LOS ANGELES -- Actor Raymond Vitte, who died minutes after a weekend fight with police, was not beaten to death by the officers, the coroner's office said Tuesday.
Spokesman Bill Gold said preliminary reports of an autopsy showed 'superficial injuries consistent with a struggle were found, but they were not responsible for his death.' He also said no needle marks were found on Vitte's body, and said there was no evidence a chokehold was applied.
Earlier in the day, a group including singer Donna Summer and the president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood chapter of the NAACP held a news conference to question the circumstances surrounding the death of the star of the recently cancelled TV series 'The Quest.'
Vitte's pastor, mother and his pregnant wife, Ernesta, appeared at the same news conference, defending Vitte's reputation and questioning circumstances of his death.
Miss Summer complained bitterly 'that a man who's basically minding his own business in his own home, who happens to be creating a disturbance somehow, is now dead because his neighbors called the police.'
'Is it more important that he be quieted and that his neighbors have peace?' she asked a reporter after the news conference, held at her Hollywood recording studio.
'We're less one person because his neighbors complained about some noise. That doesn't make sense to me. I think it's more important to have the man and if the man is noisy, OK, that's one thing. But I think our priorities are very drastically off.'
Miss Summer said she was shocked and 'baffled' by the death and added, 'I'm devastated because he's also my brother in Christ and I love him.'
The Rev. Billy Ingram, pastor of the Maranatha Community Church in suburban Inglewood, described Vitte as 'a diligent and persistent Christian' and said accounts of his death were not in his character.
He said the actor recently ran a 104 degree fever and 'was under a lot of emotional and physical stress.' He did not elaborate.
'We're not saying the police department is right or wrong,' Ingram added. 'Our purpose is to let the public know that the Ray Vitte we loved and love and we remember is a man of good caliber, good standing in our church and a man who was very intelligent.'
Willis Edwards of the NAACP, however, criticized the police role in Vitte's death. He asked the district attorney to investigate and urged the Police Commission 'to halt the brutalization of black people.'
'It's an extrememly sad day for all black people who live in this community,' he said. 'Once again, we have an unfortunate example of excessive police force.'
Actress Sheila Frazier, who did not speak at the news conference, said earlier in telephone interviews that Vitte was 'not a drug-crazed fanatic' but 'a solid, loving man.'
She also suggested that Vitte's chanting, which police said included the name of Mohammed, may have been the Pentecostal practice of 'speaking in tongues.'
Vitte died at a hospital where he was taken by officers after he stopped breathing in the back of a patrol car.
Lt. Charles Higbie said officers summoned by neighbors in the actor's Studio City apartment complex found Vitte alone in his apartment clad only in undershorts and a shirt. The actor's 'religious shouting' had continued for more than 12 hours before the neighbors called police, Higbie said.
Vitte ordered the officers off the porch and 'placed a curse on them,' he said. In an ensuing struggle, Vitte was struck several times with a baton and sprayed in the face with tear gas.
The actor ran from officers and fell at the side of building's swimming pool, Higbie said. He then was handcuffed and 'was carried screaming' to a squad car to be taken to a hospital for a mental evaluation. Officers noticed on the way that he had stopped breathing and detoured to a closer facility, where Vitte was pronounced dead.
Besides 'The Quest,' Vitte appeared in several television shows and in the films 'Car Wash,' 'Up In Smoke' and '9 to 5.'