Rodney King, the man who rose as a civil rights icon after the videotape of his police beating sparked one of the biggest race riots in America’s history, was found dead Sunday morning in the pool of his Rialto, California home, the victim of an apparent drowning.
According to King’s fiancée, Cynthia Kelly, Rodney had been relaxing poolside for most of the evening prior to the accident. “[Kelly] was inside the residence, had been sleeping and Mr. King had been carrying conversations with her from the rear patio poolside,” said Rialto Police Captain Randy De Ande. “She had heard him speaking to her. She got up to go outside to talk with him, at which time she found him at the bottom of the pool.”
De Anda said King was only in the water three to four minutes between the time his fiancée called 911 and when officers arrived and pulled him from the water. He was then rushed to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:11 A.M.King’s next-door neighbor, Sandra Gardea, said that around 3 A.M. she heard someone “really crying, like really deep emotions… Like tired or sad, you know?”
“I then heard someone say, ‘OK, please stop. Go inside the house.’ …We heard quiet for a few minutes. Then after that we heard a splash in the back.”
King’s death at age 47 is being treated as a drowning with no apparent signs of foul play. Captain Randy De Anda, however, said autopsy results would be needed to determine whether drugs or alcohol were a factor.
King participated in Season 2 of VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew,” seeking help for his substance abuse, along with the myriad of deep emotional problems stemming from the aftershocks of his beating.
In 1991, King, then 25 years old and on parole for a robbery conviction, led police on a high-speed chase that ended on a dark Los Angeles street. When the four L.A. police officers finally stopped him, they struck him more than 50 times with their batons, kicked him and shot him with stun guns. He was left with 11 skull fractures, a broken eye socket and facial nerve damage.
A nearby resident captured the violence on film and turned it over to a local TV station. The infamous video was played over and over again the following year, showing the black driver curled up on the ground while four white officers clubbed and brutalized him. Many were convinced that the videotape would be the key evidence to a guilty verdict against the officers, but on April 29, 1992, an all-white jury in the predominantly white suburb of Simi Valley California acquitted three of the officers on state charges; a mistrial was declared for the fourth.
Rioting began immediately. Starting in Los Angeles, it lasted for three days and killed roughly 55 people. 2,000 others were injured as parts of L.A. were set aflame, causing $1 billion in property damage.
King’s troubles not only stemmed from the direct physical and psychological trauma he suffered at the hands of the officers. He also expressed hardship with the idea of having become such an important civil rights symbol. In his autobiography, he describes feeling uneasy about his life’s events.
“For many years I felt that I had been involuntarily burdened as the victim and resultant universal symbol of police brutality,” he wrote. “I wanted no part of it, just wanted to stay home, drink and watch TV. The fact that this footage was sent out to be viewed by the entire world certainly didn’t help my recovery.”
“We may be scarred,” he continued, “and we may not be able to forget, but we can keep going, one step at a time, until we get to a better place.”
King leaves behind three children and his fiancée, Cynthia Kelley.