, and the story that the community had no choice but to accept because it didn’t have an alternative narrative had just been turned on its ear by these eyewitness videos. These cameras really made the difference they told us what really happened as opposed to what we had been told about what happened. It was a moment that just brought all corners of what this country was talking about at the top of its lungs right in front of your eyes. It was police thinking we’re doing what we have to do. It was a man begging for his life. And it was a bystander saying ‘Don’t. This isn’t necessary.’ And so in a way that video was a microcosm of what was happening in this country right then.”
Plog: The two officers, Burbank and Collins, who first encountered Manny and fought with him, they said they couldn’t make out anything Manny was saying before he died. No words, just screaming and growling. The other two, who showed up later, Rankine and Ford, they did hear Manny speak. They remember him saying he couldn’t breathe. But the fact that a video captured Manny saying those words so clearly, it was a shock to the public, to everyone who was watching the case by that point. And the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, they knew about this video the whole time. About 6 and a half minutes into it, you see someone, in a police uniform, standing on the porch, talking to the residents about their doorbell camera.
Archival (Ford on doorbell camera): “Do you have it on your phone or is it on a...?”
Archival (resident on doorbell camera): “[unintelligible] … down right now?”
Archival (Ford on doorbell camera): “Oh they are?”
Archival (resident on doorbell camera): “[unintelligible]”
Archival (Ford on doorbell camera): “Sure that’d be great.”
Plog: It’s Officer Masyih Ford. After firefighters arrived and started working to revive Manny that night, Ford went looking for security cameras. He saw several people looking on, across the street. And he told investigators with the sheriff’s department what happened next.
Ford: “And I was like ‘So I noticed you have a doorbell camera. Do you think it captured anything?’ They were like, ‘Ah we don’t know.’ I was like ‘Would I be able to look at it?’ And then one of the homeowners invited me in to look at the surveillance footage.”
Bible: “They had the video. They were aware. And that I think is one of the more abusive things that you can do to a family, is to say we’re gonna wipe out and destroy the memory of your loved one by saying all these horrible things about him when we know it’s not true and we actually possess the information. It wasn’t speculative what Monèt was saying. There was actual evidence in possession of Pierce County and Tacoma about what had actually happened.”
Plog: The people who were in charge of figuring out what happened to Manny, they learned from a reporter that his death was ruled a homicide. They didn’t go looking for that witness, or find the video she recorded, at least not for months, Monèt found that. And investigators knew, or at least they should have known, that a doorbell camera captured Manny begging for his life. By the way, that car those two officers claim Manny was messing with before they stopped him, investigators never found that either. Nobody has.
Plog: Three months after their investigation started, detectives with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department were supposed to present their findings to the prosecuting attorney, Mary Robnett. She would decide whether to charge any of the Tacoma officers. That meeting never happened. Carol Mitchell says the reason why was a surprise to most people at the county, even the ones in charge.
Mitchell: “June 10th, I still remember that day. I think that was the day that Mary Robnett said, ‘Hey we gotta turn this over. We can’t do the investigation because one of our Pierce County deputies, we’ve discovered, was involved.”
Malone: “I was like, ‘Oh, shit, you got to be fucking kidding me.’”
Archival (news clip): “Just a few days ago, Governor Inslee was ready to let Pierce County Sheriff’s investigators take the lead in the death of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma Police custody. But that changed when he learned that a Pierce County deputy was also on scene.”
Archival (Inslee in news clip): “We are now working to determine who will conduct the state’s independent investigation.”
Plog: The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department investigated Manny’s death for more than three months even though one of their own was at the scene. And investigators knew from the very beginning. Because the day after Manny was killed, that deputy told them he was there.
Byron Brockway: “Can you go ahead and pronounce and spell your full name for the recording?”
Gary Sanders: “Gary Sanders, G-A-R-Y, S-A-N–D-E-R-S.”
Plog: Detective Sergeant Gary Sanders works for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. Not only was he on the scene in the moments before Manny died, he helped restrain him.
Sanders: “When I first got there and came on the scene, they were just handcuffing him. And then they said something about the hobble. And I saw the hobble get wrapped around one foot and then that’s when I assisted with the other foot.
Investigator: “About how long was that struggle after you arrived?”
Sanders: “Approximately two minutes.”
Plog: It wasn’t until after people started paying attention that anyone at Pierce County said anything about this conflict of interest. The sheriff didn’t know about it. Neither did the prosecuting attorney, at least not until the day she canceled that briefing about the investigation. Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, announced the state would take over.
Archival (Jay Inslee at a press conference): “It is a little surprising why that was not apparently reported or discovered by the sheriff's investigation and why that is seems to be surprising. What you're witnessing is an effort by us to make this right. And it's not acceptable to us to have an investigation that is in any way flawed. The attorney general has also raised serious concerns about the Pierce County Sheriff's office apparent failure to comply with the requirements of Initiative 940 that mandates an independent investigation.”
Plog: Monèt’s attorney James Bible says the sheriff’s department probably didn’t count on anyone paying any attention, at least not the way Monèt did.
Bible: “They didn’t think a single mom of five kids could possibly impact their powerful information machine. They didn’t think that that could happen. They didn’t think that Monèt with a baby in one hand and bullhorn in the other could get everybody in the City of Tacoma, Pierce County and many around the nation to actually care about Manuel Ellis’ life. And they were wrong.”
Archival (Jay Inslee at a press conference): I'm very confident we are going to figure out a way to have a very independent, professional, thorough investigation and a very independent prosecutorial decision. Because it’s absolutely vital that we do this. You can’t overstate how important this is in any case, but particularly now. This family deserves independence and the state does as well.
Carter-Mixon: “I want him to know that he was important. I think they thought he wasn't important.”
Plog: Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier and Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer declined to be interviewed about how the county handled Manny’s case. They also didn’t respond to detailed questions about what happened during that time. They say they can’t talk about the details of the case while legal issues are still playing out. That includes a wrongful termination lawsuit from Carol Mitchell, who was fired in the summer of 2020. She’s accusing county leaders of retaliation for speaking out about what she describes as a hostile and discriminatory workplace. The county denies those claims.
On the next episode of The Walk Home
Marcia Carter: The party never started girl until Manny got there
Sarah Simmons: It was the first love of my life. I was never so crazy about somebody.
Carter-Mixon: My dad just started beating on him.
Plog: We look back at Manny’s walk through life. All the systems he was wrapped up in
Presenter: Hopefully during this sanction time, Mr. Ellis actually starts taking the steps toward living a drug free lifestyle
Hearing officer: You have all these violations in 2015 and 2016
Malone: It was generally police saw him somewhere and wanted to see what was up with this guy?
Plog: And how everything that happened over the years brought him face to face with those officers at 96th and Ainsworth.