Snohomish County has agreed to pay $1.75 million to the widow of a Tulalip tribal member who died while struggling with police in 2015, settling a lawsuit over allegations that officers used excessive force on Cecil Lacy Jr. when they held him down, even as he told them he couldn’t breathe.
The settlement resolves a suit that at one point was summarily dismissed by a state judge, only to be unanimously reinstated by the Washington Court of Appeals last year.
The case had called into question the independence of an investigation into Lacy’s death conducted by the Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team and alleged the detectives, the county medical examiner and prosecutors conspired with a union-appointed attorney to leave Lacy’s last words — “I can’t breathe” — out of investigative documents.
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 May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd, who died when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes. A month earlier, a Tacoma man, Manny Ellis, died while restrained by police there. In both cases, they told officers they couldn’t breathe before lapsing into unconsciousness.
Derek Chauvin, the officer in the Floyd case, was convicted of murder. Three Tacoma officers have been charged in connection with Ellis’ death.
The Lacy family’s Seattle attorney, Gabe Galanda, sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee requesting an independent investigation into the incident. Inslee did not request another investigation at that time but has since said he will encourage a review of the deaths of Lacy and of Stonechild Chiefstick — who was shot and killed by a Poulsbo police officer in 2019 — by an agency established in the last legislative session to investigate and review all deaths at the hands of law enforcement.
“This is a big victory for our family,” Lacy’s widow said Tuesday. “We have been fighting for six years, in and out of court, to obtain justice. It’s good to know that Cecil is not forgotten and that his life matters.”
She and Cecil had three children and each had a child from a previous marriage, Sara Lacy said. Her husband had worked as a commercial fisher and drove a school bus for the Tulalip Tribal youth services.
“He was a natural-born comedian,” she said.
Sara Lacy is a member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability and lobbied at the Washington Legislature last year to pass a series of police reform measures including House Bill 1267, which established the agency in the governor’s office that will review police-related deaths.
Last year, a three-judge panel in the Court of Appeals Division I unanimously concluded that Sara Lacy could pursue a civil battery claim against the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and Deputy Tyler Pendergrass, who confronted the 46-year-old Cecil Lacy the night of Sept. 18, 2015, as he was walking along Marine Drive on the Tulalip Indian Reservation. Lacy, a tribal member, appeared intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, and Pendergrass called for backup with the intent of taking Lacy home or to the hospital, according to reports and court documents.
Lacy was never placed under arrest, according to documents.
Aided by officers from the Tulalip tribal police, Pendergrass said he tried to calm Lacy, and eventually one officer offered Lacy a ride home. They agreed to handcuff Lacy with his hands in front — he was not under arrest — 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.
Instead, Lacy died lying on his stomach in a ditch on the side of the road, three officers pinning him down — Pendergrass across his back — as Lacy gasped for air and then went still.
Other officers at the scene acknowledged to detectives Lacy said words to the effect of “I’m freaking out … I can’t breathe” just before he died, according to reports and information. However, those final words were left out of the SMART report.
Documents uncovered during the lawsuit also indicated that investigators for the SMART task force lobbied the county medical examiner to find Lacy’s death accidental. However, an independent pathologist hired by Lacy’s family concluded he died from asphyxiation.
The trial was set to begin Monday.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Attorney General Bob Ferguson declined calling for an independent investigation into the death of Cecil Lacy Jr. The attorney general’s office does not have the authority to conduct an independent criminal investigation into a use-of-force incident.