Rodney King, subject of a police beating and trial that sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots, was found dead in a swimming pool at his Rialto home Sunday morning. He was 47.
For three former Los Angeles Police officers who lived in the Santa Clarita Valley and a fourth who lived in the San Fernando Valley, it’s the end of a chapter, if not the story.
It was just after midnight March 3, 1991, when King was pulled over in Lake View Terrace following a high-speed chase on the 210 freeway. CHP and LAPD officers engaged in the pursuit; among the first LAPD officers on the scene were Sgt. Stacey Koon of Castaic, Laurence “Larry” Powell of Valencia, Timothy Wind of Canyon Country and Theodore “Ted” Briseno of Chatsworth.
Koon assumed command as a fifth officer, Melanie Singer, held King at gunpoint. Koon then ordered a swarm. King resisted, throwing Powell and Briseno off his back and hitting Briseno. King’s ability to rise up and defeat the initial swarm led officers to believe he was high on PCP – an allegation that was later not proved, although King was approximately 2.5 times over the legal limit for alcohol intoxication.
Koon called off the swarm and tasered King, who withstood it and stood up again. By this time a private citizen, George Holliday, had started videotaping the incident from his apartment. He later sold his videotape to an L.A.-area TV news station for $500.
As King moved toward the officers, Koon ordered Powell and Wind to subdue King with their batons, which they did. King was arrested and taken to a nearby hospital where he was found to have sustained cuts, bruises and a fractured facial bone.
Whether Powell struck King in the head is a matter of some dispute. Television viewers around the world believed to see it happen in Holliday’s videotape. Powell later told this writer it didn’t happen and showed this writer evidence that his baton didn’t connect with King’s head. Despite Powell’s attorneys’ attempts, no judge in any court ever allowed the evidence to be introduced.
The first trial came in 1992 when a Simi Valley jury acquitted the four officers – Koon, Powell, Briseno and Wind – on charges of excessive force. As filed, the charges carried a burden of proof on the par of attempted murder, which was too high a bar for District Attorney Ira Reiner to prove. Reiner drew quiet criticism for filing the wrong charges and opted not to seek reelection that year.
News of the acquittal filtered to South Central Los Angeles, which erupted in riots resulting in 53 deaths and an estimated $1 billion in property losses.
U.S. Attorney Gen. Janet Reno then charged the four offers with violating King’s federal civil rights.
Reno intended to use an audiotape on which one of the officers supposedly used the “N”-word during their confrontation with King.
The question of whether the officers used the “N”-word during the altercation was central to Reno’s allegation that the officers, who were white, discriminated against King on the basis of his being black, thus violating his civil rights.
Justice Department officials took the audiotape to a high-end post-production sound processing firm to isolate the voices.
The audio company was represented by Bruce Fortine, a Santa Clarita entrepreneur known locally as a member of the College of the Canyons board of trustees.
Fortine told this writer that after isolating the sounds, the tape revealed no evidence that the officers used the “N”-word.
He said his company returned the tape to the Justice Department.
But then, during the federal trial, Reno said the tape had “disappeared” and could not be introduced as evidence (and it wasn’t).
Wind and Briseno were acquitted. Koon and Powell were found guilty of the federal charges and sentenced to 32 months in prison.
Koon paid for his defense with proceeds from his 1992 book, “Presumed Guilty: The Tragedy of the Rodney King Affair.”
Powell raised money any way he could, notably with local fundraisers in the Santa Clarita Valley. Numerous politicians including Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon and Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich were listed on the host committee for a $75-a-plate dinner but did not attend the actual event.
The last this writer knew, Powell was working in a retail electronics chain store in San Diego County.
In an unrelated incident July 6, 2009, LAPD Officer Susan J. Clemmer, 41, of Valencia, walked into the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station and fatally shot herself [see breaking TV news report]. Clemmer had been a witness for the defense, testifying that King was laughing and cursing while he was hogtied, and that he spat blood on her while en route to the hospital in an ambulance. She also testified that Powell was so scared, he thought he might shoot King.
In the years that followed, King was arrested on drug charges and at least once for domestic violence when he allegedly dragged his former wife with his car.
Nonetheless, King became something of an odd media darling with his famous quotation, “Can’t we all get along?”
On that question, the jury is still out.