Rodney King, key figure in LA race riot, reported dead

Rodney King, the black motorist whose 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers was the touchstone for one of the most destructive race riots in the nation's history, died Sunday.

Chris Martinez/AP/File
This 1994 photo shows Rodney King speaking at a news conference in Santa Ana, Calif. King, the black motorist whose 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers was the touchstone for one of the most destructive race riots in the nation's history, has died.

Rodney King, the black motorist whose 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers was the touchstone for one of the most destructive race riots in the nation's history, died Sunday. He was 47.

King's fiancé called 911 at 5:25 a.m. to report that she found him at the bottom of the swimming pool at their home in Rialto, Calif., police Lt. Dean Hardin said.

Officers arrived to find King in the water and unresponsive, with no signs of foul play. The San Bernardino County coroner will perform an autopsy within 48 hours.

The 1992 riots, which were set off by the acquittals of the officers who beat King, lasted three days and left 55 people dead, more than 2,000 injured and swaths of Los Angeles on fire. At the height of the violence, King pleaded on television: "Can we all get along?"

King was stopped for speeding on a darkened street on March 3, 1991. Four Los Angeles police officers hit him more than 50 times with their batons, kicked him and shot him with stun guns.

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 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; a mistrial was declared for a fourth.

Violence erupted immediately, starting in South Los Angeles.

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.

During the riots, a white truck driver named Reginald Denny was pulled by several black men from his cab and beaten almost to death.

The police chief, Daryl Gates, came under intense criticism from city officials who said officers were slow to respond to the riots. He was forced to retire. Gates died in 2010.

In the two decades after he became the central figure in the riots, King was arrested several times, mostly for alcohol-related crimes. He later became a record company executive and a reality TV star, appearing on shows such as "Celebrity Rehab."

In an interview earlier this year with The Associated Press, King said he was a happy man.

"America's been good to me after I paid the price and stayed alive through it all," he says. "This part of my life is the easy part now.

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