State to take over Manuel Ellis death investigation, citing conflict with Pierce Co. Sheriff's Office

TACOMA -- The state is taking over the independent investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis while in Tacoma police custody after the Pierce County prosecutor told the governor and state attorney general there's an "irreconcilable conflict" with her office handling the case.

According to a news release from Gov. Jay Inslee's office, deputies with the Pierce County Sheriff's Office - the office initially tasked with overseeing the investigation of Ellis's death - were at the scene the night that Ellis was restrained by Tacoma Police officers and died while handcuffed on the ground.

A Washington State Patrol trooper also responded to the call for assistance while Ellis was in police custody, the governor's office said.

Manuel Ellis

"In light of this new information, the county prosecutor believes that she has an irreconcilable conflict that would preclude her office from handling this case," Inslee said in a prepared statement. "I have become convinced that the Pierce County Sheriff should not complete the investigation of the death of Manuel Ellis and the county prosecutor should not review the investigation and make charging decisions."

Ellis, 33, was walking in the intersection of 96th Street and South Ainsworth Avenue about 11:30 p.m. on March 3 when he had an encounter with police.

Four responding officers -- who were recently placed on administrative leave -- said Ellis attacked police and was in a state of "excited delirium," but the Pierce County Medical Examiners Office has ruled the cause of death a homicide - respiratory arrest due to hypoxia caused by physical restraint. The ME's office has said drug intoxication and an underlying heart condition were also contributing factors.

Ellis's family and their lawyer, James Bible, have repeatedly called for an independent investigation into "Manny's" death, also citing a conflict of interest with the Pierce County Sheriff's Office.

New video released Tuesday by the family's attorney shows Ellis screaming, "I can't breathe, sir!" moments before he died.

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards has also called for the four officers involved to be fired and charged for the killing of Ellis.

The Tacoma Police Union has rebuked Woodards' comments, saying "this is not a time to sacrifice dedicated public servants at the altar of public sentiment, especially when that sentiment is almost wholly fueled by the uninformed anger of a theatrical politician."

"At this point we are working to determine who will conduct the independent investigation and who will make charging decisions," Inslee said. "That said, the state will ensure an independent investigation and independent prosecutorial review into the death of Manuel Ellis. We will ensure that the work is done free of conflicts of interest.

"Finally, I want to offer my apologies to Mr. Ellis’ family who now will have to wait longer for the fair and thorough investigation this case demands and which they deserve."