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Rodney King, key figure in L.A. riots, dead at 47

Mugshot

Rodney King poses on Friday, April 13, 2012, for a portrait in Los Angeles. The 1992 acquittal of four police officers in the videotaped beating of Mr. King sparked rioting that spread across Los Angeles and into neighboring suburbs. (Associated Press)

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 declared dead early Sunday after being pulled from the bottom of his swimming pool. He was 47.

King’s fiancée 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 deep end of the pool and pulled him out. King was unresponsive, and officers began CPR until paramedics arrived. He was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:11 a.m., police said.

Police Capt. Randy De Anda said King had been by the pool throughout the early morning and had been talking to his fiancee, who was inside the home at the time. A statement from police said the preliminary investigation indicates a drowning, with no signs of foul play.

Investigators will await autopsy results to determine whether drugs or alcohol were involved, but De Anda said there were no alcoholic beverages or paraphernalia found near the pool.

Authorities didn’t identify the fiancée. King earlier said he was engaged to Cynthia Kelley, one of the jurors in the civil rights case that gave King $3.8 million in damages.

De Anda said King had another visitor that night but that person had left earlier.

A neighbor of King said that around 3 a.m. she heard music and people talking next door and what sounded like someone who was very emotional.

“It seemed like someone was really crying, like really deep emotions,” said Sandra Gardea, 31, a dental hygienist instructor who recently moved in. “And it just got louder and louder. Everybody woke up. Even the kids woke up.”

She described the sound as “like moaning, like in pain. Like tired or sad, you know?”

Gardea said this went on for some time and then stopped.

“I 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. And that’s when a few minutes later we see the cops arrive and everyone arrive and we see him being taken in a gurney.”

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. He was on parole and had been drinking — he later said that led him to try to evade police.

Four Los Angeles police officers hit him more than 50 times with their batons, kicked him and shot him with stun guns, leaving King with numerous skull fractures, a broken eye socket and facial nerve damage.

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 felony assault 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.

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