Rodney King, key figure in LA riots, dies at 47

Rodney King, key figure in LA riots, dies at 47

Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Rodney King gestures prior to the presentation of his autobiographical book 'The Riot Within...My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption' at the Eso Won Book Store in Los Angeles, California, on April 30, 2012. The 1992 police beating of Rodney King sparked the LA riots that left more than 50 people dead. AFP PHOTO /JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/GettyImages)


by Associated Press

Posted on June 18, 2012 at 5:57 AM

 LOS ANGELES - Rodney King, the black motorist whose 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers was the touchstone for one of the most destructive race riots in the nation's history, was found at the bottom of his swimming pool early Sunday and later pronounced dead. He was 47.

King's fiancTe called 911 at 5:25 a.m. to report that she found him in the pool at their home in Rialto, Calif., police Lt. Dean Hardin said.

Officers arrived to find King in the water and unresponsive, with no signs of foul play. He was transported to Arrowhead Regional Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:11 a.m., Hardin said.

The 1992 riots, which were set off by the acquittals of the officers who beat King, lasted three days and left 55 people dead, more than 2,000 injured and swaths of Los Angeles on fire. At the height of the violence, King pleaded on television: "Can we all get along?"

King, a 25-year-old on parole from a robbery conviction, was stopped for speeding on a darkened street on March 3, 1991. Four Los Angeles police officers hit him more than 50 times with their batons, kicked him and shot him with stun guns.

A man who had quietly stepped outside his home to observe the commotion videotaped most of it and turned a copy over to a TV station. It was played over and over for the following year, inflaming racial tensions across the country.

It seemed that the videotape would be the key evidence to a guilty verdict against the officers, whose trial was moved to the predominantly white suburb of Simi Valley, Calif. Instead, on April 29, 1992, a jury with no black members acquitted three of the officers on state charges in the beating; a mistrial was declared for a fourth.

Violence erupted immediately, starting in South Los Angeles.

Police, seemingly caught off-guard, were quickly outnumbered by rioters and retreated. As the uprising spread to the city's Koreatown area, shop owners armed themselves and engaged in running gun battles with looters.

During the riots, a white truck driver named Reginald Denny was pulled by several black men from his cab and beaten almost to death. He required surgery to repair his shattered skull, reset his jaw and put one eye back into its socket.

King himself, in his recently published memoir, "The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption," said FBI agents warned him a riot was expected if the officers were acquitted, and urged him to keep a low profile so as not to inflame passions.

The police chief, Daryl Gates, who had been hailed as an innovator in the national law enforcement community, came under intense criticism from city officials who said officers were slow to respond to the riots, and resigned under pressure soon after.  Gates died of cancer in 2010.

The four officers who beat King -- Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Timothy Wind and Laurence Powell -- were indicted in the summer of 1992 on federal civil rights charges.  Koon and Powell were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, and King was awarded $3.8 million in damages.

In the two decades after he became the central figure in the riots, King was arrested several times, mostly for alcohol-related crimes, the last in Riverside Calif., last July. He later became a record company executive and a reality TV star, appearing on shows such as "Celebrity Rehab."

In an interview earlier this year with The Associated Press, King said he was a happy man.

"America's been good to me after I paid the price and stayed alive through it all," he says. "This part of my life is the easy part now."

The San Bernardino County coroner will perform an autopsy on King within 48 hours.

Major players from the 1992 Los Angeles riots

Rodney King, whose videotaped beating by four Los Angeles police officers set off 1992's Los Angeles race riots and became a touchstone in U.S. race relations, was found dead at his home on Sunday. The riots killed 55 people, injured more than 2,000 and caused $1 billion in damage. Below, a look at the players in King's beating, trial and the riots that followed, and where they are now.

   King's videotaped beating on the night of March 3, 1991, triggered the Los Angeles riots more than a year later, when three of the officers who beat him were acquitted of all charges. On the third day of the riots, he famously pleaded on national television, "Can we all get along?" In the years since he has been arrested numerous times, mainly for alcohol-related crimes, and has made several attempts at rehabilitation, including an appearance on television's "Celebrity Rehab." He received a $3.8 million settlement from the city but recently told The Associated Press much of that money was lost to bad investments. King was found dead on June 17 at age 47 at the bottom of his swimming pool in Rialto, Calif. He had published a memoir earlier in 2012 titled "The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption."
   Gates had been Los Angeles' chief of police for 14 years when the rioting erupted and was pressured to retire shortly afterward. Until then, he had been nationally respected for pioneering such innovations in policing as the special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) programs that partner police with schools. But he was also a polarizing force in the city's black community over perceived racism and remarks like one he made that blacks were more likely to die when placed in police chokeholds because their arteries did not reopen as quickly as those of "normal people." Gates, who blamed his command staff for letting the riot get out of control, died of cancer in 2010. He was 83.
   Denny, the white truck driver who drove into the epicenter of the riots of rage and was pulled by several black men from his cab and nearly beaten to death, underwent numerous operations to repair his shattered head, put an eye back into its socket and reset his jaw. After the beating, he publicly forgave his attackers and even met with one of them on Phil Donahue's television show. Since then, he has remained steadfastly out of the limelight, living quietly in Arizona, and declining interview requests. He did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press on the riot's 20th anniversary.
   Holliday, a plumber, was awakened by a traffic stop outside his San Fernando Valley home on the night of March 3, 1991. He went outside to film it with his new video camera, catching four officers beating and kicking black motorist Rodney King. The video's subsequent broadcast led to worldwide outrage and criminal charges against the officers. When they were acquitted the following year, the riot broke out. Holliday declined to discuss the 20th anniversary of the riot. A friend, Roby Massarotto, told The Associated Press he is busy working on a documentary about the making of the famous video.
   Watson was one of several men videotaped attacking white truck driver Reginald Denny at the beginning of the riot. He was convicted of misdemeanor assault and sentenced to time served for the 17 months he spent in jail before his case was resolved. Watson, who later apologized to Denny, operates his own limousine business in Los Angeles. He has two daughters in college and recently returned to his childhood home, near the site where Denny was attacked, to care for his elderly mother.
   Williams was the attacker seen on videotape smashing Denny in the back of the head with a brick. He was convicted of mayhem, assault and other charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Released after four years, he was convicted of the 2000 murder of a Los Angeles drug dealer and sentenced to 46 years to life in prison, where he remains.
   Miller was convicted of robbing Denny during the beating and sentenced to 27 months of probation. He was shot to death in a Hollywood nightclub in 2005.
   Williams, who was videotaped going through Denny's pockets as he lay on the ground, pleaded guilty to beating and attempting to rob the truck driver. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
   The Korean grocer's killing of a 15-year-old black girl, Latasha Harlins, in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice, raised tensions in the black community just two weeks after King's beating. Tensions escalated even more when she was convicted of manslaughter but sentenced only to probation and community service. Many in Los Angeles' black community still say that played almost as big a role in triggering the riot as King's beating.
   Green was one of the riot's greatest heroes. The black truck driver was watching the violence unfold on television at his Los Angeles home when he saw Denny being attacked and quickly headed to the scene. He helped push Denny back into his truck's cab and then drove him to the hospital, saving his life. Later, despite threats and insults from the community, he went on to testify against Denny's attackers. He and his family have since moved to a suburb east of Los Angeles and he did not respond to messages for comment. On the 10th anniversary of the riot, he told the Los Angeles Times: "I can tell my kids that color is on the outside, not the inside. To me, I turned justice around and showed them that all black people ain't the same as you think."
   Koon was the police sergeant in charge when Rodney King was beaten. A 14-year veteran of the LAPD who had been commended repeatedly for his work, he has always maintained that King's arrest was handled properly. In his book, "Presumed Guilty: The Tragedy of the Rodney King Affair," Koon blamed the riot on the news media and city officials. Acquitted of criminal charges, he was later convicted of violating King's civil rights and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Koon, 61, retired after the King beating and lives in an LA suburb.
   Powell is the officer seen on the video hitting King more than 40 times. Acquitted of criminal charges, he was convicted of violating King's civil rights and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Powell, who lives in the San Diego area, has said he will no longer discuss the incident.
   Wind, a highly regarded rookie cop until the King beating, is seen on the videotape striking King with his baton. Acquitted of all charges, he was still fired by the LAPD and struggled in subsequent years to find work. He eventually enrolled in law school and has moved to the Midwest.
Briseno, who stomped on King's back during the beating (he claimed to keep him on the ground so the beating would stop), broke ranks with his fellow officers and sharply criticized their actions. A fellow police officer quoted him as saying immediately after King's arrest that the situation had been mishandled by Koon, the sergeant in charge. During his criminal trial he testified that Powell, who struck King the most, was out of control and that the beating was excessive. Acquitted of all charges, he struggled to find work afterward, at one point taking a job as a security guard. He has moved to the Midwest.