A death, and more questions, after Gables officer deploys ‘non-lethal’ stun gun

 
By David Ovalle
 

In early December, a father of three named Aviel Gutierrez got into a confrontation with Coral Gables police outside a liquor store on Le Jeune Road. He was shot with a Taser stun gun.

As paramedics treated him, the 38-year-old pest exterminator fell unconscious and later died at a hospital emergency room.

More than six months later, authorities have released few details about a previously unnoticed encounter that wound up the latest death in South Florida associated with stun guns that are billed as nonlethal tools for police.

The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office has yet to rule on a cause of death — or whether the Taser stun gun played any role in Gutierrez’s demise. The Coral Gables Police Department has declined to release any reports about the confrontation or officially identify the cop who deployed the controversial stun gun. Even Gutierrez’s family has declined to speak to the media.

“I don’t have time to talk to you,” his father, Efrain Gutierrez, said Friday before hanging up on a Miami Herald reporter.

But the revelation of Gutierrez’s death comes amid increased scrutiny of fatal confrontations with police officers, in South Florida and across the United States. Some of those cases include people who die after being zapped by police Taser stun guns, a weapon hailed by authorities as a less-than-lethal way to stop violent offenders, but criticized by others as a weapon that too often proves deadly. Determining what role, if any, a stun gun plays in an unexpected death can be complex and often proves controversial

In the most high-profile case, the family of a graffiti artist Israel Hernandez-Llach has an ongoing lawsuit against Miami Beach Police and the weapon’s maker after he died from a Taser shot to the heart in 2013.

In Miami-Dade, prosecutors and police have repeatedly been criticized for years-long delays in finishing investigations into office-involved shootings and in-custody deaths. Most recently, it took prosecutors more than five years to clear Florida prison guards in the death of Darren Rainey, who collapsed after being placed in a hot shower at the Dade Correctional Institution. In Rainey’s case, the Medical Examiner’s Office took nearly four years to rule on a cause of death.

Gutierrez’s case is being investigated by Miami-Dade Police’s homicide bureau. His death technically happened in a small pocket of unincorporated Miami-Dade, although the county police department is contracted to investigate deaths in Coral Gables.

Coral Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak acknowledged the department’s internal investigation is “in limbo” until the Medical Examiner’s Office rules on a cause of death. After that, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office must determine if officers broke any rules in using the stun gun.

“I understand the anguish of the family,” Hudak told the Miami Herald. 

Officials have publicly offered few details of Gutierrez’s final hours. On Dec. 4, he was with his girlfriend parked outside Big Game Liquors, on Le Jeune Road. The confrontation happened about 1:45 a.m., when a Coral Gables officer on “routine patrol” saw a man and woman who “appeared to be in distress” in the middle of Le Jeune Road, Hudak said.

The police chief declined to say what happened that led to Gutierrez being shot with the Taser, saying it was under investigation by Miami-Dade police.

However, according to a law-enforcement source, investigators believe Gutierrez was “acting aggressive,” grabbing his girlfriend by the arms, stripping off her clothes and throwing her belongings on the road while trying to “cleanse her from evil spirits.” 

The Coral Gables officer, Hector Diaz, deployed his weapon after the man ignored his command to surrender, according to the source. Officers on the scene described Gutierrez as “agitated and combative” as he was being handcuffed afterward. Gutierrez then became unconscious and was rushed to Coral Gables Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The Coral Gables Fraternal Order of Police said in a statement that the union “supports all the officers involved in this incident and expects that when all the facts are released, it will show that our officers acted with bravery, concern for public safety, and responded based on their training.”

A police department spokeswoman would not say how long Diaz had been an officer. However, he was named officer of the month in July 2015 for catching two bicycle-riding car burglars.

Gutierrez, of Miami Gardens, had no criminal history save for a misdemeanor arrest for marijuana possession in 2013. The charge was dropped after he completed a program for first-time offenders. He had worked as an exterminator for more than a dozen years. His relatives told investigators that Gutierrez was known to smoke marijuana but did not drink alcohol and was in good health.

What substances — if any — were in Gutierrez’s body may play into the autopsy findings of the Medical Examiner’s Office. A department spokesman could not say Friday when the autopsy would be complete but said the office “continues to investigate.”

Months of additional tests are not uncommon in the deaths of people who have been shot by Taser stun guns. Most Taser-related deaths in Miami-Dade have been ruled to be caused by “excited delirium,” a rare brain malfunction — often fueled by cocaine or mental illness — that researchers say morphs victims into raging attackers with elevated body temperatures.

But groups such as the ACLU have said the syndrome is built on shaky medical research and is a way to cover for overaggressive police tactics. 

Hernandez-Llach’s case was the most high profile of Taser deaths in South Florida in recent history. It took the medical examiner six months to pronounce a cause of death — a ruling that wound up being a landmark in Florida. The office ruled that Hernandez-Llach died of heart failure due to a “conducted energy device discharge,” the first time in Florida that a Taser was officially cited as a cause of death.

In Hernandez-Llach’s case, medical investigators conducted a battery of toxicology exams and tests at the University of Miami’s Brain Bank before ruling out excited delirium.

Ultimately, the Medical Examiner’s Office determined that the Taser’s bottom prong hit the teen exactly at the most vulnerable spot in his chest. Taser International, the company that manufactures the weapons, has warned against shooting people directly in the heart area.

Where on his body Gutierrez was hit remains unknown.

 

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