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Rodney King, figure in L.A. race furor, dies; '91 beating by police led to shocking verdict, riots

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, was declared dead early Sunday after being pulled from the bottom of his swimming pool. He was 47.

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

Officers arrived to find King in the deep end of the pool and pulled him out. King was unresponsive, and officers began CPR until paramedics arrived. He was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:11 a.m., police said.

Police Capt. Randy De Anda said King had been by the pool throughout the early morning and had been talking with his fiancee, who was inside the home at the time. A statement from police said the preliminary investigation indicates a drowning, with no signs of foul play.

Investigators will await autopsy results to determine whether drugs or alcohol were involved, but De Anda said that there were no alcoholic beverages or paraphernalia found near the pool.

Authorities didn't identify the fiancee. King earlier said he was engaged to Cynthia Kelley, one of the jurors in the civil rights case that brought King $3.8 million in damages.

De Anda said King had another visitor that night but that the person had left earlier.

A neighbor of King's said that around 3 a.m. she heard music and people talking next door and what sounded like someone who was very emotional.

"It seemed like someone was really crying, like really deep emotions," said Sandra Gardea, 31, a dental hygienist instructor who recently moved in. "And it just got louder and louder. Everybody woke up. Even the kids woke up."

She described the sound as "like moaning, like in pain. Like tired or sad, you know?"

Gardea said that this went on for some time and then stopped.

"I heard someone say, 'OK, Please stop. Go inside the house.' We heard quiet for a few minutes. Then after that we heard a splash in the back. And that's when, a few minutes later, we see the cops arrive and everyone arrive and we see him being taken in a gurney."

The 1992 riots, which were set off by the acquittals of the officers who beat King, lasted for 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, a 25-year-old on parole from a robbery conviction, was stopped for speeding on a darkened street March 3, 1991. He was on parole and had been drinking -- he later said that led him to try to evade police.

Four Los Angeles police officers hit him more than 50 times with their batons, kicked him and shot him with stun guns, leaving King with numerous skull fractures, a broken eye socket and facial nerve damage.

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 felony assault 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 on state charges in the beating; 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, shopkeepers armed themselves and engaged in running gun battles with looters.

During the riots, a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, was pulled by several black men from his cab and beaten almost to death. He required surgery to repair his shattered skull, reset his jaw and put one eye back into its socket.

The four officers who beat King -- Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Timothy Wind and Laurence Powell -- were indicted in the summer of 1992 on federal civil rights charges. Koon and Powell were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, and King was awarded seven-figure damages.

In the two decades after he became the central figure in the riots, King was arrested several times, mostly for alcohol-related crimes, the last in Riverside Calif., last July. 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."