‘Can’t breathe:’ Tacoma police restraint of Manuel Ellis caused his death, ME reports

TACOMA, Wash. — Manuel Ellis died in handcuffs while being restrained on the ground by Tacoma police.

At the time of his March 3 death, officials said the 33-year-old appeared to be suffering from excited delirium, which often includes attempts at violence, unexpected strength and very high body temperature.

They said that might have explained why Ellis allegedly banged on a patrol car and attacked two officers trying to calm him down.

Although Ellis, an openly struggling addict, had drugs in his system when he died, the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office has determined Ellis died of respiratory arrest due to hypoxia due to physical restraint.

Hypoxia is a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching body tissues.

Contributing factors included methamphetamine intoxication and dilated cardiomyopathy, commonly known as an enlarged heart.

“The harshest of realities is George Floyd is right here in Tacoma, and his name is Manny,” attorney James Bible, who is representing Ellis’ family, told The News Tribune.

The Medical Examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide, which legally means he was killed by another person. Fatal police shootings, for instance, are generally determined to be homicides. It is up to prosecutors to decide if police acted lawfully and if the homicide was justifiable or a criminal act was committed.

That process is ongoing in Ellis’ death.

Click here to watch the Tacoma mayor’s news conference on Manuel Ellis.

Handcuffed in the street

Protesters in Tacoma have marched for several days against police brutality and racial inequality, demanding justice for Floyd, Ellis and others who have died at the hands of police.

There are similarities in the deaths of Ellis and Floyd, who died in Minneapolis a week ago after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Both were black men handcuffed in the street after police encounters. Both died after lapsing into unconsciousness. Both died due to a lack of oxygen while being restrained.

Monet Carter-Mixon, Ellis’ sister, learned about the autopsy findings Tuesday and said she wasn’t surprised.

“He’s another black man that’s been victimized and killed by the police,” she told The News Tribune. “I have been saying this whole time I knew the police officers killed my brother. I know there’s no way what they said happened actually killed him.”

On the night Ellis died, he played drums at a church revival.

He called his mother, brother and sister individually to share the joy he was feeling.

Then he hung out with his landlord and her husband, leaving just before 11 p.m. to walk to a nearby convenience store for a snack.

Police encountered Ellis on his walk home at 11:22 p.m.

They say he was harassing a woman at the intersection of 96th Street South and Ainsworth Avenue and pounding on her car window. He also tried to open the doors of occupied vehicles, police said.

When two officers in the area asked him what he was doing, Ellis allegedly told them he had warrants and wanted to talk to them.

Then he repeatedly struck their patrol car.

The two officers inside notified dispatch they needed priority backup then got out of the car.

“He picked up the officer by his vest and slam-dunked him on the ground,” Ed Troyer, spokesman of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which is investigating the incident, told The News Tribune on Tuesday. “He never tried to run, he engaged with the officers and started a fight.”

There was a struggle before police got Ellis handcuffed on the ground.

Officers called for paramedics at 11:25 p.m.

Within a minute of firefighters arriving on scene, Ellis stopped breathing and lost consciousness.

Paramedics performed CPR for 40 minutes, but he was pronounced dead at the scene, investigators said.

Cause of death recently confirmed

His cause of death was initially listed as pending while medical examiners ran toxicology tests. The News Tribune learned during routine reporting Tuesday that the findings came back May 11.

This week, Tacoma police identified the four officers involved in restraining Ellis as Christopher Burbank, 34; Matthew Collins, 37; Masyih Ford, 28; and Timothy Rankine, 31.

Burbank and Collins are white. Ford is black. Rankine is Asian.

They have been on the force four and a half years, five years, two years and two months, and one year and 10 months, respectively.

Police Chief Don Ramsdell said he is still awaiting investigators’ final report on Ellis’ death and sent condolences to his family.

“The safety of our community and everyone we serve is our foremost concern, and we regret that an individual lost his life under these unfortunate circumstances,” Ramsdell said in a statement to The News Tribune.

All four officers were placed on paid administrative leave after the incident. They since have returned to duty.

The case being put together by the Sheriff’s Department is expected to be forwarded to the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office by next week.

Prosecutors will then review it and determine whether criminal charges are warranted or if the officers acted lawfully.

Mayor Victoria Woodards said her office is reviewing the Medical Examiner’s report after receiving it Tuesday.

“We also know we will learn the results of that investigation even as our country reels from the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others,” Woodards said in a statement to The News Tribune. “We look forward to the Sheriff’s swift completion of the investigation, and we will take appropriate steps based on the findings.”

‘Can’t Breathe’

A 12-minute police radio recording taken the night of Ellis’ death and posted online by Tacompton Files gives a glimpse into his encounter with officers.

Police can be heard asking for hobbles. They call for an ambulance and tell dispatchers Ellis will need to be strapped down.

At one point, Ellis can be heard yelling, “Can’t breathe.”

Tacoma police said they cannot comment on the recording because the case is still an active investigation.

Sheriff’s investigators confirmed the recording and said there also is a video of the incident logged into evidence that will be forwarded to prosecutors.

A musician and father of two

Ellis was an addict recently diagnosed with mental health issues and trying to straighten out his life by worshiping God and searching for a landscaping job, loved ones said.

“He had his demons like we all did, but he was making strides to do the right thing,” Carter-Mixon said. “He was a good man and a good person. He was loved by everyone.”

Ellis was known for his musical talents. He played the piano, keyboard and drums.

He doted on his 18-month-old daughter and 11-year-old son and helped his sister raise her children.

“He raised his daughter and his nieces and nephews with the understanding that because they were black their conduct must reflect the understanding that being killed by police was a very real possibility for them and would always be justified by the broader society,” his family wrote on a GoFundMe page raising money for legal costs. “Still, we never thought we would see him dead at the hands of the police.”

Close to 500 people have donated to the cause, raising nearly $18,000.

Tacoma Action Collective and Ellis’ family is holding a vigil in his honor at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the stop sign at 96th Street South and Ainsworth Avenue, where Ellis died.

Participants are asked to bring candles and signs, wear masks and practice social distancing.

“While Tacoma has come together peacefully to have hard conversations about the change that needs to happen to save African-American lives, we have seen how the tension of this issue and these lost lives have spilled over into more violence,” Woodards said.

“We will not sit back and allow national tensions to bleed into the progress we are striving to achieve. Together, we will serve as an example that we can move forward as a community if we are united in purpose and love.”

Click here to read Stacia Glenn’s story on thenewstribune.com.