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Unarmed Black Man Who Died During Arrest Pleaded ‘I Can’t Breathe, Sir,’ But Was Told To ‘Shut The F--k Up,’ Video Shows

More than two months before George Floyd begged police for breath on a Minneapolis street, Manuel Ellis suffered the same chilling fate hundreds of miles away in Tacoma, Washington.

By Dorian Geiger
Video Shows Police Arresting Manuel Ellis Before He Died

Manuel Ellis was walking home from a 7-Eleven in Tacoma, Washington on March 3 when he was beaten, tased, and eventually suffocated by police officers, his family said.

As he lay dying in the street, his final words —“I can’t breathe” — were captured on camera.

Police insisted Ellis was behaving erratically, had attempted to enter occupied vehicles on the road and later became “combative” when confronted by officers. At the time, law enforcement insisted “no known departmental violations” had occurred.

Last week, however, his death was ruled a homicide. A lack of oxygen due to physical restraint killed the 33-year-old unarmed black man, medical examiners concluded. A prior heart condition and methamphetamine intoxication were also listed as potential factors in his death. 

The incident bears a number of tragic similarities to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, which ignited protests across the U.S. — and the world — against racial injustice and police brutality.

The autopsy findings in Ellis' case prompted the temporary suspensions of four Tacoma police officers. Matthew Collins, 37, Christopher Burbank, 34, Timothy Rankine, 31, and Masyih Ford, 28 — have been placed on administrative leave following the incident, a spokesperson for Tacoma Police Department confirmed with Oxygen.com.

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Troubling eyewitness and surveillance footage of the fatal arrest have since trickled out, which show Ellis howling for his life while being brutally beaten by two officers. 

In doorbell camera footage of the incident, released on Tuesday by civil rights attorney James Bible, who is representing Ellis' family, Ellis can be heard shrieking in pain. He isn’t visible in the clip but his last words rang down the block with crystal clarity. 

“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, sir,” Ellis screamed.  

“Shut the f--k up,” a voice, presumably one of the police officers, responded.

A separate clip shows Ellis, wearing yellow pants, being bowled over by a police officer, while another throttles him with a barrage of punches. 

“Hey! Stop! Oh my god, stop hitting him!” a motorist who captured one angle of the confrontation screamed at officers in the clip, which Oxygen.com obtained and reviewed.

Prior to the incident, Bible said that Ellis appeared to have been having a “cordial conversation” with police when officers abruptly attacked him. 

“[They] jump on top of him, start beating him, and then they start tasing him,” Bible told Oxygen.com

He described the series of videos depicting the incident as “deeply upsetting.”

“He was peaceful,” Bible said. “He was being polite as he possibly could be, even while officers were essentially squeezing the life out of him — taking away his last breath.” 

A second clip from the eyewitness motorist, presumably taken shortly after the first, shows two officers pinning Ellis to the ground as the driver slowly cruises past the scene of the arrest. 

“Just put your hands behind your back,” the officers tell Ellis while he’s restrained face down. 

“[They] picked my brother up and body slammed him to the ground and continuously beat his face in,” Monét Carter-Mixon, Ellis’ sister, told Oxygen.com. 

No charges have been filed against the four officers involved in the case. The investigation into Ellis’ death has since been turned over to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office.

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Ellis’ family, however, have disputed the police narrative surrounding the arrest and said “there’s no evidence” to support that the 33-year-old was acting aggressively toward officers the night he was killed.

“He’s completely innocent,” Carter-Mixon, 29, added. “He didn’t do anything wrong — he broke no law that night, not a single law.” 

The family's lawyer accused police of "lying" and questioned the legitimacy of the county sheriff's investigation. 

“They’re doing everything they can to defend the Tacoma Police Department, which clearly would suggest that they can’t possibly be independent in this matter,” Bible said. “They are changing their story over and over again.”

Tacoma Police Department and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office were sitting on the doorbell camera footage of Ellis’ arrest for months, Bible said. 

“They’ve had this particular video for three months,” Bible said. “They’ve described [Ellis] as dangerous. They’ve described him as aggressive. They described him as assaultive. And none of that was true.”

Local officials also blasted the city’s police department. 

“As I watched that video, I became even more enraged, and angered, and disappointed,” Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said at a press conference Friday. “It does take a video for so many people to believe the truth about systemic racism and its violent impact on black lives.”

Woodards, who is black, called for the immediate termination of the four officers involved in Ellis’ death. She also demanded county investigators conduct a thorough and transparent review of the case, and vowed to enact widespread police reform.

“The officers who committed this crime should be fired and prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” she added.

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The Tacoma Police Department declined to comment on the case.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, however, contested the family’s accusations of a cover-up. Officials also stated investigators didn’t purposely withhold footage of Ellis’ arrest, citing a state statute which prohibits the release of case evidence prior to it being presented to prosecutors. 

“Our stance all along is that if the state or AG wants to run a concurrent or separate investigation we would make our evidence and personnel available to them,” Ed Troyer, a spokesperson for the Pierce County Sheriffs Office, told Oxygen.com.

However, the state’s attorney general previously declined an offer by county prosecutors to assist in a “concurrent” investigation, citing transparency issues.

“Independence is lost if our offices are working concurrently,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson wrote Prosecutor Mary E. Robnett on June 8 in a letter obtained by Oxygen.com.

“To the public, that looks like coordination, not independence,” the letter added.

The attorney general’s office, however, stated they were open to carrying out an independent investigation of the case — but only at the behest of the governor, not county prosecutors. The potential move would give them sole jurisdiction in the matter. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee previously pledged to conduct a review of Ellis’ death – ­and has since stated county authorities should be barred from completing their investigation.

“I have become convinced that the Pierce County Sheriff should not complete the investigation of the death of Manuel Ellis and the county prosecutor should not review the investigation and make charging decisions," Inslee wrote on Wednesday. "Instead, there must be a new investigation and charging decision made independent of Pierce County law enforcement."

On Wednesday, Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor admitted that a sheriff’s deputy was on-scene “during the detention” of Manuel Ellis, according to a statement sent to Oxygen.com, further adding to the case’s potentially problematic optics. The revelation prompted the county prosecutor to once again urge the attorney general to participate in a concurrent investigation.

“On Monday I granted the attorney general jurisdiction in this case pursuant to RCW 43.10.232,” Robnett said in the press release. “I call upon him now to act on the authority I previously granted to him to investigate and review this case. That is what the Ellis family wants, what the Mayor of Tacoma wants, and what much of our community wants.”

The case is expected to be turned over to the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office this week, officials said.

The case is heating up as thousands flood city blocks nationwide to demand justice and police reform in the wake of Floyd's murder in Minneapolis. Separated by months and hundreds of miles, Ellis and Floyds’ deaths at the hands of police bear a number of haunting parallels. 

The immediate chain of events preceding their deaths are murky at best. Both men were confronted by police after allegedly committing petty crimes. Horrified bystanders later documented the deadly encounters with cell phone cameras, capturing the unarmed black men rasping the words "I can't breathe," moments before their lives were taken. 

The phrase, synonymous with police brutality, emerged as a battle cry for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 following Eric Garner’s death. Garner, too, repeatedly said it as a New York City police officer fatally choked him for selling cigarettes in 2014. 

“For African-Americans, [‘I can’t breathe,’] reflects a reality that even if you are not armed, even if you are not dangerous, there are officers out there that will not hesitate to take your very last breath,” Bible said. “Not just with guns, not just with billy clubs, not just with tasers, but with their own bare hands.”

Manuel Ellis 3

Ellis, a drummer and deeply spiritual musician, was known for carrying a bible with him everywhere he went, his family said. Hours before his lethal encounter with police, Ellis was rehearsing with his church band. The 33-year-old was also a father of two.

“We grew up in the church and we all played instruments,” his sister, Carter-Mixon, said. “He was always really faithful, he was just spiritual.”

She described Ellis as “very funny,” “intellectual,” and “really, really smart.” 

“He was probably the only person I could talk to like that,” she added. “He really understood me and where I was coming from. He was also a really good friend. ... He never rubbed a person the wrong way.” 

However, Ellis also led a troubled life. He was plagued by mental health issues, addiction, and was sexually abused as a child, his family said. He suffered from schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety. He’d also been arrested a number of times on charges ranging from identity theft to drug possession, court documents show. 

In September, Ellis was tased by police after allegedly attempting to rob a Tacoma burger joint, according to a separate probable cause statement. Authorities said he wrapped a belt around his fist, stormed an A&W, tried to empty a cash register, and threw punches at a cashier. He was tased and taken into custody after “charging” at deputies. Ellis later told paramedics he was “high on meth and marijuana,” and that he had blacked out, authorities said.

“We won’t know what was going on at those moments because he didn’t get his opportunity to go to court and explain himself,” Bible, the family’s attorney, stated. 

The civil rights lawyer lamented Ellis’ past run-ins with law enforcement, citing his client’s struggles with mental health. Bible was adamant, however, police had no right to take Ellis’ life.

‘What’s relevant here is what happened at the moment, how he was stopped and how he was harmed,” Bible added. “He’ll never get to speak for himself again.”