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Rodney King: Details emerge about his death in swimming pool

June 17, 2012 |  1:38 pm

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Details began to emerge Sunday about the death of Rodney King, a key figure in the 1992 Los Angeles riots. He was 47 and died at his Rialto home.

King’s fiancée called 911 about 5:25 a.m. and said she found King at the bottom of his pool, Sgt. Paul Stella said.

A short time earlier, Cynthia Kelley had talked to King, who was outside, through a sliding-glass door, said Rialto Police Capt. Randy DeAnda. She then heard a splash and ran out, DeAnda said. She saw King at the bottom of the pool at the deep end, he said.

Kelley is “not a great swimmer,” DeAnda said, explaining why she did not jump in. Police arrived moments later and an officer jumped in the pool and pulled King’s body onto the deck.

“There were no signs of life,” DeAnda said.

The officers attempted CPR, which was continued when paramedics arrived, he said. King was taken to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton where he was pronounced dead at 6:11 a.m., he said.

Next-door neighbor Sandra Gardea, 31, said she heard commotion in King's backyard early Sunday morning. Gardea said about 3 or 3:30 a.m. she heard someone sobbing.

“It just sounded like someone was really sad,” she said. “There was a lot of moaning and crying. Another person was trying to console that person.”

King became a symbol for police brutality and the troubled relations between the LAPD and minority residents. He was eventually awarded a $3.8-million settlement, but the money and fame brought him little solace. He had repeated run-ins with the law and as of April said he was broke.

"I sometimes feel like I'm caught in a vise. Some people feel like I'm some kind of hero," he told The Times earlier this year. "Others hate me. They say I deserved it. Other people, I can hear them mocking me for when I called for an end to the destruction, like I'm a fool for believing in peace."

PHOTOS: Rodney King | 1965- 2012

Milton C. Grimes, the Los Angeles attorney who represented King off and on in the early 1990s, said he received the news of King's death via text message Sunday morning from another client.

Grimes said he was stunned. "You just don't expect some people to go. This was sudden."

"Rodney King was a symbol of civil rights and he represented the anti-police brutality and anti-racial profiling movement of our time," TV host Al Sharpton said. "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."

During a public appearance for a memoir published earlier this year, King seemed in good spirits and said he was trying to turn a corner in his life. The book's title is "The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption."

VIDEOS: Rodney King

King had long struggled with drugs and alcohol. He called himself a recovering addict but had not stopped drinking, and possessed a doctor's clearance for medical marijuana. King last year appeared on VH1’s "Celebrity Rehab," trying to tackle his fight with alcoholism.

King was drunk and unarmed when he was pulled over for speeding by Los Angeles Police Department officers and beaten.

The incident was captured on video by a civilian bystander, and the recording became an instant international sensation. Four of the officers were tried for excessive force. Their acquittal on April 29, 1992, touched off one of the worst urban riots in U.S. history.

"It felt like I was an inch from death," he said, describing what it was like to be struck by batons and stung by Tasers.

A jury acquitted the four police officers in the beating of King, unleashing an onslaught of pent-up anger. There were 54 riot-related deaths and nearly $1 billion in property damage as the seams of the city blew apart.

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In an interview with The Times this year, King confided that he was at peace with what happened to him.

"I would change a few things, but not that much," he said. "Yes, I would go through that night, yes I would. I said once that I wouldn't, but that's not true. It changed things. It made the world a better place."

King lived in Southern California much of his life.

When he was 2, King's family moved from Sacramento to Altadena.

King's parents cleaned offices and homes for a living. His father, Ronald, known in the neighborhood as "Kingfish," died in his early 40s from pneumonia.

FULL COVERAGE: L.A. riots, 20 years later

In junior high school, King said he began drinking. In 1989, he pleaded guilty to robbing a market in Monterey Park; the owner accused King of attacking him with a tire iron. King was given a two-year sentence.

Two years later, the videotaped beating occurred.

King said he was shocked to see the destruction of the riots that followed the not-guilty verdicts.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," he says. "Mayhem, people everywhere ... looting, burning. Gunshots. I turned back and went home. I looked at all of that and I thought to the way I was raised, with good morals from my mother, even though I didn't always follow them.

"I said to myself, 'That is not who I am, all this hate. I am not that guy. This does not represent me or my family, killing people over this. No, sir, that is not the way I was raised by my mother.' I began to realize that I had to say something to the people, had to try to get them to stop."

So, on the third day of the rioting, he pleaded on television: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?"

During the first decade after the riots, King started an unsuccessful hip-hop recording company.

Over the last 20 years, he had had repeated contact with law enforcement. He long ago stopped keeping track of his arrests for crimes such as driving under the influence and domestic assault. "Eleven times?" he said earlier this year. "Twelve?"

"For a long time, sure, I was letting the pressure of being Rodney King get to me. It ain't easy. Even now, I walk into a place wondering what people are thinking. Do they know who I am? What do they think about what happened? Do they blame me for all those people who died?"

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—Phil Willon in Rialto and Kate Mather in Los Angeles

Photo: An Investigator from the Rialto police department enters the home of Rodney King. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

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