A witness in the Rodney G. King police brutality case--one of two men who were with King the night of the beating--died early Saturday after the car in which he was riding veered out of control on a street in Pasadena and slammed into a telephone pole.
Freddie Helms, 20, of Altadena was one of two passengers ejected and fatally injured in the one-car accident shortly after midnight. The other passenger was Bobbie Dixon, 20, also of Altadena. The driver was drunk, authorities said, and a witness told police the car was going more than 75 m.p.h. in a 35 m.p.h. zone.
In March, Helms and another man were passengers in the car driven by King when he was stopped by officers in Lake View Terrace for allegedly speeding and then beaten.
Helms was expected to testify against the four Los Angeles police officers charged criminally in the incident, which sparked a national outcry after a videotape, made by an amateur cameraman, was widely broadcast.
A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said the prosecution's efforts would not be undermined by Helms' death.
"It's certainly a tragic thing, that a young man had to die," said spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons, "but as far as our case, we don't think it will have any impact."
While Pasadena police appeared to rule out foul play in Helms' death, his attorney, Steven A. Lerman, said late Saturday that he has launched his own investigation "to determine the exact circumstances."
"It's unlikely Freddie Helms would have done anything to put himself in a position of jeopardy because he had so much to live for," said Lerman, who also represents King.
Lerman said that a civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of Helms and King against the Los Angeles Police Department will go forward despite Helms' death.
Sgt. Bill Bergner of the Pasadena Police Department said that the 1978 Pontiac Bonneville in which Helms was riding was southbound on Lincoln Avenue when the driver, Robert Gilliam, 26, of Altadena apparently lost control at Wyoming Street and struck a telephone pole.
"There were no other vehicles on the road," the sergeant said.
Helms and Dixon were thrown from the vehicle, police said. They were taken by ambulance to Huntington Memorial Hospital where both were pronounced dead of "massive, multiple trauma," said Los Angeles County coroner's investigator Niles Linder.
Gilliam was booked on suspicion of vehicular homicide and driving while intoxicated. He was being held at the Pasadena City Jail in lieu of $10,000 bail.
Lerman described Helms as a "likeable, sweet, sweet young man" who was disabled and left with a noticeable limp after having been struck by a car as a teen-ager.
"He would have really had a good future," Lerman said. "He loved his mother, wanted to go back to school and support her and just be there for his family. Now, that will never be."
Helms had been undergoing intensive counseling stemming from the King incident and had complained of dizziness and recurring nightmares. He said in his lawsuit that he, too, had been hit by a baton-wielding officer the night King was beaten.
Helms and the other man with King that night, Bryant Allen, say they were ordered to remain on the ground during most of the incident. Both had said they could hear the cries and moans of King as officers pummeled and kicked him.
"I know they was beating him up, doing him real bad. . . . I was scared," Helms told television talk show host Phil Donahue in April.
Helms speculated that the officers who had stopped King's car after King allegedly tried to elude them had planned all along to use excessive force.
"They seen three black guys in the car and they said: "OK, we can just pull them over and beat the mess out of them," Helms said. "I was scared."
Times staff writer Lois Timnick contributed to this story.