TACOMA — Samuel Cowden had seen the news coverage. But the police accounts of Manuel Ellis’ final moments alive — banging on a police cruiser, then attacking an officer who stepped out to question him — strayed wildly from what Cowden had seen for himself.
So much so, he wasn’t sure the Tacoma police and Pierce County Sheriff’s Department were referring to the same incident.
“I couldn’t believe it’s the same guy,” said Cowden, who had witnessed the encounter in south Tacoma that night while delivering Domino’s pizzas. “Turns out it was. But one story was false.”
Video recordings by Cowden and another witness may prove vital in determining whether officers are charged in Ellis’ March 3 death. Both show officers restraining and beating Ellis, 33, undercutting the official narrative. And both witnesses are adamant the Police Department’s version is untrue.
The Pierce County medical examiner ruled that Ellis’ death was a homicide, amid the national reckoning over police violence, placing intense scrutiny on the investigation into a death that has been problematic from the start.
A Seattle Times review of videos and hundreds of pages of emails, police reports and text messages found flaws, irregularities and previously undisclosed conflicts of interest in the investigation, adding to the confusion about what actually happened that night.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department investigated the case for three months before disclosing a disqualifying conflict — one of its deputies may have helped restrain Ellis — and the Washington State Patrol took over. Before then, Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Ed Troyer, who is campaigning to be sheriff, said none of the officers had choked Ellis.
But Cowden’s video shows otherwise. “The [officer’s] knee was right on his neck, on the back of his neck,” Cowden said in the interview recorded by the Ellis family’s lawyer. “Manny’s chin was being stretched too much. The asphalt was right on his chin.”
In addition, the Medical Examiner’s Office, which was in turmoil at the time, completed Ellis’ autopsy and death certificate on May 11 but didn’t share results, even with investigators, for almost three more weeks. It ruled Ellis’ death a homicide caused by oxygen starvation due to physical restraint, with methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease as contributing factors.
Its delayed public release, on June 1, straddled the historic fault line of George Floyd’s May 25 death in Minneapolis. Like Ellis’, Floyd’s last known words were, according to video recordings, “I can’t breathe!”
Pierce County and Tacoma law enforcement, bracing for unrest, collected detailed intelligence on protests and their organizers — including some put together by Ellis’ family. The surveillance began while the Sheriff’s Department was still the lead agency investigating Ellis’ death, emails show.
For nearly three months, “The Tacoma Police Department did everything it could to hide information,” said James Bible, the attorney for the Ellis family, which has filed a $30 million claim against Tacoma. “The Pierce County sheriff’s office did everything they could to back the Tacoma Police Department. They worked hard to be in a place where they created a false narrative in relation to what happened to Manny Ellis on that night.”
“Literally just walking”
Last March, Ellis was staying at a sober-living home in south Tacoma called God’s Hand Up. He was out on bail for an earlier arrest but, according to his landlords, was thriving in the structure.
At bedtime, he typically took a 15-minute stroll to get a snack at a convenience store, seeking to counter the effects of psychotropic medications which made sleep difficult. On March 3, he left and didn’t come back.
On that night, Tacoma police officers say they saw Ellis trying to open the doors of occupied vehicles at an intersection. Dispatch logs released so far by police show no record of motorist complaints. Then, according to police, Ellis reportedly banged on a police cruiser and attacked an officer. He died at the scene, and the Pierce County sheriff, under a longstanding cooperative agreement, took over the investigation.
Troyer, in a sheriff’s news release at the time, repeated Tacoma’s narrative. He said Ellis “picked up the officer by his vest and slammed him to the ground.” Troyer denied the officers used chokeholds and dismissed any similarities between Ellis’ death and Floyd’s in Minneapolis. “There were no knees on heads,” he wrote.
Lawyers representing the officers under suspicion in Ellis’ death seized on that remark in their only public statement to date. “No one choked Mr. Ellis, not for 8 minutes and 45 seconds, not at all,” according to the statement from Portland lawyers Michael Starapoli and Steve Myers. They declined an interview request for this story.
But Cowden and Sara McDowell, the other eyewitness who recorded video, describe the scene identically: An officer swung open the passenger door of the cruiser and knocked Ellis to the ground, initiating the frantic and fatal incident. Cowden and McDowell began recording at that point. Tacoma police don’t equip officers with body cameras.
Cowden’s video shows an officer take Ellis to the ground from behind with a chokehold. Simultaneously, a second officer fires a stun gun into Ellis’ chest as Ellis appears to reach skyward in a submissive “hands-up” position.
Ellis drops to the ground. The officer behind Ellis continues applying the chokehold, then rolls Ellis onto his stomach. The officer places his left knee high on Ellis’ back or neck, pinning his face against the asphalt, while both officers cuff him from behind. Ellis briefly frees his head, but the officer quickly presses it back against the ground with his left knee.
The video depicts the officer’s knee on Ellis’ neck for at least 40 seconds; Cowden said it was still there after he stopped filming and as he drove away.
“I definitely did not see [Ellis] attack anybody, go after anybody, or assault anyone,” Cowden said.
McDowell, who was coming from a different direction than Cowden, agrees. “[Ellis] was literally just walking, just casually,” before the door hit him.
“When I got home, literally I was sick and couldn’t stop thinking about it all night,” she said. “What reason could there be for them to do that? No matter what he could have done, there was no reasoning for them to do that to him.”
Four Tacoma officers are on paid home leave pending the State Patrol investigation: Matthew Collins, 37, and Christopher Burbank, 34, who are white; Masyih Ford, 28, who is Black; and Timothy Rankine, 31, who is Asian.
The eyewitness videos show two white officers first encountering Ellis, pinning him down and repeatedly punching him. Collins and Burbank were first on the scene, with Ford and Rankine arriving after a separate call, according to a Seattle Times review of police reports around the time of the incident.
Troyer said he gathered information from the commander at the scene the night of Ellis’ death, and was working with the best information available to him at the time, “which is subject to change, but we like to be transparent and open as we can be right away.”
Gov. Jay Inslee assigned the investigation to the State Patrol after the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department admitted a deputy was also present while Ellis was restrained. The state Attorney General’s Office will decide whether the officers’ actions were justified, or warrant criminal charges.
There are other previously undisclosed conflicts of interest. The four Tacoma officers were immediately placed on paid leave after Ellis’ death, but returned to work less than two weeks later.
On April 1, Collins and Rankine assisted the Pierce County sheriff with an investigation and discovered key evidence in a suspected kidnapping at gunpoint. As a result, they were vital witnesses in a major crime investigation for the Sheriff’s Department, while being investigated by the same department for Ellis’ death.
After the homicide ruling became public, all four were again immediately placed on paid leave, where they remain.
Delayed autopsy finding
Dr. Thomas Clark performed Ellis’ autopsy on March 4 as a lame duck in exile, just before he stepped down as Pierce County medical examiner. The terms of his departure were spelled out in a settlement agreement over a whistleblower’s complaint that Clark created a hostile work environment. Clark received a $260,000 buyout.
The settlement agreement prohibited Clark from contacting most county personnel, including those in the Medical Examiner’s Office and his successor, Dr. Karen Cline-Parhamovich. But he remained on the job to complete death investigations already underway, although he was shunted off to an annex a 10-minute drive away.
The peculiar arrangement added to the delays and confusion surrounding the Ellis case.
It took 44 days for the Washington State Patrol crime lab to provide Clark toxicology results, not excessively long compared to other cases. The autopsy report was finalized on May 11, but not signed until May 19 because the county’s couriers were slow to deliver it, according to a timeline developed by Cline-Parhamovich.
The autopsy report was still sitting in an envelope in the Medical Examiner’s Office when protests first erupted in late May following Floyd’s death.
On June 1, the (Tacoma) News Tribune requested the homicide finding and published a story two days later, sparking requests from Ellis’ family and the sheriff’s lead investigators. Until then, sheriff’s investigators hadn’t asked for the results, even though their investigation was slated to conclude about a week later, according to emails obtained by The Seattle Times in a public disclosure request.
Cline-Parhamovich, who’d been on the job less than a month, learned of Ellis’ death herself only after the newspaper’s request, she wrote in a June 4 report to the county executive’s office explaining the delays.
The county, in explaining the delays in Ellis’ autopsy results, blamed a long-standing staff shortage and an antiquated computer system at the Medical Examiner’s Office. It also had a failing X-ray machine and an air conditioning system that led to “intolerable” temperatures for storing of bodies, one employee said in an email.
Political leaders in Pierce County and Tacoma were keenly aware at the time that they were sitting on a political powder keg. Dan Grimm, chief operating officer for the county, said in an email that earlier release of the autopsy findings could have been “thermal,” although there is no indication in records obtained by The Seattle Times that county officials deliberately caused the delay.
It was “fortuitous timing,” Grimm said in a recent interview. He was concerned about unrest “comparable to what we saw in Seattle, the violent protests. That wouldn’t have been good for Tacoma or Pierce County.”
Ellis’ mother and sister describe the delay as a period of agonizing limbo, their grief compounded by uncertainty and official silence.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, a Black woman, was quick to condemn the officers’ actions in the Ellis case and unsuccessfully demanded that they be fired. When McDowell’s video became public, she said, “It does take a video for so many people to believe the truth about systemic racism and its violent impact on Black lives, on my life.”
Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, in a statement to county employees the week of June 12, said he was “repulsed” by Floyd’s death. “Sadly, Manuel Ellis’ tragic death brought the same anger and sense of betrayal to our community.”
He praised the community for protesting peacefully and lauded law enforcement for keeping order, while pledging “our efforts to make our justice system more transparent, equitable, and just.”
But emails show that when activists called Dammeier’s office about the Ellis investigation, his staff helped deflect meetings by reading from scripted messages. They included, “The executive is not in, but I can assure you the Executive will receive your message,” and, “We are committed to listening to you and hearing your concerns.”
Behind the scenes, Dammeier pledged his support to Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Darrell Tevis, who emailed June 12 to express his worry that local politicians would yield to protesters’ demands “over the incident that occurred 1,700 miles away,” referring to Floyd’s death.
At that time, Tevis and four other Pierce County sheriff’s deputies were under investigation by Tacoma police for fatally shooting a suspect who led them on a car chase in April — yet another of the overlapping investigations between the Sheriff’s Department and Tacoma police.
Dammeier emailed Tevis early on June 13, scoffing at the idea of “defunding the police.” “As long as I’m with the County,” Dammeier assured Tevis, “they won’t take hold here.”
In an interview, Dammeier said he had not known about the ongoing investigation involving Tevis when they traded emails. “I had a deputy who’s serving the people of Pierce County questioning the safety of his own family, his service to the community,” Dammeier said. He denied listening more to law enforcement perspectives than to those in the Black community.
At noon on June 3, the day Ellis’ autopsy results became public, the county’s Emergency Operations Center shifted its purpose from responding to the coronavirus pandemic to monitoring protests, including rallies staged to demand answers for the faulty investigation into Ellis’ death. Dammeier declared an emergency, imposed a curfew and requested 200 National Guard troops to quell unrest if needed.
A key part of the Emergency Operations Center’s new mission was surveillance. Emails show that — amidst their overlapping investigations — the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and Tacoma police worked together to staff a joint Regional Intelligence Group that collected information on protests and their organizers.
The group monitored announcements about a series of protests involving at least 700 people, but had the most detailed report on a march that started at the spot where Ellis died. Police photographed cars, tracked members of the media and monitored social media accounts of people who were present.
Although the full scope of the surveillance isn’t clear, the intelligence group tracked planned protests for at least two more weeks. On June 17, a grassroots organization shared a Facebook post about a planned phone-call campaign calling for action on the Ellis case. Within seven minutes, the post had been intercepted by a criminal analyst and shared to Dammeier’s inbox.
“This country was founded though protest, and it is unacceptable that federal and local agencies would collaborate to spy on protesters and chill their fundamental constitutional right to free speech,” said Nancy Talner, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Washington. “Regardless of its legality, which requires more details to determine, the government must not use surveillance as a tool to silence its critics.”
Ellis’ mother, Marcia Carter-Patterson, said she feels intimidated and threatened that the agency that is monitoring her, her family and their supporters is also being investigated for her son’s death.
“It’s an invasion of privacy,” she said.
“Black man walking”
After Ellis’ death, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and lawyers for the officers spotlighted Ellis’ September 2019 arrest — when he was found nearly incoherent, naked and bleeding after attempting to rob a fast-food restaurant — as an indication of the danger the officers potentially faced on March 3.
That arrest, however, was hardly representative of most of his police interactions. Once, Ellis was pulled over for a cracked windshield on the car he was living in. He was interrogated while pumping gas by an officer suspicious of his car’s mismatched paint job. Another time, he was questioned for just sitting in a parked car with two other Black men at night.
“It sounds like [Ellis’] example is the reason why we’re having such a big movement right now to dismantle policing as we know it,” said University of Washington sociology Professor Alexes Harris.
Ellis’ sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, said the September arrest was a turning point for her brother. His landlords at “God’s Hand Up,” Kimberly Mays and Cedric Armstrong, a couple with nearly 20 years of successful recovery, described Ellis as an upbeat presence who inspired other residents during the months he lived there.
For the first time, he embraced mental health care for his schizophrenia. Ellis declared himself “a punk for Jesus,” walking away from trouble, Mays said. He played drums during services at Last Days Ministries, the downtown Tacoma church he attended several times a week, including the night he died.
On the ride home with Mays and Armstrong that night, Ellis was exuberant about the future and in great spirits.
At “God’s Hand Up,” the owners and residents alike were grief-stricken by news of Ellis’ death.
When a resident asked Mays how he’d died, she replied, “He caught a case of Black man walking.”