The Breakdown

Explaining Southern California's economy

What kind of shape were Rodney King's finances in?

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40277 full

Rodney King, whose videotaped beating at the hands of cops in 1991 led to not-guilty criminal verdict for the officers involved and touched off riots in L.A. the following year, was found dead at the bottom of his pool over the weekend. Early indications are that no foul play was involved. The 47-year-old King just drowned.

According to KPCC's Frank Stoltze, press reports had King "getting his life together." But what kind of shape were his finances in? 

He received a $3.8-million civil settlement from the City of Los Angeles, but pretty much all of it has disappeared by the time his fiancée discovered him on Sunday. As the LATimes reported in April, King was: "...jobless and virtually broke. Gone is the settlement money he got after suing the city for violating his civil rights. All $3.8 million of it. Huge chunks went to the lawyers, he says, some to family members, some he simply wasted."

King appeared in "Celebrity Rehab 2" with Dr. Drew Pinsky, and on the VH1 website, he was listed as bankrupt. He did, however, own his home in Rialto. According to Zillow, it's in a neighborhood of modest, sub-$200,000 residences. He evidently bought the house in or around 2004 after downsizing out of a larger one (I'm going by a 2004 profile of King in the New York Times). According the Zillow price trends for the neighborhood, it may be worth less than he paid for it. And even if he did built up some equity, there is that bankruptcy, which indicates that he had racked up significant debt.

Again, based on various published reports and profiles of King over the years, he was getting by on odd jobs and intermittent construction work. In 2004, he was drawing on a mutual fund that contained the remnants of his civil settlement. It's unlikely that he was still doing that by 2012, although he may have retained some dividend-paying stocks.

This year, however, he did bring out a book, "The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption," published by HarperOne, and imprint of HarperCollins. Michael Cader — who produces Publishers Marketplace, a very reliable website and e-mail newsletter operation that tracks book deals — told me by email that King's advance for the book was reported to him at somewhere between $100,000 and $249,000. But he also pointed out that King's agent probably took at standard 15-percent cut, and that the advance itself was likely broken up into several payments.

King said in several interviews before his death that he had received an advance of less than six figures for "A Riot Within." But Cader suggested that King might have been talking about what'd he'd been paid at that point, not what he might be owed for future publication of, say, a paperback edition.

HarperOne declined to comment on the size of King's advance.

Even if it was a $100,000-plus advance, King may have had to pay his co-author, professional writer Lawrence Spagnola, out of his own pocket. That would explain why he referred to his advance as being in the sub-six-figures range — he split the money with Spagnola.

In any case, he wasn't getting rich off the book, which is currently ranked number 426 for sales on Amazon.

On balance, it seems that King's finances were pretty shaky, but his book advance did prove that, on the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots, publishers saw value in his story. But we don't know how much debt he might have been in, nor how much he'd spent over the years dealing with his legal run-ins. Money-wise, he was getting along, but just barely. It's worth noting, however, that a lot of people are like King these days: a few steps from broke. They just don't have his sad backstory.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter. And ask Matt questions at Quora.

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