The family of a Tulalip Tribes member who died while struggling with a Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy in 2015 alleges the investigation into his death was whitewashed and his last words — “I can’t breathe” — were left out of investigation documents.
The family of Cecil Lacy Jr. has sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, with more than 150 pages of supporting documents and exhibits, asking for an independent criminal review of his death, which was deemed an accident by the Snohomish County Medical Examiner.
The letter claims the detective who investigated the death from the Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team (SMART) “conspired” with a union-appointed attorney representing the deputy, the medical examiner and prosecutors to “doctor and destroy evidence and otherwise conceal the truth associated with Mr. Lacy’s death.”
“The purported investigation into Mr. Lacy’s death warrants your attention vis-à-vis broader calls for police reform,” wrote the family’s attorney, Gabe Galanda. The SMART investigation into Mr. Lacy’s death exhibited numerous irregularities and questionable practices that warrant independent review.”
Tara Lee, a spokesperson with Inslee’s office, said the governor had received the letter. “We will have conversations with our legal counsel and the Attorney General’s Office about next steps,” she said.
The reliability of investigations of officer-involved deaths by other police officers has long been subject to criticism, but has come under particular scrutiny since the death of George Floyd while under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Initial reports by officials that Floyd died of a heart attack were met with skepticism, given the video of an officer kneeling on his neck for more than seven minutes.
The state of Washington passed Initiative 940 two years ago, setting up guidelines for outside investigations of police-involved deaths, however, few agencies have followed its guidelines. Inslee ordered an independent investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis — a Tacoma man who died in March while restrained by police, and asked Attorney General Bob Ferguson to review 20 other police-involved deaths to gauge their compliance with I-940.
Brionna Aho, a spokesperson for Ferguson, said incidents that occurred before I-940’s requirements took effect in January are outside the scope of the attorney general’s review. For the office to launch a criminal investigation into the incident would require a written request from either the elected county prosecutor or the governor.
Both Floyd and Ellis’ last reported words were “I can’t breathe.” According to the letter sent by Lacy’s family to the governor, the 46-year-old tribal member said the same thing as Deputy Tyler Pendergrass pinned him facedown to the ground and held him there — all witnessed and reported by other officers at the scene. However, those words were not included in the investigator’s final case summary, considered by the medical examiner or cited by prosecutors when they cleared the deputy of any wrongdoing, according to the letter.
The letter cites reports from tribal officers who responded to the scene but were not involved in the altercation that ended in Lacy’s death. They reported that the deputy had his weight on Lacy’s back and that Lacy stated he couldn’t breathe before becoming unresponsive.
At the time, Lacy was not under arrest, according to the documents.
The official cause of Lacy’s death was listed as “cardiac arrhythmia due to acute drug intoxication due to methamphetamine.” However, a forensic expert hired by his family, Dr. Bennet Omalu, reviewed the findings and concluded Lacy died from “mechanical and positional asphyxiation” and found his manner of death to be homicide.
The family believes evidence shows Lacy died with the deputy’s weight on his back, preventing him from breathing.
Omalu is a former chief medical examiner for San Joaquin County, California, and is renowned as the first pathologist to recognize, identify and describe brain injuries in football players and wrestlers now commonly known as CTE, or “chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”
The family alleges Pendergrass was dispatched to check the welfare of a man walking in the middle of Marine Drive on the Tulalip Reservation the night of Sept. 18, 2015. Pendergrass was joined by a pair of Tulalip tribal officers, according to the letter and its exhibits. According to the documents, Lacy appeared to be in a mental health crisis, but the deputy did not call for medics.
Instead, according to reports, they tried to calm him down and eventually one officer offered him a ride home. They agreed to handcuff Lacy with his hands in front, but after he got into the car, he became agitated and fled. Pendergrass and two other officers, including a sergeant from the tribal police, wrestled him to the ground and pinned him facedown, with Pendergrass across his back. At some point, Lacy quit struggling, however, the officers remained on top of him until additional officers arrived.
The tribal sergeant acknowledged to detectives Lacy said “words to the effect of ‘I can’t breathe’ ” just before he died, according to the letter and documents, which include transcripts of police interviews and reports.
Even so, a summary of the SMART investigation written by the primary investigator, Marysville Police Detective Craig Bartl, did not include that information, although it was contained in other police reports.
Galanda and the family allege Bartl conspired with Pendergrass’s police union appointed attorney, Alyssa Melter, to shape the investigation to exonerate the deputy. They say Melter met the deputy at the hospital the night of the incident and later, at Bartl’s urging, made what Galanda believes were “legally significant” changes to Pendergrass’s written statement.
Melter acknowledged in testimony that Bartl contacted her after receiving a draft of Pendergrass’s statement and suggested changes Galanda claims were “legally significant.” According to the letter, Bartl denied under oath that occurred.
A telephone message seeking comment from Bartl left on his line at the Marysville Police Department was not returned Thursday.
Melter, in an emailed response for comment, said her firm was retained by the officer’s union to represent Pendergrass in the criminal investigation into Lacy’s death, and can’t talk about the specific case without consent.
“However, it is common for officers to provide written statements to criminal investigators and for investigators to contact our office with additional questions or seeking clarification,” she said.
Melter said her “primary problem” with the letter sent to Inslee by Lacy’s family “is that it assumes a cover up is occurring simply because the deputy reasonably exercised his right to be represented by and advised by counsel.
“Any allegation that the statements the deputy provided were not his own or consistent with his memory is false,” she said.
Lacy’s family unsuccessfully sued the Sheriff’s Office in King County Superior Court, with the case being thrown out by a judge. The family has appealed to the Washington Court of Appeals, where a decision is pending.