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'I speak of him in present tense': Tacoma marks two years without Manuel Ellis as officers await trial

A drawing of a man, and there are candles lit around it.
Joel Schomberg
Longhouse Media file
A memorial formed on June 3, 2020, at the site where Manuel Ellis was killed three months earlier. It was at the center of a vigil that drew hundreds of people in the wake of a medical examiner's report that Ellis' death was a homicide at the hands of Tacoma police. Three officers await trial for murder and manslaughter charges in the case.

It’s been two years since Manuel Ellis was killed on a street corner in Tacoma. Now, three Tacoma police officers await trial for his death. Meanwhile, Ellis’ family is still figuring out how to navigate life without him.

Monèt Carter-Mixon sometimes talks like her brother is still here.

“I speak of him in present tense because I don’t think I’ve fully accepted the fact that he’s gone,” she told KNKX Public Radio in a recent interview. “It’s still really hard for me to process that. Sometimes I’ll have a breakdown.”

One of the recent breakdowns happened in late December, triggered by news that two Tacoma officers involved in the Ellis case — who are not charged with any crimes — were cleared to return to work.

The Tacoma Police Department exonerated Officers Masyih Ford and Armando Farinas of any wrongdoing following a months-long internal affairs investigation. That investigation is ongoing for the three officers who are charged with felonies: Matthew Collins, Christopher Burbank and Timothy Rankine, who are on paid administrative leave while the city’s investigation plays out.

Chief Avery Moore, who took over the department in January, will soon decide whether they will keep their jobs. In a recent interview with KNKX, Moore said he had not yet reviewed thousands of investigative documents and he didn’t know when a decision could come.

“The weight I could feel before I became the chief, and it’s simply because it hasn’t been resolved yet. As it is resolved, that will be the time where healing can take place,” Moore said. “I look forward to that day. I understand the tragedy of loss of life and families that experience it. There’s nothing I can say that can replace that. So I think we all want the same thing: closure. And that’s what I look forward to.”

Audio from home security footage captured Ellis’ final words on the night of March 3, 2020: “Can’t breathe, sir. Can’t breathe.” Records show that Ellis told officers he couldn’t breathe within the first two minutes of encountering them. That footage is among the evidence that was used by the attorney general to charge Collins and Burbank with second-degree murder and Rankine with first-degree manslaughter. All three of them pleaded not guilty and are out on bail as they await trial, which is currently scheduled for later this year.

Carter-Mixon has called the charges a “blessing,” but she says the family still struggles to live life normally while they wait for the case to be prosecuted. Her mother has said she’s praying for the officers.

The site where Ellis was killed — 96th Street South and Ainsworth Avenue South on the border of South Tacoma and unincorporated Pierce County — has transformed into a memorial garden. It's quieter than it was in the summer of 2020, when supporters gathered in the wake of the medical examiner’s homicide ruling, chanting Ellis' name and demanding justice that the family says they’re still waiting for.

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.