Man Was Heard Saying 'I Can't Breathe' as Police Detained Him — Now His Death Has Been Ruled a Homicide
The death of a Washington State man in March has been ruled a homicide by the medical examiner.
The Pierce County Medical Examiner confirmed to PEOPLE Friday that Tacoma resident Manuel Ellis, 33, died in March of three immediate causes, including respiratory arrest, hypoxia, and physical restraint.
Other significant conditions listed were methamphetamine intoxication and dilated cardiomyopathy, a spokesperson for the medical examiner's office tells PEOPLE, and that the manner of Ellis' death was ruled a homicide.
Ellis was a talented musician and loving father but had struggled with addiction and long undiagnosed mental health needs, according to a GoFundMe campaign created to raise funds for his memorial.
"Manuel was a young father who loved his son and daughter and a talented musician at his church," the campaign's description says. "We are proud of the man Manuel became, like so many Black men in our community, his greatest achievements were grounded in his ability to transform trauma and personal struggles into victories."
"At the time of his death he was continuing to grow in the fullness of his potential. No matter where he went he had his bible in his hand, a testament to his newfound faith that he used to bring his family closer together through the church," it says.
Several parallels have been drawn between Ellis' death in March and the death of George Floyd, half a country away in Minneapolis, more than two months later.
Ellis was arrested on March 3 as he was walking home after a night of playing drums at church and spending time with friends, Tacoma outlet The News Tribune reported at the time.
Police previously alleged that Ellis struck a police car several times and attacked four officers, who after a scuffle handcuffed him. Ellis ended up on the ground, and his last words were reportedly, "I can't breathe," NPR reported.
James Bible, the attorney of Ellis' family, said that he heard Ellis' final words on the police scanner.
"This is Manuel Ellis," Bible said in a tweet on Wednesday, sharing a photo of Ellis with a baby. "He was killed by Tacoma Police Officers. The medical examiner has determined that his death was the result of physical restraint by the officers. It was ruled a homicide.... His last words were, 'I can't breathe.' We heard this on the scanner."
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On Thursday, Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell said in a statement that the four officers involved in Ellis' case have been placed on administrative leave while an investigation is conducted by the Pierce County Sheriff's Office.
"We are committed to the investigative process and the integrity of the findings," Ramsdell's statement said. "We have fully cooperated and have been transparent with the current ongoing, independent investigation and will continue to do so for any additional investigations. Our hope is that any investigations bring with them answers for everyone involved."
"I would also like to recognize the compassion and empathy our community has shown during this difficult time," the police chief continued. "We hear your anger, frustrations and hopes. I want you to know we continue to be committed to engaging with you on topics of safety, community policing and race, so that all people feel safe in Tacoma."
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In a press conference Friday, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said that "it's time to change the way" police officers "do their work."
"Manuel Ellis and too many other black lives have been lost, and we must step up to meet the challenge. I will say it again and every day here forward — it has to stop, it has to stop," Woodards said. "We can no longer allow black residents or any residents of our community to die in the hands of our police officers because of broken processes and systems."
In addition to his own 18-month-old daughter and 11-year-old son, Ellis was helping his sister raise her children.
"I'm telling you guys, right now, my brother was a good man," Monet Carter-Mixon, Ellis' sister, told a local outlet, NPR reported. "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."
Washington State Governor Jay Inslee said on Friday that following the Pierce County Sheriff's investigation, the Washington State Patrol will review its findings and that the attorney general will look at the county prosecutor's decisions when it comes to charging officers involved, The News Tribune reported.
"I’ve been told the Pierce County Sheriff is close to completing the investigation his agency is doing on behalf of the city. That report will be forwarded to the county prosecutor, who makes the decision whether to charge the officers involved," Inslee said, according to the outlet's report. "We have no reason to doubt the work underway, and my decision does not in any way pre-judge an outcome, but the family of Mr. Ellis, the City of Tacoma and every Washington resident deserves the confidence that an extra level of scrutiny will bring."
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
•National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.