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Manuel Ellis: Tacoma Man Died In Police Custody, Saying He 'Can't Breathe'

Matthew Ellis speaks at a vigil at the intersection where his brother, Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old black man, died in police custody in Tacoma, Wash. Ellis's death was ruled a homicide this week by the Pierce County Medical Examiners Office.
Matthew Ellis speaks at a vigil at the intersection where his brother, Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old black man, died in police custody in Tacoma, Wash. Ellis's death was ruled a homicide this week by the Pierce County Medical Examiners Office.

The name of Manuel Ellis is now being added to the list of black people who died in police custody, after an autopsy report ruled his death in Tacoma, Wash., was a homicide. And in an echo of the George Floyd case, Ellis was heard saying he "can't breathe," as he was being restrained.

"In the face of longstanding racism and recent national events, we are devastated to have the death of Manuel Ellis become a part of this national conversation," Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said at a news conference about the findings of the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office.

"Tacoma police say that on March 3, they saw Ellis trying to open the doors of occupied vehicles — and when they approached, he became 'combative,' " Will James of local member station KNKX reports. "The family questions the police narrative of the encounter."

Ellis, 33, was the father of two children and a talented musician. He had also struggled with addiction and mental health issues, his family notes on a GoFundMe page. Hours before encountering police on the night he died, he had attended a church service were he played drums.

"He called his mother, brother and sister individually to share the joy he was feeling," Tacoma newspaper The News Tribune reports.

But police say that on the night Ellis died, he assaulted a police officer and slammed the officer to the ground in the street, according to local media outlets that cite sheriff's department spokesman Ed Troyer.

According to police, four officers struggled with Ellis, who wound up in handcuffs and on the ground. Shortly afterward, he lost consciousness. Troyer tells local TV station Q13 that the officers turned Ellis onto his side and called for help.

In addition to the homicide determination, the medical examiner's report found that methamphetamine intoxication and dilated cardiomyopathy, or an enlarged heart, were contributing factors to his death.

"I'm telling you guys, right now, my brother was a good man," his sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, said, according to member station KUOW. "A loving man. He loved me. He was crazy about me, he was crazy about his kids, crazy about his nieces and nephews. He helped me with my kids. Anytime I needed him, he was always there for me."

The medical examiner's office concluded this week that Ellis "died of respiratory arrest due to hypoxia due to physical restraint," as The News Tribune reports. Hypoxia refers to a low level of oxygen in the blood. The autopsy's finding establishes only that Ellis died due to the actions of another person — it does not automatically lead to potential criminal charges.

Ellis was heard saying, "Can't breathe" on a recording of police radio calls during the encounter.

"His last words were, 'I can't breathe,'" Ellis's family's attorney, James Bible, says via Twitter. "We heard this on the scanner."

"Someone bring some hobbles," an officer says in another portion, asking for physical restraints. Later, an officer calls for an ambulance and adds, "He's going to have to be strapped down."

The investigation into Ellis's death is being handled by the Pierce County Sheriff's Department rather than the Tacoma Police Department, under a law that requires an independent inquiry into police use of deadly force. All four officers involved in the Ellis case were put on administrative leave as of Wednesday morning – the day after the autopsy report was released to city officials, Woodards said.

When reached for comment Thursday, the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney's Office said that it "has not yet received this case," saying the independent investigation is ongoing.

Both the police and Ellis's relatives say many unanswered questions remain about the case.

News of the medical examiner's homicide ruling, Woodards said, was personally troubling for her, as an African-American woman.

"I cannot imagine the pain that continues with the Ellis family's loss, but I do know that our community wants both answers and justice – and so do I," Woodards said.

"We don't know a lot" about the details of that night, the mayor said. "But what we do know, and what we have heard, is deeply troubling to us."

Addressing the Ellis family, Woodards said, "I'm sorry. Our city is sorry, our council is sorry, for your loss."

She also promised her administration would unearth all the facts about the case.

The autopsy report was released on the same day Ellis's family and friends held a vigil for him, congregating at the corner of 96th Street South and Ainsworth Avenue, where he ran into the police in March.

One attendee, Tacoma resident Mu Knowles, told KNKX's Will James that he came looking for community. "And to really just be with other black folks, to be honest. Like, I'm really needing that right now during these moments," Knowles said. "It feels good. It feels good to be with people that have similar experiences as you, and people who are mourning and grieving just like you right now."

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