A tearful funeral service Wednesday ended a week of mourning for the family of an 18-year-old artist who died after Miami Beach police shot him with a Taser. But relatives and community leaders say they’re still waiting for answers about Israel Hernandez-Llach’s death.
More than a hundred people, including many teenagers, attended the service at Vista Memorial Gardens & Funeral Home in Miami Lakes. Some carried red roses and wore pins designed by the young man’s friend, a fellow artist. His mother and sister linked arms and wailed along with others as they followed the casket to the grave site under the mid-day sun.
Only sobs broke the silence as the casket was lowered into the grave. Relatives of the Colombian-born young man took turns dropping earth onto the casket. Unusually, many in the crowd chose to stay as heavy equipment did the rest. The teen’s mother stepped away, leaning on others for support.
“This is a very sad day, not only for the family but the whole Hispanic community,” said Fabio Andrade, a family friend and president of the Americas Community Center. He broke down in tears when speaking of the young man and said community members are rallying to reform guidelines for the use of Tasers.
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The family is still waiting for authorities to explain why their son died Aug. 6 after police caught him spray-painting graffiti on a building near 71st Street and Collins Avenue. They’ve received no official answers from police or the medical examiner, according to Andrade.
“There is no question after seeing Lito after seven days that there were really bad bruises on the body that shows that there was more than just a Taser,” he said, using a term of endearment. “You could see it very clearly when we received the body.” Police have said he was Tasered just once and no other force was used in making the arrest.
According to the police report, Hernandez-Llach “came crashing down hard” onto the hood of a car after launching himself over a fence to get away from police.
Miami Beach officer Jorge Mercado, who fired the Taser that struck the young man in the chest, was placed on administrative leave after the incident.
The service coincided with the release of the police radio recording that captured 14 minutes of conversations between officers, dispatchers and paramedics on the morning that Hernandez-Llach was Tasered.
The tape begins at 5:13 a.m. as a police officer, presumably Mercado, breathlessly reports to dispatchers that he is pursuing a suspect.
“Going into a building,’’ the officer says, panting. He continues announcing his location, as he pursues the subject for several minutes, describing him as a 6-foot-1 male with a yellow or cream-colored, long-sleeved shirt and dreadlocks. Three minutes into the chase, another officer interrupts, asking why they were chasing the suspect. The dispatcher responds: graffiti. The dispatcher begins to re-deploy other units to the area.
One officer questions the wisdom of reassigning patrols to the call.
“This is a graffiti subject. We’ll look in the area...but like I said, this is a misdemeanor. We’re not going to bring the dogs out for this. We’re gonna’ be looking out till we find him, but he’s probably hiding out somewhere.’’
Seven minutes after the chase begins, an officer spies Hernandez-Llach hopping the fence, then announces that he is in custody. About 30 seconds later, an officer reports that the suspect appears to be having a “seizure,’’ though the officer says he is breathing. There is no mention of a Taser being used.
Tasers result in death in only the rarest of cases. When deaths have occurred in the past, they are often the result of a pre-existing medical condition or a reaction to drugs in the system. The medical examiner hasn’t ruled on the cause of death pending the result of toxicology tests.
The funeral service followed an all-night wake during which many stopped by to view the open casket. The funeral home donated the plot and services after hearing that the family was trying to raise money for the burial.
“This is the time for the authorities to change something,” said Manuel Santander, a family friend. “Anything we do, it’s going to be the same for Israel and the family, but at least the police department, the city and Miami-Dade County have to think about how this thing doesn’t happen again.”