A Miami Beach police officer was placed on paid administrative leave Thursday in connection with the fatal Taser shooting of an 18-year-old graffiti artist who was caught spray-painting his tag on a boarded-up storefront early Wednesday morning.
Jorge Mercado, a 13-year veteran of the force, fired the stun-gun at Israel Hernandez-Llach, striking him in the chest. The teenager, whose death has been condemned by Miamis art community, was an award-winning artist whose work had been exhibited locally and recognized by Florida U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
On Tuesday, witnesses reported that Miami Beach police officers, who had been chasing him for about 10 minutes, celebrated trapping and Tasering him by slapping each other with high-fives as the teenager lay dying in the street.
Miami Beach Police Chief Raymond Martinez did not comment on the witness reports, saying the case remains under investigation.
Hernandez-Llachs last mural, on a shuttered McDonalds at 71st Street and Collins Avenue, now mirrors his unfinished life, one his art teachers say was filled with promise.
In my 20 years as an art teacher, Israel was one of the most unique and talented students I have ever encountered, said Frank OHare, his art teacher at Miami Beach High, where Israel was a senior.
On Thursday evening, a crowd of about 100 people gathered at 71st and Collins to remember Hernandez-Llach. They spray-painted R.I.P. Israel on the boarded-up building where he had painted his last tag Reefa and chanted No Justice, no peace.
Said Wanda Brini, 18: Art is not a crime.
The Colombian-born young mans alleged crime vandalizing private property was not serious enough, his friends and family said, for him to be shot with a Taser, the brand name for a hand-held weapon that delivers a jolt of electricity to disrupt muscle control and subdue a fleeing and potentially dangerous suspect.
At five-foot-six and 150 pounds, Hernandez-Llach hardly posed a threat to anyone, friends said.
According to the police report, Hernandez-Llach fled after he was confronted by police about 5 a.m., leading officers on a zig-zag foot chase between buildings and up and down alleys. The pursuit ended with Hernandez-Llach cornered a block away, at 71st and Harding and, with nowhere to go, he began running toward the officers, Martinez said Wednesday.
To avoid physically restraining Hernandez-Llach, an officer identified by sources as the five-foot-six, 170-pound Mercado employed the Taser. Police said after being stunned, the teenager began showing signs of medical distress and paramedics were summoned. He was transported to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead about 6:15 a.m.
Thiago Souza, who was with Hernandez-Llach acting as his lookout said the chase began pretty much as police said it did. Souza lost sight of his friend during the pursuit and, when he caught up with him about 10 minutes later, he was face-down on the pavement outside the National City Bank building on Collins.
I didnt even know they fired a Taser. I thought they just had him down and he was arrested and was just tired, Souza said.
I couldnt believe what I was seeing, said Souza, 19. I asked the cops what happened to my friend? then they detained me and my other friend and thats when I heard one of the cops make nasty remarks.