At just 18, Israel Hernández-Llach was already an award-winning artist, on the threshold of acclaim in Miami Beach art circles. He was a sculptor, painter, writer and photographer whose craft was inspired by his home country of Colombia and his adopted city, Miami.
He was also a graffiti artist, known as “Reefa,” who sprayed colorful splashes of paint on the city’s abandoned buildings while playing cat-and-mouse with cops, who, like many property owners, consider graffiti taggers to be vandals, not artists.
It was while spray-painting a shuttered McDonald’s early Tuesday morning that Hernández-Llach was chased down by Miami Beach police and shot in the chest with a Taser. He later died.
Miami Beach Police Chief Ray Martinez said the department “would like to extend its condolences to the family of Israel Hernández.”
Two of the dead teenager’s friends, including one who says he was his “lookout” while Hernández-Llach applied paint, said the officers exchanged high-fives and congratulations after Tasering him.
“He was on the ground and the cops were making jokes,” said 19-year-old Thiago Souza.
Félix Fernández said he saw about five police officers chasing Hernández and shoving him against a wall. Then he saw his friend on the ground, surrounded by police.
“He is a very skinny guy, very small” Fernández said.
Martinez said the incident is under investigation.
The chief said Hernández-Llach was confronted by officers about 5 a.m. as he was vandalizing private property, and he fled, leading officers on a foot chase. It ended at 71st and Harding when he was cornered by police and ran toward the officers, ignoring commands to stop, Martinez said.
“The officers were forced to use the Taser to avoid a physical incident,’’ the chief said.
He was hit once in the chest and collapsed, Martinez said, at which point officers noticed he was showing signs of distress. He was transported by fire-rescue to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.
Tasers are considered a nonlethal weapon, and police say their use has greatly reduced the number of fatalities in confrontations between police and violent subjects. Deaths after a Tasering are uncommon — but they do happen. Often an autopsy will discover that the Tasered individual had either a pre-existing medical condition or drugs in their system.
The medical examiner did not rule on a cause of death following an autopsy Wednesday. Further tests are pending, but Martinez said Hernández-Llach did not suffer any other injuries. Martinez said Hernández-Llach’s only previous arrest was for shoplifting, and that there was no indication he was involved in gang activity.
At the family’s apartment in Bay Harbor Islands Wednesday evening, a group of family and friends were tearfully coming to grips with their loss. Arranged carefully on a table in the apartment: an array of the young man’s drawings, sculptures and awards.
“He wanted to change the world somehow through art,” said the teenager’s 21-year-old sister, Offir Hernández. “We want answers. We only want to know what happened.”
The family’s lawyer, Todd McPharlin, said his clients would like an independent investigation of the incident.
The police report goes into great detail about the wild pursuit to catch Hernández-Llach, who led officers into alleyways, past apartment buildings, into doorways and down hallways. He jumped a fence, landed on the hood of a parked car, then, the police report said, lost his footing and fell on his chest — before taking off yet again.
“Two seconds after losing sight of the subject I heard an unknown unit on the radio advise that the subject was in custody,’’ officer Thomas Lincoln wrote in his report. “I began walking north on Harding Avenue to 71st Street where I observed the subject sitting on the ground and against a wall.’’
Lincoln said paramedics were being called, but the officer did not say why in the report.
Tracy West, a parent who knew Hernández-Llach well, said he was a “fantastic person and artist.” He was very thin, almost fragile, she said, hardly capable of posing a threat to police.
“He had been warned before by police that if they caught him again they would beat the s--- out of him,’’ West said. “He could not have done anything. All he thought about was art.’’
Herb Kelly, one of his art teachers at Miami Beach High, said “it was an honor to work with him.’’
He said a number of his pieces were exhibited at various galleries and museums in the area and he was very active at networking.
“He was cutting edge. He had such awesome potential. To lose his life the way he did is tragic.’’
Kelly said the teen was inspired by Miami Herald photographer Carl Juste, whom he met when he spoke to one of his classes.
“He was a photographer too, and was going to try to show Carl some of his work,’’ Kelly said.
His best friend, Tracy West’s daughter Eleanor, said he was born in Colombia and moved to this country when he was 13 or 14. He immediately fell in love with Miami, she said, and said he never planned to leave.
He had recently launched a line of skateboards that he designed and hoped to market under the name “Tropical,’’ and was completing an online course to earn his high school diploma.
“His art was everything to him,’’ she said.