Tacoma, WA – Three Tacoma police officers have been criminally charged in connection with the in-custody death of a methamphetamine-fueled suspect who ran up on them one night in March of 2020 and started fighting with them.
According to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s report, the March 3, 2020 encounter with 33-year-old Manuel Ellis began after Ellis allegedly walked up to a Tacoma patrol vehicle on the corner of Ainsworth Avenue South and 96th Street South at 11:21 p.m. and pounded on it “for no apparent reason,” The News Tribune reported.
Two officers were inside the patrol car at the time, according to the report.
As one of the officers got out of the vehicle, Ellis allegedly grabbed him and threw him to the ground, investigators said.
One of the officers deployed his Taser, hitting Ellis in the chest, just before the officers wound up going hands-on with him, The News Tribune reported.
Bystander cell phone footage showed the officers as they fought to subdue the violent suspect.
By the time the brawl was over, Ellis was handcuffed, his feet were hobbled, and a spit hood had been placed over his head, KIRO reported.
Ellis told the officers four times that he couldn’t breathe, and later died while in custody, according to The Seattle Times.
According to police, Ellis had also been trying to open the doors of other occupied vehicles prior to pounding on the patrol car, The News Tribune reported.
Investigators said he seemed to be suffering from excited delirium.
Tacoma Police Department (TPD) Officer Christopher Burbank, 35, Officer Matthew Collins, 38, Officer Timothy Rankine, 32, and Officer Masyih Ford, 29, were placed on leave immediately after Ellis died while the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department (PCSD) conducted an initial investigation into the incident, The Seattle Times reported.
They were returned to duty two weeks later, but that all changed once the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s report came out in June of 2020.
The medical examiner noted that Ellis had a fatal level of methamphetamine in his system at the time of his death, KIRO reported.
“Death, therefore, is certified as being due to hypoxia as a result of physical restraint with contributing conditions of methamphetamine intoxication and a dilated heart‚” the medical examiner’s report read.
His death was ruled a homicide, but the medical examiner noted that “an argument could be made that the extremely high methamphetamine concentration should be considered the primary factor,” according to The News Tribune.
The four officers were placed back on paid leave, The Seattle Times reported.
At nearly the same time, two eyewitnesses came forward to dispute the officers’ claims that Ellis had been violent with them.
They also had video clips of portions of the fight after it was already underway, according to the paper.
The PCSD’s investigation into the incident fell apart when investigators discovered PCSD Sergeant Gary Sanders had helped restrain the suspect during the brawl, The Seattle Times reported.
The conflict of interest caused Washington Governor Jay Inslee to intervene, and the case was handed over to the Washington State Patrol (WSP) to investigate.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who was tasked with making a charging decision in the case, hired Seattle attorney Patty Eakes in February to help him wade through the investigation, The Seattle Times reported.
WSP investigators noted in December of 2020 that 27-year-old TPD Officer Armando “Manny” Farinas was the one who placed the spit hood over Ellis’ head while he was restrained, according to the paper.
Because the medical examiner determined that the mask was one of the contributing factors in Ellis’ death, Officer Farinas was also placed on leave effective Dec. 30, 2020, The Seattle Times reported.
Ferguson announced on Thursday that his office is charging Officer Collins and Officer Burbank with second-degree murder.
Officer Rankine will face a charge of first-degree manslaughter.
“In June, I called for a new investigation and for the attorney general to make a charging decision in the case, as it was clear to me that those needed to be made independent from Pierce County Law Enforcement,” Inslee said in a statement to KING on Thursday.
“The resulting charging decision that was made today by Attorney General Bob Ferguson is the result of that investigation,” the governor continued. “This decision is within the authority of the attorney general’s office and I look forward to a full briefing on their findings.”
Inslee said the charges are “the first step in our system of justice.”