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The Painful Legacy of Rodney King

The Painful Legacy of Rodney King

Rodney King never wanted to become a celebrity, yet reluctantly and regrettably found himself in the glaring spotlight, a victim of police brutality and his own reckless behavior. Adding to this vortex of unbelievable circumstances was a drug King was suspected of using—a powerful substance alleged to have triggered the cluster of events leading to the Los Angeles riots. 


On the streets it was called “Angel dust.”


George Holliday Videotape


On March 3, 1991, Rodney Glen King III led California Highway Patrol officers on a high-speed chase through the north Los Angeles suburbs. King didn’t stop when signaled by a police car behind him, but increased his speed. One estimate said that King drove at one hundred miles per hour for 7.8 miles. When police finally stopped the car, they delivered fifty-six baton blows and six kicks to King in a period of two minutes, producing eleven skull fractures, brain damage, and kidney damage (Delk, 1994).


The Rodney King incident was broadcast on news outlets around the world after witness George Holliday videotaped the altercation. The overhead illumination of a police helicopter allowed the subsequent videotape that exposed four white officers brutally beating King, who seemed impervious to the blows. 


Police officers involved argued that King was on phencyclidine, which can make its users seemingly invulnerable to pain. Sergeant Stacey Koon suspected that King was “dusted”—that is, a user of PCP, the drug most feared by police departments. Koon held that the drug made individuals impervious to pain and gave them almost superhuman strength. King’s “buffed out” look added to his apprehensions. Koon concluded that King was probably an ex-con who developed his muscles working out on prison weights.  


During the trial, Koon stated that Rodney King was “an aggressive, combative suspect” and called King a “monster” with “Hulk-like strength” (Lepore, 2000). Koon also said his actions were based on his belief that King was on PCP. 


Although Koon’s suspicions about the PCP would later prove unfounded, he was right about King being an ex-con. Earlier that winter, King had been paroled after serving time for robbing a convenience store and assaulting the clerk. During the beating, Koon grew even more concerned after King successfully repelled a swarming maneuver by his officers and—more remarkably—managed to rise to his feet after being hit twice by a Taser (Linder, 2001).     




Koon surmised that King was under the influence of phencyclidine, described as a hallucinogen, dissociative anesthetic, psychotomimetic, and sedative-hypnotic. PCP is a white, crystalline powder (contaminants may cause a tan to brown color), or a clear, yellowish liquid. As a recreational drug, it may be ingested, smoked, inhaled or injected. Even though PCP is known colloquially as “angel dust,” it is likewise referred to as “Ashy Larry,” “illy” or “wet.” The drug is often administered or mixed with other drugs such as crack cocaine, cocaine hydrochloride, and marijuana. 


Buzzed: The Straight Facts about the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy describes the varied effects of PCP: 


Taking PCP can produce a state similar to getting drunk, taking amphetamine, and taking a hallucinogen simultaneously. It is most frequently taken for the amphetamine-like euphoria and stimulation it produces. Many of PCP’s bad side-effects also resemble those of amphetamine, such as increased blood pressure and body temperature. However, at the same time, it causes a “drunken” state characterized by poor coordination, slurred speech, and drowsiness. People under the influence of PCP are also less sensitive to pain. Finally, at higher doses it causes a dissociative state in which people seem very out of touch with their environment (Kuhn, Swartzwelder, & Wilson, 2003). 


PCP was first synthesized in 1926, and was developed by Parke-Davis as Sernyl in the 1950s as an intravenous surgical anesthetic. Because of its long half-life and adverse side effects—such as hallucinations, mania, delirium, and disorientation—it was removed from the market in 1965. Patients often became agitated, delusional, and irrational while recovering from its anesthetic effects. PCP is no longer produced or used for medical purposes in the United States, but is used as a veterinary anesthetic or tranquilizer. 


On January 25, 1978, PCP was transferred from Schedule III to Schedule II under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 due to reported increases in abuse (NDIC, 2004). Schedule II drugs, which include cocaine and methamphetamine, all have a high potential for abuse that may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence. Once it became a recreational drug of choice in the 1970s, angel dust became the topic of Hollywood sensationalism and serious concern among law enforcement officers. Individuals using the drug were unpredictable and noted for their almost superhuman strength and aggressiveness.      


Still, not everyone believes that PCP is the killer drug that law enforcement fears. One report suggests that “PCP never really became the drug of choice to most users because of its unpleasant side effects and it didn’t get much public attention until 1978 when Mike Wallace, of 60 Minutes described PCP as the nation’s ‘number one’ drug problem, reporting on bizarre incidents of brutal violence allegedly caused by the new ‘killer’ drug…” (Narconon International, 2009).  


According to Narconon International, “The connection of PCP with superman powers and a drug that provoked violence in humans was only press propaganda. A study with more than three hundred subjects taking PCP, under controlled conditions, reported no feelings of aggression or violence. Most of the stories related to violence were from individuals that had violent tendencies as a major part of their personal psychological makeup and not a side effect of PCP” (2009). 


Despite the supposed dangers associated with this substance, it remains popular and attracts a unique user population: 


PCP is predominantly abused by young adults and high school students. In 2010, there was an estimated 53,542 emergency department visits associated with PCP use, according to Drug Abuse Warning Network (New DAWN ED). This is a significant increase from an estimated 37,266 PCP-associated visits in 2008. The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) National Poison Data System reports 747 PCP exposure case mentions and 350 single exposures in 2010. According to the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 6.1 million (2.4 percent) individuals in the U.S., aged twelve and older, reported using PCP in their lifetime. The Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey indicates PCP use among 12th graders in the past year increased from 1.0 percent in 2010 to 1.3 percent in 2011 and then decreased to 0.9 percent in 2012 (DEA, 2013). 


Los Angeles Riots


The George Holliday video became a key piece of evidence leading to a criminal and civil trial against the officers. During the criminal trial of Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and officers Laurence M. Powell, Theodore J. Briseno, and Timothy E. Wind, both sides agree that King was intoxicated. The officers said they believed that King was also under the influence of PCP, but tests on King for PCP were negative, and the prosecution suggested the defendants falsified reports and concocted suspicions of PCP use to justify their actions. King’s attorney, Milton Grimes, disputed the police version, noting that no PCP or other illegal narcotics were found in King’s bloodstream (de Lama, 1993). 


Martha Esparza, a nurse at County-USC Medical jail ward, where King was admitted several hours after the beating, testified that he appeared “calm and cooperative” and showed no signs of having used PCP. Esparza said that, when she asked King how he felt, King said he “got beat up, and I agreed that he looked like he got beat up” (Cannon, 1993).


Some felt that King’s problems with the law stemmed more from his heavy drinking than from any criminal bent. Tim Fowler, King’s parole officer, described Rodney as “basically a decent guy with borderline intelligence but [who] could function in society. His problem was alcoholism. He had been drinking from an early age.” Friends described King as usually friendly and gentle, but strong-willed and capable of blowing up after drinking (LawyerIntl, 2008). 


The four officers were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force. Three were acquitted of all charges. The jury acquitted the fourth of assault with a deadly weapon, but failed to reach a verdict on the use of excessive force. The jury deadlocked at eight-four in favor of acquittal at the state level. The acquittals are generally considered to have triggered the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which began as African-Americans in Los Angeles exploded in outrage. For four days rioters ran through the streets looting businesses, torching buildings, and attacking those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The violence was responsible for more than fifty deaths and $1 billion in property damage (CNN Wire, 2012). 


The acquittals subsequently led to the federal government obtaining grand jury indictments for violations of King’s civil rights. The trial of the four in a federal district court ended on April 16, 1993 (Preitauer, 2014). The jury found Officer Laurence Powell and Sergeant Stacey Koon guilty, and they were subsequently sentenced to thirty-two months in prison, while Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were acquitted of all charges.


Alta-Pazz Recording


In 1994 King received a $3.8 million award in damages as a result of a civil suit filed against the City of Los Angeles. King used some of the money to start a rap label record business, Alta-Pazz Recording Company, but continued to abuse substances and run afoul of the law. He was convicted of spouse abuse in 1999 in San Bernardino County and was sentenced to ninety days in jail and four years’ probation. In October 2001, King pleaded no contest to three counts of being under the influence of PCP and a count of indecent exposure. A judge gave him a year in a drug treatment center even though a prosecutor argued King should spend a year in county jail.


And again, on April 13, 2003, King was charged with three misdemeanor counts stemming from a car crash. Police said King was under the influence of PCP when he drove through a Rialto, California intersection at more than one hundred miles per hour, lost control of his sport utility vehicle, and slammed into a power pole. King was charged by San Bernardino County prosecutors with a single count each of driving under the influence, using PCP, and reckless driving. Toxicology tests showed “significant amounts” of PCP in King’s system after the crash (Associated Press, 2003). 


Rodney King was a frequent user of PCP and it came as no surprise that the drug would play a role in his untimely death. 


King was found at the bottom of the backyard pool at his Rialto home. King’s death, at age forty-seven, was listed as accidental drowning, but drugs were contributing factors. According to the death report, he was under the influence of cocaine, PCP, marijuana, and alcohol at the time of death. He was in a state of “drug- and alcohol-induced delirium at the time” and “either fell or jumped into the swimming pool,” according to the San Bernardino County coroner’s report (Miles, 2012). The drugs, combined with a heart condition, led to a cardiac arrhythmia and King was “thus incapacitated, and unable to save himself and drowned,” according to the report. King’s blood-alcohol level was 0.06 (Miles, 2012). 


The portrait of Rodney King is one painted in dark hues of sadness and misfortune. King was a petty criminal, alcoholic, and substance abuser. Even the brutal beating at the hands of rogue police officers did little to alter his tragic journey. At one point King said, “I realize I will always be the poster child for police brutality, but I can try to use that as a positive force for healing and restraint” (Medina, 2012). Those were sweet words from Rodney King, but only spoken in front of the pandering cameras and never acted upon. King uttered other quotes too; words that sought to explain his volatile existence. He said, “People look at me like I should have been like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks,” he told The Los Angeles Times, “I should have seen life like that and stay out of trouble, and don’t do this and don’t do that. But it’s hard to live up to some people’s expectations” (Medina, 2012). 


It was hard for King to live up to his own expectations. The habitual felon continued his egocentric pathway of self-destruction that included robbery, domestic abuse charges, DUIs, and solicitation of a transvestite prostitute. He continued to use PCP, one of his favorite drugs of choice. Breaking the law and getting caught were risks he eagerly took. Consequences were of no concern. And no matter how large or small the infraction, the news media, paparazzi, and supermarket tabloids were always there to exploit King’s celebrity and revisit his pain. His story should have had a better ending. 





Associated Press. (2003). Rodney King charged with DUI, PCP use. Retrieved from http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/911899/posts
Cannon, L. (1993). Prosecution rests case in Rodney King beating trial. The Tech. Retrieved from http://tech.mit.edu/V113/N14/king.14w.html
CNN Wire. (2012). Rodney King dead at forty-seven. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/17/us/obit-rodney-king/index.html

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). (2013). Phencyclidine. Retrieved from http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_chem_info/pcp.pdf

de Lama, G. (1993). Rodney King: I never tried to attack police. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1993-01-22/news/9303171094_1_pcp-crazed-giant-officer-timothy-e-wind-officers-theodore-briseno
Delk, J. D. (1994). Fires and furies: The LA riots. Palm Springs, CA: ETC Publications. 
Kuhn, C., Swartzwelder, S., & Wilson, W. (2003). Buzzed: The straight facts about the most used and abused drugs from alcohol to ecstasy. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.
LawyerIntl. (2008). Key figures in the LAPD officers’ (Rodney King beating) trial. Retrieved from http://www.lawyerintl.com/law-articles/1402-Key%20Figures%20in%20the%20LAPD%20Officers%27%20(Rodney%20King%20Beating)%20Trial
Lepore, M. (2000). Rodney King police brutality case and the 1991 Los Angeles riots. Retrieved from http://crimsonbird.com/history/rodneyking.htm

Linder, D. O. (2001). Famous American trials: Los Angeles police officers’ (Rodney King beating) trials. Retrieved from http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lapd/lapdaccount.html

Medina, J. (2012). Rodney King dies at forty-seven; Police beating victim who asked ‘can we all get along?’ The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/18/us/rodney-king-whose-beating-led-to-la-riots-dead-at-47.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Miles, K. (2012). Rodney King autopsy: PCP, cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol contributed to drowning. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/23/rodney-king-autopsy-pcp-cocaine-marijuana-alcohol-drowning_n_1825263.html
Narconon International. (2009). The history of drug abuse and addiction in America – Part 6 PCP. Retrieved from http://news.narconon.org/history-drug-addiction-pcp-america/
National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC). (2004). PCP: Increasing availability and abuse. Retrieved from http://www.justice.gov/archive/ndic/pubs8/8180/
Preitauer, C. (2014). 1992 Rodney King police acquittal. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://blackhistorycollection.org/2014/09/02/1992-rodney-king-police-acquittal-los-angeles-times/