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Rodney King, whose beating led to LA riots, dies

FILE - This July 16, 1992 file photo shows Rodney King being escorted from jail in Santa Ana, Calif. after he was arrested for investigation of drunken driving. King, whose videotaped beating by police in 1991 led to LA race riots, has died at 47. FILE - This July 16, 1992 file photo shows Rodney King being escorted from jail in Santa Ana, Calif. after he was arrested for investigation of drunken driving. King, whose videotaped beating by police in 1991 led to LA race riots, has died at 47. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian, file)
By Anthony McCartney
Associated Press / June 17, 2012
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LOS ANGELES—After his beating by police stunned the nation and a jury's decision not to hold them responsible sparked a deadly race riot that left Los Angeles smoldering, Rodney King in a quavering voice pleaded on national television for peace while the city burned.

But peace never quite came for King -- not after the fires died down, after two of the officers who broke his skull multiple times were punished in a different court, after race relations were reshaped and police tactics were reformed.

His life, which ended Sunday at age 47 after he was pulled from the bottom of his swimming pool, was a continual struggle even as the city he helped change moved on.

The images -- preserved on an infamous grainy video -- of the black driver curled up on the ground while four white officers clubbed him more than 50 times with batons -- became a national symbol of police brutality in 1991.

More than a year later, when the officers' acquittals touched off one of the most destructive race riots in history, his scarred face and softspoken question -- "Can we all get along?" -- spurred the nation to confront its difficult racial history.

But while Los Angeles race relations and the city's police department made strides forward, King kept coming before police and courts, struggling with alcohol addiction and arrests, periodically re-appearing publicly for a stint on "Celebrity Rehab" or a celebrity boxing match. He spent the last months of his life promoting a memoir he titled "The Riot Within: From Rebellion to Redemption."

King was declared dead at a hospital after his fiancée called 911 at 5:25 a.m. to say she found him submerged in the pool at his home in Rialto, about an hour's drive from Los Angeles. Officers found King in the deep end of the pool, pulled him out and tried unsuccessfully to revive him with CPR.

An autopsy was expected to determine the cause of death within two days; police found no alcohol or drug paraphernalia near the pool and said foul play wasn't suspected. King's next-door neighbor, Sandra Gardea, said that around 3 a.m., she heard music and someone "really crying, like really deep emotions. ... Like tired or sad, you know?"

"I then 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."

King's death was a grim ending to a saga that began 21 years earlier he went for a drive with two friends, eventually leading authorities on a chase after he was spotted speeding.

The 25-year-old, on parole from a robbery conviction had been drinking, which he later said led him to try to evade police. He was finally stopped by four Los Angeles police officers who struck him more than 50 times with their batons, kicked him and shot him with stun guns. He was left with 11 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 Los Angeles. They lasted for three days, killing 55 people, injuring more than 2,000 and setting swaths of Los Angeles aflame, causing $1 billion in damage. 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.

King -- who said in his memoir that FBI agents had urged him to keep a low profile if the officers were acquitted, expecting violence -- appeared at a news conference on the third day, asking for an end to the uprising. "Can we all get along?" he asked -- a question the city and nation have struggled to answer ever since.

Although the four officers who beat King -- Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Timothy Wind and Laurence Powell -- were not convicted of state charges, Koon and Powell were convicted of federal civil rights charges and were sentenced to more than two years in prison. King received a $3.8 million civil judgment; one of the jurors in the case, Cynthia Kelley, is his fiancée.

But he quickly lost the money as he invested in a record label and other failed ventures. He was arrested multiple times for drunken driving -- including last summer in Riverside, Calif. He continually struggled with alcohol -- he started drinking at age 11, he wrote in his autobiography.

Despite his troubles, King remained upbeat as he confronted the 20 year anniversary of the LA riots and considered his legacy.

"America's been good to me after I paid the price and stayed alive through it all," he told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this year. "This part of my life is the easy part now."

He had three daughters and was engaged to Kelley.

Born April 2, 1965 in Sacramento, King grew up in Altadena, Calif., and dropped out during his senior year of high school. In his memoir, King described a tough upbringing in which his parents cleaned houses and hospitals to survive and he worked odd jobs. He was slated to begin a new job just a few days after his beating left him battered.

He returned to the spotlight earlier this year as historians and news outlets explored the impact of the riots on its 20th anniversary, including the reforms made by the Los Angeles Police Department.

"Through all that he had gone through with his beating and his personal demons he was never one to not call for reconciliation and for people to overcome and forgive," Rev. Al Sharpton said Sunday. "History will record that it was Rodney King's beating and his actions that made America deal with the excessive misconduct of law enforcement."

Attorney Harland Braun, who represented one of the police officers, Briseno, in his federal trial, said King's case never would have gained the prominence it did without the videotape of his beating.

"If there hadn't been a video there would have never been a case," Braun said. "In those days, you might have claimed excessive force but there would have been no way to prove it."

The video also sparked an examination of Los Angeles police tactics under then-Police Chief Daryl Gates.

"The Rodney King beating stands as a landmark in the recent history of law enforcement, comparable to the Scottsboro case in 1931 and the Serpico case in 1967," said a July 1991 report produced by an independent commission led by Warren Christopher, who later became Secretary of State.

The report determined that despite many good officers, there were "a significant number of officers in the LAPD who repetitively use excessive force against the public."

Despite that scrutiny, the department continued to face scandals and critics of its practices until the U.S. government intervened. The department operated under a decade-long consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department' civil rights division to implement reforms on how it uses force and handles complaints; the department also gained more civilian oversight. The decree wasn't formally lifted until 2009.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who knew King for years, said he was more of a victim than a hero, and that his death reminded the nation of how far it still needs to go.

Gardea described King as a quiet neighbor until Sunday morning. Cory Hudson, King's cousin who lives nearby, said King enjoyed swimming and was known to get into the pool at night.

"It's just sad. I feel bad for all the family members," Hudson said. "It's been rough. And he was just getting his life really together."

Braun, the attorney saw King as "a sad figure swept up into something bigger than he was.

"He wasn't a hero or a villain."

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Associated Press writers Raquel Maria Dillon in Rialto and Linda Deutsch, Chris Weber, Daisy Nguyen and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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