1992 Los Angeles Riots Legacy: Rodney King & More on the 20th Anniversary

07.11.12

How Did Rodney King Die?

Family and friends of the civil-rights symbol are questioning his fiancée’s account of his death, Allison Samuels reports.

Friends and family of Rodney King insist the 47-year old was excited about beginning a new chapter in his life. He’d recently released a book (The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption) detailing his journey before and after he became a lightning rod for race issues in 1991 as a result of his beating by the Los Angeles police and the deadly riots that followed. There was also talk of a Hollywood film about his experiences, as well as more celebrity-boxing matches that often brought in large, five-figure paydays. King was 4-0 in his fighting matches and was slated to fight baseball star Jose Canseco at the end of August on pay-per-view.

But the most enduring symbol of ‘90’s racial conflict wouldn’t live to see those plans come to fruition. On June 17 King was found at the bottom of his home swimming pool, where he apparently drowned despite his being an excellent swimmer.

More than a week after burying their loved one, King’s family remains deep in mourning and denial. They say they still can’t believe he’s gone and don’t believe the explanations they’ve been given as to his untimely death. Police have said there was no indication of foul play at the scene, and they believe the 47-year-old drowned by accident. Autopsy results will be released in the next few weeks.

“It doesn’t make sense the story we were told of how he died,’’ says one family member who didn’t want to be identified. “The story has changed several times over the course of a few hours and days. We don’t believe he died in the way that’s been explained, and we don’t believe the person telling the story.”

The person explaining the events leading up to King’s death is Cynthia Kelly, King’s longtime fiancée and a former juror during King’s civil case against the city of Los Angeles, in which he was awarded nearly $4 million dollars. Kelly told the Rialto, Calif., police that King was possibly under the influence of marijuana and alcohol when he died. She said King had been banging on the windows of the house and pounded on their bedroom window just shortly before she heard a loud splash and found him at the bottom of the pool.

King’s friends say that in the hours and days after his death, Kelly gave differing versions of what happened on June 17—including her recollections of the exact time that King banged on the window, and her descriptions of King’s mood, behavior, and drug use.

Family members say Kelly refused to give them more in-depth information than what she told police. “Many of us just wanted to know if he was in pain or upset about something,’’ says a King family member.  “We wanted to know if something was wrong at the time. But she wouldn’t tell us.”

Video screenshot

Listen to the 911 call after Rodney King was found in the pool.

Kelly hasn’t spoken publicly about King’s death and couldn’t be reached for comment by The Daily Beast. King’s neighbors say that since King’s death, she has been seen only a few times at the Rialto residence she shared with him.

No one disputes Kelly’s description of King’s drug use, but King’s family and friends say she failed to tell police about the numerous problems the couple struggled with for years, or about the ugly words she and King exchanged shortly before he was found dead.

“There is a lot more to this story and I do believe she knows what that is,’’ says promoter Damon Feldman, who worked with King on the celebrity-boxing circuit.

Next-door neighbor Sandra Gardea told police and friends that there was loud music playing in the couple’s backyard between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. the morning he died, and at some point she heard King crying and moaning. “I heard Cynthia pleading for him to come inside at some point during the night,’’ Gardea says. “I didn’t hear a fight but could tell something was definitely wrong.”

Damon Feldman, who worked with King on the celebrity-boxing circuit, says he called the house and spoke to Kelly the day King was found dead. The boxing promoter says he was so disturbed by Kelly’s explanation of what had happened that he called the Rialto police to tell them his concerns.

“I had my worries about them as a couple long before this happened.  I know Rodney wanted out. Then he died and none of it added up.  A man so young and physically fit can’t just fall into the pool and die,” Feldman says. “There is a lot more to this story and I do believe she knows what that is.”

Feldman says he witnessed a heated argument between the couple in Philadelphia only three weeks before King’s death. “It was such a major blow-out between the two that it bordered on a physical altercation,’’ he says. “Rodney was getting back out there in a positive way and getting a lot of attention. I don’t think she liked him going out and getting attention. She didn’t want him to go out the night we were together. There was some serious jealousy going on there and I think she wanted to control him.”

King had spoken to him a few months ago about ending the relationship, Feldman says, but he seemed unable to break loose from Kelly. “Rodney was a sweet guy who always needed someone with him,’’ he says. “He didn’t like being alone and was never without a girlfriend whenever I saw him. He had to have someone there and just couldn’t break it off.”

Feldman adds: “From my perspective, it was all about money to the girlfriend. It seemed like she was getting a big cut from his fights and wanted to get more. But there is a way to handle that type of thing and she didn’t seem to care.”

Despite the large settlement from his civil lawsuit, King was almost penniless at the time of his death, and family members were forced to raise money for his burial. Pointedly, the family did not invite Kelly to King’s funeral.

“Rodney was such a nice and easygoing guy that anyone could take advantage of his kindness,’’ says one family member. “He believed the best in people and didn’t always see when something or someone wasn’t in his best interest. I don’t think this relationship was in his best interest. We’re not accusing anyone of anything—just saying something more happened the night Rodney died and we want to know what that was. Only one other person was there that night and they know.’’