‘I can’t breathe’: How Manuel Ellis was killed by police

Less than three months before George Floyd was killed by US police, another Black man spoke his final words.

A woman stands on pavement in front of a single-storey house. Beside her, on a patch of dying grass, is small wooden cross
Marcia Carter stands at a memorial site where her son, Manuel Ellis, was killed in March 2020 [Dorian Geiger/Al Jazeera]

Tacoma, Washington State – Marcia Carter, 62, stands on the sidewalk gazing solemnly at the single-storey housing unit with its peeling white and blue paint. The front porch of the decaying property is sealed off with plywood. Beside Marcia, on a patch of dying grass, is a small wooden crucifix, wrapped in a Seattle Seahawks bandana, and dotted with stickers of musical notes. It is inscribed with a date: 03-03-2020.

It was here that Marcia’s son, Manuel Elijah Ellis, was killed by Tacoma police officers as he walked home from a convenience store two years ago. His final words were, “I can’t breathe.”

“The police murdered him,” Marcia says coldly, each word punctuated with fury and sadness.

“Nobody was there to save my son,” the retired high school guidance counselor adds.

Manuel was handcuffed, tased, and suffocated to death. An autopsy ruled his death a homicide.

He was 33 years old.

The police narrative

On March 3, 2020, Manuel walked into a south Tacoma 7-Eleven and bought a box of raspberry donuts and a bottle of water. He paid for his snacks and left the store at 11:11pm. Soon after, he was dead.

A few blocks from the store, while walking east along 96th Street, Manuel encountered Tacoma police officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins.

Burbank and Collins, whose account of the deadly arrest was contradicted by three eyewitnesses, as well as video recordings of the incident, would later tell crime scene investigators they had first seen Manuel acting erratically and chasing after an unidentified motorist’s car at a set of nearby traffic lights.

The two officers told detectives that Manuel then began banging on their police cruiser, attacked them as they exited the vehicle, and fought their attempts to detain him, ultimately resulting in his death, according to a Pierce County Sheriff’s Department supplemental report (PDF).

Tacoma police denied any wrongdoing and portrayed Manuel as the aggressor.

A 7-Eleven store in south Tacoma seen from the parking lot with three cars parked outside
The south Tacoma 7-Eleven where Manuel Ellis purchased snacks shortly before he was killed [Dorian Geiger/Al Jazeera]

For weeks, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, which had been asked to handle the investigation, parroted the city police’s version of events. In particular, then-spokesperson Ed Troyer — who was later elected sheriff in November 2020 — vehemently denied that officers had placed a knee on Ellis’ back or head.

At the time, the Tacoma Police Department didn’t equip its officers with body cameras, which Manuel’s family and lawyer say allowed law enforcement to largely control the narrative around his death.

That was until citizen video — two clips filmed by a passing motorist — and recordings from a nearby home surveillance camera emerged, challenging the police’s version of events.

The witness accounts

Prosecutors say three separate eyewitnesses, including a pizza delivery driver, and two motorists (one of whom filmed mobile phone footage of the encounter) said the unarmed Black man had interacted with Burbank and Collins for roughly 10 to 15 seconds as he passed by their squad cruiser.

They described the brief exchange as “peaceful” and “respectful” and said Manuel displayed “no signs of aggression”.

Then, they explained, as Manuel walked away from the police vehicle, Burbank “abruptly swung open the passenger door”, knocking Manuel to his knees. According to the witnesses, as Manuel tried to get up, Burbank climbed on top of him.

“[Manuel] Ellis was not fighting back,” a probable cause statement obtained by Al Jazeera English said. The document that details the basis for charges also stated: “All three civilian witnesses at the intersection…state that they never saw [Manuel] Ellis strike at the officers.”

While Collins applied a neck hold, Burbank aimed his Taser at Ellis’ chest and deployed it, delivering a five-second jolt of electricity through Manuel’s body, according to prosecutors.

As Manuel lay handcuffed on the concrete, gasping for breath, he repeated the words — “I can’t breathe” — multiple times. According to the home surveillance footage that captured the arrest, one officer responded by telling him to “shut the f*** up”.

A vacant single-storey white house with a small garden in front of it
The front yard of the vacant south Tacoma home, footsteps from where Manuel Ellis died, has been turned into a memorial garden [Dorian Geiger/Al Jazeera]

At 11:24pm, a third Tacoma police officer, Timothy Rankine, and his partner, arrived on the scene. Doorbell camera footage shows Rankine pouncing on top of Manuel, as Burbank and Collins restrained his back and legs, respectively.

Rankine put “all [his] weight to the middle of [Manuel’s] body, securing [his] right knee over the top of his spine just below the base of his neck” with his “left knee in the middle of his spine, on his lower back,” according to the probable cause statement.

Mobile phone video, shot from a different angle by a passing motorist, showed one officer placing his knee on Manuel’s back.

“Hey! Stop! Oh my god, stop hitting him!” the driver yelled at officers in the recording, which Al Jazeera English has seen, before driving off.

‘Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe’

Rankine later recalled how, as he applied pressure to Manuel’s back, he heard him make “really strange animal grunting noises.” Manuel again repeated that he couldn’t breathe in a “very calm normal voice,” Rankine said, according to prosecutors.

“If you’re talking to me, you can breathe just fine,” Rankine told Manuel, the probable cause statement alleged.

Manuel repeated the phrase “I can’t breathe” at least three times within a minute of Rankine’s arrival on the scene. A minute later, his legs were hobbled and then tied to the handcuffs behind his back. The 33-year-old remained face down on the concrete.

A police radio then captured Manuel’s last known words: “Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe,” according to the case’s probable cause statement.

Manuel, who was bleeding from his face, then began to “snore,” according to Lieutenant. Anthony Messineo, of Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, who arrived at the site of the incident around 11:25pm. He then “went quiet” and “stopped moving,” according to Messineo’s account.

A smashed box of donuts is seen beside a police vehicle close to the covered body of Manuel Ellis
A box of smashed donuts, which Manuel Ellis purchased from the 7-Eleven shortly before he was killed, is pictured beneath a Tacoma police cruiser, near his body, on March 3, 2020 [Washington State Police]

Approximately two minutes later, officer Armando Farinas placed a spit mask over Manuel’s face. Manuel remained hogtied while Rankine continued applying pressure to his back.

By the time emergency responders arrived roughly seven minutes later and removed the spit hood, Manuel was unconscious, barely breathing, and had a faint pulse. Paramedics unsuccessfully attempted CPR. He was pronounced dead at 12:12am. A spent Taser cartridge and a smashed box of donuts were found by his body.

As investigators continued to process the scene, at least 20 law enforcement officers from city, county, and state agencies descended on the intersection of 96th Avenue and Ainsworth Avenue.

‘They watched him die’

Manuel died from hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, due to physical restraint, according to a Pierce County Medical Examiner’s report. A pathologist concluded the manner in which Ellis was hogtied and pinned face-down on the concrete had triggered significant respiratory distress, which had likely caused his death.

The spit hood, the inside of which was coated with Manuel’s blood and mucus, further obstructed his breathing, the medical examiner determined.

The brand of spit mask used on Ellis came with specific instructions that it not be used on anyone suffering from breathing issues, warning asphyxiation could result from improper use. At the time, the Tacoma Police Department did not have an official procedural policy in place for how to properly deploy and apply spit masks.

Blood tests revealed methamphetamine in Manuel’s system, but according to his autopsy, this likely wasn’t a factor in his death.

A mural depicts Manuel Ellis against a black background with the words Justice for Manny written beside it
A mural commemorating Manuel Ellis near MLK Jr. Way and South 11th Street in Tacoma [Dorian Geiger/Al Jazeera]

James Bible, the Ellis family’s lawyer, says the police account of what happened to Manuel that night has been “totally debunked”.

“Manuel Ellis was lynched,” Bible told Al Jazeera English. “They choked him, tased him, threw him to the ground, hogtied him, put a spit mask over his head, and watched him die. They then created a whole nother narrative.”

“[Manuel] was murdered. He died by, first and foremost, a callous disregard for human life,” Bible says.

‘How can you negotiate over a person’s life?’

Manuel was killed nearly three months before anti-police protests swept the country following the death of George Floyd. When Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, he, too, had told officers, “I can’t breathe.”

“With George [Floyd], everything was quick,” Marcia says, citing Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder conviction and 22.5-year sentence in Floyd’s death. “Within months they had everything settled.

“But for my son, we have to wait for two years when it’s plain what the county coroner stated in his documents – that my son was the victim of murder, homicide,” Marcia says. “There wasn’t nobody else there that killed him.”

In June 2020, a state probe into Manuel’s death was ordered.

Two Tacoma police officers, Masyih Ford and Armando Farinas, who were on-scene at the time of Manuel’s death, were exonerated of any policy violations and restored to active duty.

But in May 2021, Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins were arrested and charged with second-degree murder, and Timothy Rankine was arrested and charged with first-degree manslaughter. All three have pleaded not guilty to criminal charges. They are currently suspended on paid administrative leave, a spokesperson for the Tacoma Police Department confirmed. They have all bonded out of jail, pending trial.

Brett Purtzer, Burbank’s lawyer declined to speak on-record on the open case when contacted by Al Jazeera. Collins’ legal team did not respond to requests for comment. The Tacoma Police Department also declined to answer questions regarding the active investigation.

But Anne Melani Bremner, a defence lawyer for Rankine, told Al Jazeera: “Officer Rankine didn’t do anything wrong. He assisted with aid and did absolutely everything he was required to do and then some.”

“We are vigorously defending the case,” the veteran police union lawyer explained. “He didn’t cause the death of Manny Ellis and he acted within departmental guidelines and policies.”

A pretrial status conference hearing is set for July 15, court records show. The case’s jury trial is expected to get under way in October.

Last year, Manuel’s family filed a federal civil lawsuit against the City of Tacoma and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, seeking damages of $40m. On March 22, 2022, Pierce County Council approved a partial $4m settlement related to the involvement of two sheriff’s deputies’ in Manuel’s death.

The settlement triggered mixed feelings for Manuel’s family.

“It’s like they think that Manny’s life was only worth $4m. How can you negotiate over a person’s life and the cost of it all? It’s very sickening and it’s really depressing,” says Manuel’s sister, Monét Carter-Mixon.

The family is still pursuing its federal civil claim against the City of Tacoma.

‘It’s been hell’

In the two years since her son was killed, Marcia has been in survival mode.

“I cried every day, every day for the whole first year, okay?” she explains. “It’s been hell. I miss him every freaking day. I’m healing, I’m mourning still and trying to get through this time. Life has really changed for all of us. It’s a difficult road that I’m walking right now but I’m walking it because this is where I’m supposed to be.”

Marcia Carter stands near her family's home
Marcia Carter pictured near her family’s home in Tacoma [Dorian Geiger/Al Jazeera]

The grieving mother lives with lung disease, anxiety, and depression — conditions she says have worsened in the wake of her son’s death.

“After [Manuel] passed is when my anxiety level increased,” Marcia explains. “I’m mad. Mentally, it’s been off the chain. If I’m not on medication, I’m no good. I have to have meds to keep me focused and calm.”

She also suffers from microscopic polyangiitis, a rare type of vasculitis, which damages blood vessels, induces chronic fatigue and can interrupt organ function.

“It was like I was trying to get out of a jail cell … just get away, and I don’t know, just be comfortable. It was hard. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Your heart races. It’s like you’re having a heart attack, truly. You feel like this is the end.”

‘Saved my soul’

There is one thing, however, that has brought Marcia a semblance of peace: gardening.

In particular, she has found strength and solace in restoring the neglected property where her son took his final breaths and which she has turned into a makeshift memorial. She calls it “Manny’s Garden”.

“That garden right there saved my soul from going to hell because I was on my way,” Marcia says. “That garden gave me peace. It gave me life. It gave me love.”

Marcia Carter, wearing trousers and a t-shirt in a camouflage print and a face mask, stands in a garden beside a blue wooden sign with white painted letters spelling Manny's
Marcia Carter directs community volunteers at Manny’s Garden in south Tacoma [Dorian Geiger/Al Jazeera]

As Marcia speaks, about a dozen volunteers scurry about, weeding flower beds, and hauling wheelbarrows full of landscaping rocks.

“I miss him every day and all I can do is go to the cemetery,” she says. “God put it in my heart. He said: ‘Why don’t you create something beautiful here and instead of going over there, and then crying all the time, you know, go over there and fix it up’. It was so nasty. It was filthy… the grass.”

‘He touched people’

Manuel’s murder has taken a toll on the entire family.

“We walk around feeling very empty,” 31-year-old Monét explains. “Like when you’re forgetting something and you don’t know what it is. That’s how I feel like on a day-to-day basis. And then I’m reminded quickly, like, oh, it’s because Manny’s not here, that’s what’s gone.”

Manuel was a “gregarious” and “vibrant” “social butterfly,” as well as a loving father of two, who adored music and “cracking jokes,” according to his family.

“He touched people,” Marcia says. “My son loved his family and he loved his friends. He was a good person and he made you laugh. He was a comedian. That boy was so funny.”

The family’s middle child, Manuel was deeply spiritual and a lifelong musician.

Growing up, he played football, took theatre classes, and fell in love with playing the drums.

Childhood abuse

But Manuel also endured great trauma. His father died of stomach cancer two months after he was born. When his mother later remarried, Manuel’s stepfather physically abused him.

“He never really had his biological father in his life,” Monét says. “That made him feel some type of way. He always wondered a lot, questioned a lot, because my father, who my mom married after Manny’s father died, was very abusive but that was all Manny knew… Manny was kind of like my dad’s punching bag.”

As a child, he was also sexually abused by an older cousin, his sister said. Manuel later began experimenting with drugs and alcohol as a teenager.

“He started to be more rebellious,” Monét says. “He started smoking weed and drinking alcohol, going overboard. He was trying to suppress what happened to him as a child. He was never taught how to process [it].”

At 17, Manuel was arrested on robbery charges. By 18, he had tried methamphetamine. By the age of 24, he was a daily user.

“That became his drug of choice,” Monét says.

As Manuel’s addiction deepened, his mental health deteriorated. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, ADHD, and PTSD, and was prescribed several medications and mood stabilisers.

Manuel’s drug habit led to a number of encounters with police. In 2014, he pleaded guilty to second-degree identity theft, according to separate court records. He was jailed for 23 days.

In 2019, police arrested Manuel for allegedly assaulting a fast-food worker during an attempted robbery while high on methamphetamine. Manuel was out on bail at the time of his death. The case was dismissed in April 2020 – a month after Manuel’s death.

‘This light came on him’

In the weeks and months leading up to his deadly encounter with Tacoma police, Manuel was transforming his life, according to his family and others who knew him.

In 2019, determined to get clean, he moved into God’s Hands Up, a sober-living home in south Tacoma.

He moved into a shared room in the group home and quickly earned a reputation as a respectful, kind, and tidy tenant.

“He just fell in love with goin’ to church,” Cedric Armstrong, a drug and alcohol counselor, who operates the transitional living facility, told detectives, according to a police report.

A photograph of Manuel Ellis in a shop posing with a baseball bat
A ‘gifted’ drummer, Manuel was deeply spiritual, according to his family. The Washington father struggled with lifelong mental health and addiction issues [Monét Carter Mixon]

Manuel quickly became a fixture in his church community. He underwent drug treatment and was routinely screened — and tested negative — for narcotics. By all accounts, Manuel was “flourishing.”

“Manny showed everybody that, if you got a second chance, to take advantage of that,” Cedric, 57, told Al Jazeera by telephone. “He was working on himself. This light came on him. He learned how to laugh again.”

He began playing the drums in his church’s band. On the night he died, he had played at an evening worship service, according to Cedric, his mentor and sponsor.

“Man, when he hopped on the drums, it just blew me away,” Cedric said. “His skills were definitely next level…how his brain was thinking of how to arrange these songs.”

Manuel also emerged as a pillar in his own family, particularly for his sister, a working mother of six, whose children he often babysat.

“My younger two, he basically cared for them since they were, like, newborns,” Monét says. “I didn’t want them to go to daycare. So he was a reliable childcare person that I had.”

Manuel also had two children of his own and was in the process of establishing a relationship with them at the time of his death.

“He wanted to walk on the path that he was chosen to walk on — he was tired of running,” Marcia reflects. “He was going to do the right thing. He was in the church four days a week playing the drums. He was there. I saw the transformation in my son. He wanted to do the right thing.”

A small wooden cross marks the spot on small patch of grass where Manuel Ellis was killed
A wooden cross marks the area where Manuel Ellis was killed by Tacoma police officers [Dorian Geiger/Al Jazeera]

‘Manny didn’t deserve to die’

As the family braces itself for the approaching murder trial, Manuel’s death has sparked police reform locally and on a state level.

It is now mandatory for all uniformed Tacoma police officers to wear body cameras and the city’s police force has also banned chokeholds and neck restraints, implemented a procedure for spit masks, and updated procedures surrounding the use of leg restraints.

Driven in part by Manuel’s death, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed sweeping police reform legislation banning no-knock warrants, chokeholds and tear gas, and restricting a number of other controversial police tactics. Manuel’s death also triggered the creation of a state task force in 2020 to oversee independent reviews of police-involved killings.

“Manny didn’t deserve to die,” Marcia says. “I miss him. It hurts my heart. He had to be the sacrifice for the family. But I know he got his crown … My son is in no more pain.”

Source: Al Jazeera