LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Police and medical examiners pressed their investigation on Monday into the drowning of Rodney King, an avid swimmer in the years since his videotaped beating made him a symbol of police brutality and led to racially charged riots in Los Angeles.
King, 47, was found submerged at the deep end of a swimming pool at about 5 a.m. local time on Sunday in the back yard of his home in Rialto, a suburb about 50 miles east of Los Angeles.
Police called to King’s home by his fiancée pulled his lifeless body from the pool and tried in vain to revive him. Resuscitation efforts by paramedics on the scene also failed, and King was pronounced dead at a hospital about an hour later.
Rialto police said on Sunday they had found no initial evidence of foul play and were investigating King’s death as an accidental drowning.
“Rodney King struggled through adversity and had his own personal demons, but he was a peacemaker,” his family said in a statement.
The death came two months after the 20th anniversary of Los Angeles riots triggered by the acquittal of four white police officers prosecuted for the beating of King, who was black, in a confrontation a year earlier caught on videotape and widely replayed.
During the unrest, which left over 50 people dead and caused more than $1 billion in property damage, King famously appealed for calm in a televised appearance in which he asked rhetorically, “Can we all get along?”
The case helped bring new attention to the issue of racial profiling by law enforcement and was a catalyst for far-reaching reforms in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
King, who long struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, financial difficulties and legal problems, had seemed to be moving on with his life and recently published a memoir entitled “The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption.”
But questions persisted about how King, who enjoyed swimming and felt comfortable in the water, ended up drowning.
“At the time the detectives arrived on scene and responding officers arrived, there was nothing out of the ordinary, and nothing to indicate to us that alcohol or drug use had been a factor,” Rialto police spokesman David Shepherd said on Monday.
Asked if there was any immediate sign that the drowning might have been suicide, Shepherd said, “Not right now, but again, investigators will be looking at all the different angles to try to make a determination of exactly what happened.”
He added that King’s fiancée, Cynthia Kelly, a juror in the civil suit he brought against Los Angeles, “didn’t give any indication he was unhappy or that there was an issue.” He said King was known to swim frequently and at all hours.
Shepherd said Kelly told investigators that, shortly before the drowning, she had been inside the house talking with King off and on through a sliding glass door that leads to a patio beside the pool.
At some point, she told them, she heard a splash, prompting her to run outside to find him at the bottom of the deep end. Unable to swim well herself, she called emergency 911 for help.
The Los Angeles Times, in an online account on Monday, cited a next-door neighbor, Sandra Gardea, 31, as saying she heard the sound of a man sobbing from King’s back yard in the two hours before police say he was found in the pool.
The Times also reported that Gardea heard King’s fiancée trying to coax him back into the house.
“It wasn’t like an argument,” she told the newspaper. “She was just saying, ‘Get in the house. Get in the house.'” Gardea said she heard a splash a few minutes later.
Roughly 70 people attended a peaceful vigil for King on Monday evening in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, the cultural heart of the city’s African American community.
“He took a severe beating that night that most people would have died from, but he never laid a hand on anyone,” King’s attorney, Milton Grimes, told Reuters at the vigil.
“He had a lot of demons, but he only hurt himself,” Grimes said, calling King a “mild-mannered teddy bear of a man.”
A spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Coroner’s Office, Jodi Miller, said an autopsy was performed on King’s body on Monday, but no results would be publicly released until medical examiners obtained results of a toxicology test and tissue studies, which she said would likely take several weeks.
King’s notorious March 1991 beating occurred when he was pulled over for speeding by Los Angeles police, who pursued him for several miles before he stopped and got out of his car.
Grainy video footage of King being kicked and struck repeatedly with batons by several LAPD officers while he lay on the ground provoked a national uproar and charges of racially motivated police brutality.
Two of the four white officers acquitted of state charges by a jury the following year were later convicted of federal charges and sentenced to 30-month prison terms. A civil jury later awarded King $3.8 million in damages.
Writing by Steve Gorman and Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara