Officers shot him several times with a Taser stun gun. At the hospital, he remained “yelling and screaming,” according to a Medical Examiner’s report, before dying. His temperature: 105 degrees.
But a toxicology report found no identifiable drugs in his system. Dr. Emma Lew categorized his death as excited delirium associated with consumption of an “unknown substance,” possibly a “new designer drug” for which no test can yet detect.
Designer drugs, which include those dubbed “bath salts,” became infamous after a police union suggested a South Beach partygoer last year chewed off the face of a homeless man on the MacArthur Causeway.
That man, Rudy Eugene, exhibited the trademarks of excited delirium — he shed his clothes, ripped up a Bible and pounced upon the sleeping victim. His cause of death, however, was not in dispute: a police officer shot and killed Eugene.
In Salgado’s case, lawyers David Gold and Keith Pierro have hired Dr. Zipes to challenge excited delirium in a lawsuit filed against police.
“Its junk science to a lot of board-certified cardiologists,” Gold said. “Some people might buy it, especially with cocaine abuse. But when the toxicology comes back clean? They can’t come up with an excuse on this one. They Tasered him to death, right in the heart.”
“The Taser doesn’t kill these people,” said Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera. “It’s the drugs they take, it takes their body into a state that’s far greater than what their body can tolerate.”
The weapon is used by more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies. One vocal critic: Amnesty International says 550 people have died after being zapped by a police Taser in the United States since 2001.
As for Taser International, the company in 2009 issued a rare warning about the weapon, cautioning police to avoid striking people in the chest. The warning came amid medical evidence that shots to the chest could induce cardiac arrest in some people but Taser continues to defend its device as a less-than-lethal weapon that saves lives.
The company also has frequently cited excited delirium to explain deaths associated with people shot by Tasers.
Mash, the UM researcher, acknowledged she had been called by Taser International as an expert witness to testify in civil lawsuits many years ago. But she said she was only called because the medical examiners in those cases had consulted her about excited delirium fatalities.
“What I do know is that people died in states of excited delirium before there were Tasers,” Mash said. “As a scientist, I know if Tasers were causing deaths, the use would have resulted in more deaths, not only in people with excited delirium but in other psychiatric patients.”
Mash, who is part of a government study examining the role of stress in excited delirium patients, advocates a national registry aimed at cataloging the cases. Often, those who survive are not diagnosed properly, she said. She has also worked with Dr. Bruce Hyma, Miami-Dade’s Medical Examiner, to help police and paramedics recognize the signs of excited delirium.
Many relatives question whether the science is strong enough to support syndrome findings.
Delia Nuñez said she still doubts that her son, Camilo Guzman, died of excited delirium after his encounter with North Miami police last year at the nursing home, where he ultimately brawled with officers inside a receptionist’s office.
“I don’t think he died of that,” said Nuñez, who is not suing the department. “If they hadn’t tased him, he wouldn’t have died. But how can I dispute it?”